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Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 505-508

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Book Review

Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India

Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India. By LATA MANI. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. xiv + 246. $15.00 (paper).

Reverend W. Bampton's eyewitness account of sati performed by an "infatuated woman" recorded in 1824, some five years before the British colonial regime outlawed this "dreadful rite" in 1829, represents a common missionary discourse found in most accounts:

A scene, the most perfectly hellish that we ever saw, was presented as way was made for the woman to the pit, and its margin was left clear; she advanced to the edge facing her husband, and two or three times waved her right hand; she then hastily walked round the pit, and in one place I thought the flames caught her legs; having completed the circle, she again waved her hand as before, and then jumped into the fire.

Sati, or "suttee" as it was spelled by Westerners, refers most commonly to a widow who immolates herself on her husband's funeral pyre, as well as to the practice itself. The debate on sati circulating in Bengal and Britain between 1780 and 1833, included East India Company (EIC) officials, Hindu pundits (scholars), Bengali bhadralok ("respectable" class, urban-based and upper-caste), munshis (teachers), [End Page 505] Christian missionaries, and members of Parliament, among others, but excluded entirely the voices of Indian women. This exclusion of woman as subject framed the patriarchal discourse both of British colonial officials and indigenous interlocutors.

Lata Mani's Contentious Traditions is an examination of this debate. For Mani, 1780 marks a distinct shift in the structure and mission of the EIC from a trading company to that of a colonial, a revenue collecting state, the result of a "complex mediation structured by relations of domination and subordination" (p. 13). The ability of the colonial state to extract revenue and material resources, to codify and enact laws, was mediated by differentiated and uneven relations among metropolitan Britain, indigenous middle classes, and the indigenous masses. These three "publics" represent the discursive elements in the formation of colonial discourse on sati. The debate, at least in relation to Mani's historical analysis, appears to dissolve by 1833, the year that Rammohun Roy, the "father of modern India," died in England. This was also the period of the Bengal "Renaissance," associated with Roy's social reform movement, depicted in Indian nationalist historiography as a modern bhadralok social force that eventually influenced the composition of later anti-colonial nationalist discourse.

Between the first recorded colonial discussion of sati in 1789 and its abolition in 1829, the EIC promulgated four circulars on the practice. The most prominent of the four, the Circular of 1813, distinguished "legal" from "illegal" sati based on specific and contradictory interpretations of Hindu scripture. Chapter 1 examines the production of colonial knowledge on the subject. EIC officials sought to discover Hindu scriptures, as opposed to customs, that they assumed were the basis for Hindu laws. The Company saw customary practices as "degraded," "superstitious," and ensuring the "corrupt" power of Brahmin priests. The EIC employed indigenous interpreters, at least until EIC officials learned Sanskrit and Persian, to locate and provide analysis of Hindu texts in the codification of colonial law. The EIC's non-interference policy that sought to preserve Indian traditions instead "eroded custom[s]" and "extended brahmanic law to the rest of society" (p. 40).

Chapter 2 explores the discursive specificities--"competing versions of modernity"--that framed indigenous male discourse on sati. Here, Mani focuses on four "sites" of bhadralok discourse: vyawasthas (legal opinion), pamphlets, petitions to the EIC, and newspapers. Contending discourses of pro- and anti-sati forces were forged in relation to official discourse. Mani presents the multiple forces, the discursive strategies implemented by both reformers and conservatives, in indigenous male discourse on sati. In this debate between and among EIC [End Page 506] officials and indigenous male elite, "women are neither subjects nor...


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