Kuttu Bai, 65, died atop the funeral pyre Tuesday in Tamoli Patna village in Madhya Pradesh state, in a Hindu ritual known as "sati." Villagers chased away police who tried to come to the woman's rescue.
Bai's two sons, Ashok Nai and Raj Kumar, have been arrested on charges of abetting their mother's suicide or murder, a police official said on condition of anonymity. Police on Thursday sealed off the cremation site after people began gathering there to make offerings of flowers and incense.
Mallu Prasad Nai, 70, Bai's husband who had been ailing for some months, died Tuesday, said S.K. Rout, Madhya Pradesh's inspector general of police. He said Bai told villagers she was going to immolate herself on her husband's funeral pyre. As word of her decision spread, nearly 1,000 people gathered at the cremation site to watch. Two police officers who tried to pull Bai off the fire were stoned and chased away by the crowd. A police report said Bai died after she was "forced onto her husband's pyre."
The practice of sati began in medieval times when Hindu women chose to immolate themselves after the death of their husbands in battle, rather than be taken prisoner by Mughal invaders. Sati was still common among orthodox Hindus in India until it was banned by law in 1829. Since then, sati cases have become rare. Kanwar's death evoked widespread protests from civil rights activists who were concerned that the ancient ritual was returning.
Madhya Pradesh state government ordered a probe by a district magistrate into the incident after lawmakers protested in the state assembly Wednesday. State Home Minister Mahendra Boudh told the assembly in the state capital, Bhopal, that Bai had been forcibly cremated.
Authorities arrested at least 15 more people from Tamoli Patna village, 425 kilometers (265 miles) northeast of Bhopal, on charges of assaulting police officers and rioting.
It is believed the last sati case was in 1987, when Roop Kanwar, a young woman in the western state of Rajasthan burned herself alive on her husband's pyre.