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Wednesday, 7 August, 2002, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Arrests in Indian ritual burning
Funeral pyre at village of Tamoli Patna in Panna district
Police say angry villagers beat them back
Fifteen people have been arrested in central India after a woman burned to death on her husband's funeral pyre.

The suspects in Madhya Pradesh state face charges of murder and conspiracy, the authorities say, and include the woman's two grown-up sons, who apparently did nothing to stop her.

Reports say the 65-year-old woman sat calmly on the blazing pyre as 1,000 villagers, shouting their support, watched her burn.

"Sati", or the ancient Hindu practice of a woman immolating herself on her husband's pyre, has long been banned in India, and those found abetting it face the death penalty.

Policemen who tried to stop the ceremony in Panna district say they were forced back by the angry crowd.

One of the officers told Reuters news agency he had caught hold of the woman, Kuttu Bai, but had been beaten and pelted with stones.

"It is not clear if the woman committed the act voluntarily or if she was forced to do so," he said.

Extra police have been deployed in the area to prevent attempts to glorify the incident - although local villagers insist they want to worship the woman as their new goddess or "sati mata".

Death penalty

Cases of sati are very rare.

Women outside a temple in northern India
Sati is still revered by many
The last high-profile incident was in Rajasthan in 1987 when 18-year-old Roop Kanwar was burned to death.

The case sparked national and international outrage.

Police charged Roop Kanwar's father-in-law and brother-in-law with forcing her to sit on the pyre with her husband's body, but the two men were acquitted by an Indian court in October 1996.

However the widespread media attention surrounding the case led India to enact legislation calling for the death penalty for anyone abetting sati.

Outlawed

Sati is believed to have originated some 700 years ago among the ruling class or Rajputs in India.

The Rajput women burnt themselves after their men were defeated in battles to avoid being taken by the victors.

The custom was outlawed by India's British rulers in 1829 following demands by Indian reformers.

But despite the long-standing ban, sati is still seen in some parts as the ultimate act of fidelity.

Four years ago police in Uttar Pradesh had to seal off a village after a woman committed suicide by jumping into her husband's pyre.

For several days thousands of people thronged the village to pay their respects to the dead woman - but the police said it was just an impulsive act of suicide rather than a contemplated act of sati.

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Dr Radik Chopra, Delhi University
"This is extremely rare"
See also:

01 Aug 02 | South Asia
24 Jul 02 | Country profiles
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