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Government to toughen law on Sati

A ministerial panel is proposing amendments to the Sati Prevention Act 1987 to ensure the practice is wiped out completely.
Reuters | By HT Correspondent, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUL 17, 2007 06:39 PM IST

The government plans to tighten laws against Sati, the ancient custom of widows burning themselves alive, by holding entire communities responsible and increasing penalties to up to life imprisonment, officials said on Tuesday.

Sati -- where widows jump onto their husband's funeral pyres -- was first banned by Britain's colonial rulers in 1829 and laws strengthened most recently in 1987 but rare cases still occur in parts of India.

A ministerial panel is proposing amendments to the Sati Prevention Act 1987 to ensure the practice is wiped out completely.

"Even though we have just a few recorded cases of Sati annually, even one is too many," said an official from the women and child development ministry.

"We feel that by strengthening the laws, it will act as a deterrent."

The panel proposes that police be able to press charges against an entire community or village for allowing Sati to occur, said the official, but did not give details.

Village councils may also be held responsible for implementing the law and could face police action if they fail to report an incident of Sati.

Another proposal is that penalties should be increased from seven years to life imprisonment and stiffer fines be imposed.

The proposals will now be sent to cabinet for approval and would then be introduced in the next session of parliament beginning in August.

Sati, which means "faithful wife", was considered an act of devotion by some Hindus and hundreds of women are thought to have died in this way every year before the British ban.

The issue shot back to prominence in 1987 when a young woman dressed in her bridal costume jumped on to her husband's cremation pyre watched by thousands of people, many of whom egged her on.

Her death sparked national outrage and forced the government to ban the glorification of Sati, making it an offence punishable with a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment and a fine of up to 30,000 rupees.

But incidents still occur.

In September last year, a 95-year-old woman in a village in Madhya Pradesh jumped onto her husband's funeral pyre.

Women's activists welcomed the proposals and said the amendments would instil fear in communities who often just stand and watch while families burn widows alive.

"It is just plain and simple murder and anyone who stands and watches it happening is an accomplice to a crime and should be punished," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi think-tank for women's empowerment.

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