Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sati Surges

The Sunday Boston Globe carries an article by Tim Sullivan, on December 10, 2006, concerning, as his headline states, "Widows' suicides divide India along cultural lines: Rural areas see surge in burnings."

It is a thoughtful treatment about sati, the practice of self-immolation, and personalizes the reportage with a story about a specific recent case.

Near the beginning of the article, Sullivan notes:

While sati cases remain rare , and India normally only has one every year or so, recent months have seen a surge: At least three widows have died on their husband's pyres since August, and another was stopped from burning herself to death when villagers intervened. Specialists can find no explanation for the increase. It's possible that media reports and word-of-mouth lead to a copycat effect.

Historically, records kept by the Bengal Presidency of the British East India Company show that for the period 1813 to 1828, deaths by sati reached 8,135, giving an average of about 600 per year. Sati still occurs occasionally, mostly in rural areas. The common wisdom is that about 40 cases have occurred in India since independence in 1947, the majority in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan.

In my book, I observe that the practice of sati serves as a cultural background when political self-immolations occur:

In 1965 political self-immolations were used in widespread protests in India. As the villagers of Kizhapazhuvur in Tamil Nadu's Tiruchi district looked on in shock, Chinnasamy, a poor farmer, set fire to his gasoline-saturated body on the eve of Republic Day (January 26) in 1965 for the preservation of the Tamil language. After his death, the State became the pioneer of a new, fiery form of political protest: self-immolation. The next night, another Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam volunteer, T. M. Sivalingam of Kodambakkam in Chennai, immolated himself, protesting the government’s imposition of Hindi on Dravidian land. And, the next day, Aranganathan of Virugambakkam in Chennai took the same route to death for the same cause. The spate of suicides over Hindi imposition continued for a week that year leaving as many as nine people dead, and Tamil Nadu came to be labeled the land of self-immolation. In the months that followed, the government withdrew its call to outlaw the Tamil language. (Today, self-immolations in India are said to be caused by the "Chinnasamy effect.")