In the first half of the nineteenth century, sati (widow immolation) was to provide one of the principal instances of British intervention in Indian society. It was such an important issue for the British because, in their eyes, it showed just how backward the Hindus were. To put it another way, sati demonstrated to the British just how badly the Hindus needed their civilizing guidance. Hence, the British argued that they had a moral obligation to ban sati; only when the Hindus treated their women better could they progress on the scale of civilization. Interestingly, the British involved themselves in sati more than any other social issues that concerned women (e.g. education, widow remarriage, female infanticide). Although the reasons for this remain largely untouched by scholars, one could make the probable conclusion that the British focused on sati because it was not something found in their own society. Thus, sati allowed the British to establish the Hindu as the exotic and backward “other.”
In 1829, after much deliberation, the British finally passed a law that declared sati to be illegal in all territories of British India. I would like to put stress on the phrase “after much deliberation” because the abolition of sati was not a foregone conclusion. As Lata Mani writes in her essay “Contentious Traditions,” “official discourse on sati was prompted by deliberation on whether it could be safely prohibited through legislation. The concern with safety was premised on the belief that the practice had a basis in scripture and that interference in a religious matter might provoke indigenous outrage” (Mani 92). Although the British claimed to have a moral obligation to abolish sati, they were reluctant to do so because it could have dire consequences for the stability of the colonial state. To get around this problem, the East India Company officials asked not whether the practice of sati was moral, but whether it was sanctioned by “tradition”—that is, whether it was sanctioned by scripture. Whether for or against the abolition of sati, colonial “officials advanced their positions from within a common discourse on India whose chief features were the centrality of brahmanic scriptures, unreflective indigenous obedience to these texts and the religious nature of sati” (Mani 92).
However, the colonial state was only one of the principal parties to the debate on sati. The two others were native parties: the progressives and the conservatives. The progressives argued for the abolition of sati, the conservatives argued against it. Notably, although arguing against each other, both parties relied on scripture to make their case. Writes Mani, “while Rammohun [progressive] privileges scripture over custom, criticizing his opponents for ‘being driven to the necessity of taking refuge in usage’ the orthodox petitioners [conservative] argued that the antiquity of Hinduism implied an equal status for both. Nevertheless, despite this claim they proceed to argue their case almost exclusively in terms of scripture” (Mani 107). Thus, not only did the colonial state turn to the scriptures in the debate on sati, but so too did the progressives and the conservatives. Whether British or Hindu, “advocates both for and against sati grounded their case in a discussion of brahmanic scriptures, with opponents endeavouring to prove that sati had no clear scriptural status and proponents contesting these conclusions” (Mani 110).
With the emphasis of the debate put on scripture (read: tradition), it is easy to see why Lata Mani argues that the debate on sati was not about women, but about a particularly colonial construction of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity.’ As Mani suggests, “Tradition was thus not the ground on which the status of women was being contested. Rather the reverse was true: women in fact became the site on which tradition was debated and reformulated” (Mani 118). In short, in the debate on sati, women were “neither subject, nor object, but ground” (Mani 118).
Mani, Lata. “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India.” Cultural Critique, no. 7 (Fall 1987): 119-56.