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Abolishing suttee


I have spent several interesting evenings talking with Parmar, a Sikh who owns a restaurant in Canada's frozen north. He grew up in the Punjab and Hong Kong, and has very definite opinions about the British Raj. Sitting down with a Johnny Walker Black Label, he did not hesitate to make his opinions known to me.

In his estimation, one of the great contributions of Brits in India was the outlawing of sati (suttee), the burning alive of widows on their husbands' funeral pyres.

The author of the reform was Lord William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck (1774–1839), a man who was never afraid to make himself unpopular and was keenly aware that if he failed in any of his military or political missions he would be disgraced, while if he succeeded it would never be as a result of support from his own government.

Bentinck became governor-general in India from 1828 to 1835. He abolished sati on 4 December 1829. Indeed some say that his sweeping social, economic, and political reforms laid the foundations for modern India.

Enforcing his law was Sir Charles James Napier, a fierce, uninhibited man who hated oppression whether he found it in Britain or India - and made no bones about condemning it. He was famously reported to have said -

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. We will follow ours.

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