The village of Shahbazpur in Uttar Pradesh found itself at the centre of a media storm over the last month. A woman was rumoured to have attempted Sati, the abolished practice of wives choosing to burn themselves alive on the pyres of their husbands rather than opt for lives as widows.
âIf only the police hadnât come. I wouldâve tied her up with ropes myself and dumped her onto the pyre,â were the whispered echoes on the streets. It was also, allegedly, the prevalent sentiment amongst members of the womanâs family. Only apt, since rumours and whispers are at the heart of this story.
On January 16, the Khabar Lahariya reporter followed the direction of the local news storm and found herself in Shahbazpur. âA woman is just about to commit SatiâŚâ was the general refrain. Within hours, open areas in the village were flooded with crowds and crowds of warm bodies, all feverishly eager to see a woman burn alive. âSheâs old, we hear," said one man, while another was disappointed the "show" hadnât begun yet.
The Khabar Lahariya reporter, who was not unfamiliar with the practice and its prevalence in parts of Uttar Pradesh even today, spoke with the local police who confirmed that the woman had been prevented from doing what she intended to â that she was under police watch.
The crowds around the burning pyre became incensed, at not having got what they had come for â some from far-off villages and districts across MP.
The workings of a carefully-manufactured piece of local news that garnered so much traction and noise, using everyoneâs preferred new word of mouth means â WhatsApp â was amplified on the Khabar Lahariya YouTube channel as well. The video went viral within a few hours, and comments interrogated us, âWhere was the woman, and why didnât she jump into the fire?â
Currently clocking at 2.1 million views, we feel the real question is â In our voyeuristic urge to view violence, especially towards women, and the way that technology makes rumours unstoppable across our rural countryside, are the voices of fact and fake-news busting loud enough? And perhaps, more importantly, does anybody even care?
Savitri, 70, was visibly distraught at the death of her husband. Her son, Rambabu, equal parts agitated and pleased, both enjoying the cameras and not, confirmed that his mother intended to commit Sati, but he immediately informed the authorities. âI only told the police,â he claimed.
How it went from the local thana (police station) to smartphones across UP and MP perhaps calls for a separate investigation. The majority of people who turned up to watch the woman commit Sati said that they had been forwarded the message on WhatsApp.
Savitriâs neighbours were largely unimpressed, many even of the opinion that it was all âfake news.â But some were keen to express themselves. Genda, for instance, insisted that Savitriâs âinner fire probably wasnât pure enough,â else no force of nature couldâve stopped her from committing Sati. âThe locks of the house break open if a pure Sati is inside it. Nothing and nobody can stop her.â
When our reporter met Savitri again last week, she was forlorn and dismissive of the world in general. Lying still in the courtyard of her house, she said that she had lost her will to live, âever since they prevented me from becoming Sati.â We tried speaking to her daughter-in-law, who had just returned from a day at the fields. She immediately asked us to leave, repeating only one thing, âSheâs fine. Just leave us alone.â
Khabar Lahariya is India's only independent, grassroots, feminist news network. With a team of women reporters from Dalit and other marginalized communities, Khabar Lahariya works across the Bundelkhand districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.