Ram Mohan Roy and Widow Immolation: The return of Sati under Hindutva

Malini Bhattacharya
Payel Rohatgi, an actress who promotes BJP on social media, has recently abused Ram Mohan Roy. It is surprising that Bengali intellectuals are yet to condemn this. Using a saffron video on twitter, Rohatgi has argued women enjoyed a superior status in ancient India. ‘Satidaha’ or immolation of the widow at the funeral pyre of her husband is a lie manufactured by the British colonisers. Hindusashtra (Hindu lawbooks) do not mention widow-burning (sati-daha). In special situations, this was voluntarily practiced by Hindu women. These circumstances were when they tried to save themselves from assault by Muslims (though Jahar and Sati are not the same) or to prevent young widows from becoming prostitutes. According to Rohatgi and her saffron sources, to be a ‘sati’ is to spend life as an ascetic widow and devote oneself to customs and rituals related to chaste worship of various Hindu deities. Ram Mohan was a ‘chamcha’ (bootlicker) of the British and a ‘traitor’. That is why he insisted that women were being forcibly burnt along with the corpses of their husbands.

History tells us Ram Mohan was not opposed to the rule of the English East India Company. Yet, if he and his followers had not opposed Sati-burning, the colonial government would never ever have risked antagonising powerful men who enforced this practice. Before he started mixing with the British, Ram Mohan was already well-versed in Sanskrit and Persian. He was well acquainted with Brahmanical and Islamic lawbooks.  During the debate on Sati, he found and cited positions supporting and opposing widow-immolation in the Hindu texts. He cited Brahmin lawgivers, knowing that it will be impossible to ban Sati otherwise-in the face of opposition from the orthodox Hindus and the self-serving colonial authorities who were anxious not to upset the local notables. Bentinck, the liberal Viceroy undoubtedly helped him.
However, it is to be remembered that killing the widow through the practice of Sati did not end with the legal ban imposed by the colonial government. The lives of many women in the nineteenth century were gradually transformed with the coming of women’s education and other changes; the practice of Sati waned gradually. That it hasn’t disappeared completely is also well-known. The killing of Rup kanwar in Rajasthan by invoking Sati, is a violent and palpable proof. Payel Rohatgis are dangerous because they are not speaking for women such as themselves. They are speaking on behalf of women who were forced to state that they were ‘voluntarily’ agreeing to be burnt alive. The Payel Rohatgis are also being forced by the RSS-BJP saffron brigade to declare that ‘Hindu India’ is great and Sati-killings should be glorified. They are being used as mediums to turn falsehood into truth. The motivated abuse heaped on Ram Mohan lies precisely here.
The screams of those who were drugged and pushed with bamboo sticks into the burning funeral pyres were articulated by Ram Mohan when he demanded a ban on Sati. Though the followers of Lata Mani and Gayatri Chakraborty-Spivak claim these screams were not ‘subaltern voices’, one can only hope they will rethink their positions in the present context. The legal ban gave women the right to life and offered a preliminary step in the direction of self-articulation and collective assertion. Ram Mohan’s charisma will remain untarnished in this regard. His other actions will also remain open to criticism. After all, he was the pioneer of critical discourses in the Bangla language. Yet, the organised attempt of the Hindutva brigade to call him a ‘chamcha’ of the British in order to glorify Sati surely deserves firm condemnation? Should historians accept such distortions of history? Remaining silent will only lead to the legitimisation of the organised murder of women.
The author is President of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA)
(This piece was originally published in Ganashakti and was translated by Suchetana Chattopadhyay)