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Thursday, 8 August, 2002, 09:53 GMT 10:53 UK
Outrage over India ritual burning
Funeral pyre at village of Tamoli Patna in Panna district
Police say angry villagers beat them back
The Indian government's top women's body has strongly condemned the burning of a woman on her husband's funeral pyre.

I think there's always coercion involved

Local journalist Ambreesh Mishra
The National Commission of Women has described the incident as "atrocious" and is sending a team to investigate the incident.

Kuttu Bai, 65, burned to death on her husband's funeral pyre in a village in central India on Tuesday in an apparent act of Sati or ritual burning.

Fifteen people have been arrested over the incident, which took place in Madhya Pradesh state.

They 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.

Conflicting accounts

Accounts vary of the actual event, which took place in a remote district of the state.

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

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

But the state government says Kuttu Bai was forced on to the pyre.

Some reports suggest she was estranged from her husband and was living separately.

"I think there's always coercion involved," says journalist Ambreesh Mishra, who was one of the first reporters on the scene.

"There's a lot of money in it too. Sati puts the village on the map, meaning you have a goddess in your ranks, so you can collect money to build temples," he told the BBC.

Ancient custom

"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.

Women outside a temple in northern India
Sati is still revered by many

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".

Nevertheless, cases of sati are now very rare.

The last high-profile incident was in Rajasthan in 1987 when 18-year-old Roop Kanwar was burned to death, sparking 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.

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.

See also:

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