Sat± as voluntary
Pages 12

Leslie’s perception of Roop Kanwar’s death as voluntary is based on early press accounts and the public response to her death (Leslie 1992b: 181-3). Leslie concedes that most cases of sat± are not voluntary, yet goes on to ask: “Are we right to dismiss every case as murder? Are not some cases, most perhaps, in some sense ‘voluntary’?” (ibid.: 180). There were some, no doubt, who saw her death as a voluntary act, demonstrating the ideal of devoted wife (pativrat¨), and who treated her as a true sat±, a “virtuous woman.” Yet, as we do not know for sure whether Roop Kanwar chose to become a sat± or whether her death was forced on her, we cannot take for granted that it was voluntary. Leslie’s reading of the event as a voluntary echoes the stance taken during the colonial period by the East India Company, which made a distinction between “voluntary” and “enforced” sat±. Before finally banning sat± in 1829, the East India Company legislated in favor of it, if it was a voluntary act chosen by women willingly (Kumar 1993: 9). Hindu traditionalists in nineteenth-century British India claimed that sat± was always voluntary and used it as a ruse for attacking Western intervention. Lata Mani, an Indian feminist who investigated eyewitness accounts of sat± in the nineteenth century and the testimonials of widows who escaped the funeral pyre, suggests that sat± was not always voluntary and that “the testimonials of widows challenge the dominant presentation of sat± as a religiously inspired act of devotion to the deceased husband” (Mani 1993a: 287). In other words, “The ideology of sat±, as an act undertaken by a devoted wife with a view to future spiritual reward, is nowhere alluded to by the widow” (ibid.: 278). With regard to Roop Kanwar, how are we to know her true feelings and intentions? If, as Leslie points out in the concluding section of her chapter, “for most women choice itself is a fiction” (1992b: 190), then the question of sat± being voluntary does not make sense.