The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sati puja inside, whispers outside

Banda (Uttar Pradesh), May 26: Sati puja has moved indoors after police launched a crackdown last night on devotees thronging Banhudarhi, near Allahabad, where a 70-year-old woman died on her husband’s pyre earlier this month.

A tense silence enveloped the village today: the devotional songs had stopped abruptly, as had the offerings of coconut and flowers at the memorial to Ramkumari and her husband Jageswar Tiwari and the hullabaloo caused by 50-60 devotees streaming in everyday.

Some crows flew in and out of the burning ground, feasting on the broken coconut and sweets left behind by devotees on the 4 ft x 5ft platform over six days. A group of armed policemen stood guard at the “sati memorial” in the empty field outside the village that serves as the burning ground.

Another group of four policemen patrolled the near-deserted road to the Tiwari home in the village over a km away.

The family had locked the house and disappeared, fearing arrest. Knocks on doors of other houses in the neighbourhood went unanswered. At the other end of the village, people spoke in whispers about Jageswar’s “holy” wife.

Dhiraj Sahu, the district magistrate of Banda, bordering Madhya Pradesh, denied there had been any puja.

“We had to deploy the police to see that no glorification of sati took place. The villagers are innocent. They may be misled by gossip to glorify the cult of sati,” he said.

Sahu holds that there is no need for a criminal case, arguing that Ramkumari had either died by accident or committed suicide.

The circumstances in which Ramkumari died on the night of May 7 have, however, left a lot of questions unanswered. Her family, now in hiding, failed to explain how the frail and ill woman, who could not see without her glasses or walk without a stick, managed to cover the one-and-a-half-km distance from her home to the burning ground. Her glasses were later found in her room, the police said.

It is also surprising that on the day her husband died, Ramkumari was left alone in a room although there were other women in the house, including her daughter-in-law. No one saw her leave.

A local women’s group, Vanangana, which has conducted probes into sati elsewhere in the Bundelkhand region, described the incident as “wrapped in mystery”.

But district police chief Jackie Ahmed said inquiries so far have suggested no foul play. Asked why the police had not registered at least a case of unnatural death, he said: “It will intensify speculation about sati.”

Some villagers said the policemen had entered their houses last night and warned them of arrest if they were caught talking about sati.

“The police seem to have suddenly become alarmed over the rise of Sati Maiya in the village,” said Rameswar Yadav, a former pradhan (headman) who believes in sati, like most villagers.

Even Samajwadi Party leader Jamuna Prasad Bose, whose visit to the village on May 19 brought attention to Ramkumari’s death, had scooped up some ash from the pyre and smeared it on his head.

“We saw the villagers walking around the concrete structure built on the pyre. Some of them were chanting mantras,” says Bhagwania Prajapati, 55, who looks after a small mango orchard owned by the Tiwari family, which also owned 50 acres of land.

The police presence scared and angered villagers, but did not stop sati puja. “Hum to Sati Maiya ka ghare me pujan karbe (I will do the sati puja at home),” said Champa Devi, a housewife in Gandariha village, neighbouring Banhudarhi. Household pujas in Ramkumari’s name are already on, some villagers said.

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