British Rule and Sati

By the end of the 18th Century, the practice had been banned in territories held by some European powers. The Portuguese banned the practice in Goa by about 1565. The Dutch and the French banned it in Pondichery, their respective colonies.

The British following the example of the early rulers, for a while, tried to regulate it by requiring that it be carried out in the presence of their officials and strictly according to custom. “Attempts to limit or ban the practice had been made by individual British officers in the 18th Century, but without the backing of the British East India Company”. “The first formal British ban was imposed in 1798, in the city of Calcutta only. The practice continued in surrounding regions.

In the beginning of the 19th Century, the evangelical Church in Britain and its members in India, started campaigns against Sati”. Leaders of these campaigns included “William Carey and William Wilferforce”. These movements put pressure on the company to ban the act. “William Carey and the other missionaries conducted in 1803-1804 a census on cases of Sati for a region with a 30 mile radius of Calcutta finding more than 300 such cases there.” The missionaries also approached Hindu liberated theologians who opined that the practice of Sati is inhuman in its connotation and should be banned. “Sahajanand Swami, the founder of the Swaminarayan sect, preached against the practice of Sati in his area of influence, that is, Gujarat. He argued that the practice had no Vedic standing and only God could take a life that he had given. He also opined that widows could lead lives that would eventually lead to salvation”. Sir John Malcolm, the governor of Bombay supported him in this endeavor.

However, it was largely due to efforts of the Bengali reformer and founder of Brahmo Samaj, Raja Rammohan Roy, who, beginning in 1812, started campaigning for the cause of banning Sati practice and began a large-scale campaign against the practice. “He was motivated by the experience of seeing his own sister-in-law being forced to commit Sati. Among his many actions were visits to the Calcutta cremation grounds to persuade widows against immolation; he formed watch groups to do the same, tried to gain support from the elite class of Bengal and wrote and disseminated articles to show that it was not required by scripture, he was at logger heads with certain sections, who wanted the government not to interfere in religious practices and cited a counter-petition for making a law banning Sati practice. He appealed to William Bentick, the governor of Bengal to pass a law banning Sati practice in British India and through his persuasion a law was made in 1829, in Bengal presidency, which was later extended in 1830 to Madras and Bombay presidency.”
“The ban was challenged in the courts by means of a petition signed by about 800 individuals and the matter went to the Privy Council in London. The Privy Council rejected the petition in 1832 and the ban was upheld.”

Later British Attitudes

Although the original 1829 in Bengal was fairly uncompromising, later in the century British laws include provisions that provided mitigation for murder when the person whose death is caused being above the age of 18 years, suffers death or takes the risk of death with his own consent.
General Sir Charies James Napier, the commander-in-chief in India from 1849 to 1851 is often noted for a story involving Hindu priests' complaining to him about the prohibition of Sati by British authorities:
“Be it so. This burning widow is your custom; prepare the funeral pyre. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”
Consequently, Sati remained legal in some princely states for some time after it had been banned in the land under British control. Baroda and other princely states of Kathiawar Agency banned the practice in 1840. Other princely states outlawed it in a different time. The law criminalized any type of aiding, abetting and glorifying of Sati.

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