Secularists are likely to ignore the fresh debate on sati that has been triggered by Meenakshi Jain's latest book, Sati: Evangelicals, Baptist Missionaries, and the Changing Colonial Discourse, which was published a few months back. There seems to be a link between the time of the release of the book by a saffron-tinged publisher and the prevailing communal atmosphere, which is largely the creation of majoritarian groups.
Discussions around sati reached a climax 29 years ago when a Rajput woman, Roopkuvarba Kanwar, was immolated in the Deorala village of Sikar district in Rajasthan. Jain argues that Lord Bentinck's Regulation XVII of 1829, condemning sati as a criminal offence, was the culmination of a sustained campaign against Hinduism by "British Evangelicals and missionaries, anxious to Anglicize and Christianize India''. Sati, she asserts, was an "exceptional act" performed by a minuscule section of Hindu widows over the centuries.
Yet sati, even during the early colonial era, was anything but minuscule in magnitude. Sarvesh Dhillon, former professor of history, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, said: "As per the records kept by the Bengal Presidency of the British East India Company, the known occurrences in 1813-1828 were 8,135. Raja Ram Mohan Roy estimated 10 times as many cases of sati in Bengal compared to the rest of the country."
It was the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, who promulgated the first-ever royal firman in 1664 to end the practice; his forefathers had also tried unsuccessfully to do the same. Jain is silent about the orthodox Hindu Brahmins who hailed the rite. Vijnanesvara (in the 12th-century Chalukya court) and Madhavacharya (13th-14th century) had reportedly praised sati as an imperative for righteous women. For them, it was an act of piety, ridding widows of accumulated sin and guaranteeing salvation and reunion in afterlife.
Aurangzeb deserves a reappraisal, which should delve into the slanderous narratives by British historians about his conversion of Hindus and destruction of temples. During his 49-year rule, Aurangzeb hardly ever expressed strong resentment towards Hindus. His administration had a lot of Hindu officials and he had two very senior military generals. The historian, Jadunath Sarkar, portrayed Aurangzeb as "one of the greatest rulers of Asia in intelligence, character and enterprise". Aurangzeb, he noted, abolished 80 types of taxes, though the emperor also imposed jizya, an annual tax levied only on non-Muslim subjects.
It is time for liberals to look anew at Muslim rulers who opposed sati. However, the glorification of sati is not a new development. David Kopf belonged to the school of historians that has been trying to dish out some kind of post-colonialist historiography. In his book, British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance: The Dynamics of Indian Modernization, 1773-1835 (1969), he made a case for Dharma Sabha leaders of the 19th century such as Raja Radhakanta Deb, who was a staunch opponent of Ram Mohan Roy on the topic of sati. For Kopf, Deb and his supporters rightly fought for the continuance of the so-called tradition of self-immolation of Hindu windows, arguing that the practice underlined the cultural and religious autonomy of India.
With saffron ideologues at work to glorify conservative practices such as sati, it is time for rationalists to expose the attempts of orthodox Brahmins to 'hypnotize' Hindu windows. Records irrefutably endorse Roy's contention that the majority of widows who committed sati did so involuntarily.