Changing the Subject of Sati
Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 2020, Forthcoming
28 Pages Posted: 9 Oct 2019
Date Written: 2019
On November 11, 1999, in a small village in India’s most populous state, a middle-aged woman named Charan Shah died on her husband’s funeral pyre. Charan’s death quickly gained national notoriety as the first sati, or widow immolation, to occur in over 20 years. Equally quickly, commentators developed a preoccupation with procedural minutiae that would influence coverage of subsequent satis. Ultimately, several progressive commentators came to the counterintuitive conclusion that the ritually anomalous nature of Charan’s death confirmed its voluntary, secular, and non-criminal nature.
This paper argues that the “un-labeling” of Charan Shah’s death, like those of other women between 1999–2006, reflects a tension between the non-individuated, impervious model of personhood exemplified by sati and the particularized citizen-subject of liberal-democratic politics in India. In a twist on “recognition” scholarship, both state and non-state critics seem to fear (not yearn for) a return to idealized notions of precolonial authenticity. Their perplexing responses to seemingly “authentic” contemporary immolations suggest that something more than cultural authenticity or gendered agency places sati beyond the comprehension of liberalism and its legal forms. That something is the inability of liberal-democratic politics and the legal infrastructure to which it gives rise to accommodate alternative models of personhood.
Keywords: India, sati, citizenship, law, personhood, agency
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