'Greed' motivates Indian widow-burning

The Dominion, November 14, 1988 - By Nona Pelletier

THE Indian practice of sati or widow-burning was motivated by greed rather than glory, human rights activist Swami Agnivesh said in Wellington yesterday.The Hindu scholar, lawyer, teacher and former politician is visiting on a week-long fact-finding mission on Maori rights issues before going to Melbourne where he will speak at a human rights conference.

He is a swami, or monk, of the 115-year-old Arya Samaj movement, a society of rationalists opposed to orthodox practices such as widow-burning. He said the practice was more or less extinct till last year when an 18-year-old widow, married less than a year, was forced to commit sati. "The fact that a woman was burnt alive is not something uncommon in the Indian situation where so many brides are being burnt alive for bringing insufficient dowries."

He said while widow-burning was still rare bride-burning was a common occurrence."In Delhi alone there are three bride-burning cases everyday". Nobody glorifies bride-burning. "But in the case of widow-burning the religious and social leaders of certain orthodox communities glorify it and say it is part of the tradition they uphold". He said the practice of sati was also a crime but was often considered to be suicide.

He said last year's case was one which was economically motivated. "In this case she had brought a dowry with her containing 250 grams of gold and 25,000 rupees ($2200) in cash and fixed deposits". If she had decided to leave and go back to her parents she would be entitled to take back all her money plus a share in her husband's property. "So the in-laws thought that if she were made to commit sati they wouldn't have to return her money or share the property."

He said 101 swamis, joined by human rights activists, went on a 18-day, 1400 kilometer march to the village in protest. Before they reached the village of Deorala they were attacked by a mob of 700 wielding swords and hockey sticks.Swami Agnivesh said the people of India supported the protest, except the orthodox people of that state, Rajasthan, which was renowned for other types of atrocities. "There are child widows who have not lived a single day with their husbands.

"The girl has to remain celibate throughout her life". She cannot rejoice at any time in her life and she cannot attend social functions. There was no escape from the widowhood as in many cases the child widow was never allowed to leave the family home.