Off the shelf
The world of sati
V. N. Datta

Immolating Women: A Global History of Widow Burning from Ancient Times to the Present
by John Fisch, translated from German by Rekha Kamath Rajan.
Permanent Black, Delhi.
Pages vii + 610. Rs.795.

Immolating Women: A Global History of Widow Burning from Ancient Times to the PresentA big and wide-ranging work of global dimension on satió provocative and challenging, this book contains a formidable 60-page bibliography based on primary and secondary sources. The book also has a special section on tables, maps, illustrations and a broad survey of the sources used on sati by scholars in different parts of the world.

The study is divided into two parts, the first part dealing with widow-burning in Egypt, Europe, Russia, North America, Africa, China, Japan and some South Asian countries; and the rest of the volume focusing on India to which the author assigns nearly two-third of his book. In fact, the second part of the book dealing with India can be read independently. Originally, written in German, the book has been translated into English.

The author is Professor of Modern History at the University of Zurich, is a distinguished expert on legal history and industrial law, and his publications include The British Transformation of the Bengal Criminal Law (1769-1810), published in 1981.

The author enquires into the origin, extent, form and impact of sati and the different attitudes adopted to its performance in various parts of the world. Of special interest to the author is to identify and explain the social compulsions that gave rise to the occurrence of sati and its effects on society.

Fisch shows that in Egypt, Roman Empire, Western Europe, North America, China and Japan, the practice of sati was insignificant. However, in Eastern Europe, especially in the Ukraine and South Russia, the Scythians practiced sati in the 6th to the 4th century B.C. The author maintains that in the Muslim countries there was absolutely no sign of the practice of sati, but in Africa it was confined to the members of the ruling family.

In the portion relating to India, Fisch gives a synoptic review of the practice of sati in the ancient and medieval periods, which has been adequately covered by some of the historians. In Chapter 14 entitled "The Struggle against Widow Burning: End without End", Fisch grapples with the formation of British policy on India. It is in this section of his work he claims to offer a new and original contribution to the subject of sati. Due to limited space in this review, it is not possible to discuss various issues that the author raises. But the key issue that comes to his mind is about whom credit should go for the abolition of sati.

I would endorse the view of Sir Charles Metcalfe, member of the Governor Generalís Council who wrote three weeks before the abolition of sati: "I expect that the time will come when it (the abolition of sati) will be universally acknowledged by the people of India, as the best act performed by the British government."

This writerís interpretation is that the sole credit for the abolition of sati must go to the Governor General Bentinck. Prof Fitch, however, argues that it was due to the pressure of the British civil and military officers that the government enacted the legislative enactment of 4 December, 1829 for the abolition of sati. In other words, Bentinck or no Bentinck, the abolition of sati was inevitable. In no way, Bentinck could resist the demand of the top-ranking British officials who wanted the abolition of the rite. This interpretation reduces Bentinckís role to nullity.

In his assessment of the British role in the abolition of sati, Fisch has ignored the Bentinck-Bentham link. Before coming to India, Bentinck had remained closely and substantially in touch with the Utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Bentinck had assured Bentham that though he was going to India, in reality Bentham would be the Governor General. This assurance meant that Bentinck would do his best in India to implement Benthamís ideas of reform for the amelioration of Indian society using legislative and educational means.

Bentinck took office in India in July 1828. In the sphere of social, educational and law, he adopted the Benthamite ideas of ethics and legislation. He had a passionate zeal to reform of Indian society .A man of tomorrow; he was in a desperate hurry, which is evident in the study of Bentinckís papers. Regrettably, Fisch has depended exclusively on the Bentinck correspondence edited by C.H. Philips which is selective, shoddy and misleading.

The authorís account of sati in Bombay and Madras Presidencies is sketchy. In his chapter on Princely states he has depended on secondary material, but his survey is fairly convincing.

Professor Fischís comprehensive study of widow burning maintains a high and rigorous standard of historical scholarship and is a valuable addition to the existing literature on the subject.