A 13-year-old girl died in Secunderabad after fasting for 68 days as part of a Jain ritual, police said on Saturday, bringing the spotlight back on the rigorous religious practices followed by the minority community.
Though the girl, identified as Aradhana, died on October 3, the Andhra Pradesh Child Rights Association lodged a police complaint on Friday seeking action against the parents for allegedly forcing her into performing the ‘tapasya’ (penance).
A family friend, however, said her action was voluntary.
The Hyderabad incident came months after the Rajasthan high court asked police to register criminal cases against a Jain family after an 82-year-old woman opted for the ritualistic fast to death called ‘santhara’.
The woman died 50 days into her fast after the Supreme Court stayed the high court order amid a nationwide debate on religious freedom in India.
The Jain community, with an estimated population of less than 50 lakh in India, follows an austere lifestyle including vegetarianism and a large section is known to observe the rigid customs laid down thousands of years ago. Digambara Jain monks – who consider the sky their clothing – still go naked.
Doctors at the Krishna Institute of Medical Sciences (KIMS) in Secunderabad said the long fasting could have led to her death.
“We did not admit her and gave the family a brought-dead certificate. However, doctors who examined her observed that she might have got cardiac arrest and renal failure due to imbalance of electrolytes in her body,” KIMS spokesperson Dr Alok Malik said.
Aradhana, a class eight student, was the only child of her parents who own a jewellery store at Pot Bazar area in the city.
The child rights association alleged that Aradhana was forced into fasting after the family’s ‘spiritual guru’ advised them of the ritual to help the family business grow.
“As per the ritual, she was provided only with water, that too, only till 6 pm. At the end of 68th day, a puja was held…the girl fainted and was taken to the hospital,” association president P Achyuta Rao told Hindustan Times.
While the girls’ parents were not available for comment, a close family acquaintance, who identified himself only as Piyush, said there was no truth in the complaint.
“Theirs is a well-off family with no financial problems. In fact, both the parents and the girl were very religious and were planning to become monks. The girl offered to take up tapasya on her own,” he said.
He said the number 68 has a significance in Jainism as one could attain self-purity by chanting a specific mantra 68 times.
“Last year, Aradhana had observed fast for 34 days and this time, she wanted to fast for 68 days… It was purely her personal decision, which was respected by her parents,” he added.
A photograph available with Hindustan Time shows Aradhana dressed up like a bride but looking very weak. Several women are also seen dancing in a colourfully-decorated tent.
“They (family members) feel she had made the supreme sacrifice and attained salvation. Hundreds of people attended her funeral held the following day,” Achyuta Rao said.
Secunderabad Market police station inspector M Mattaiah said the association filed the complaint with the commissioner of police and it was yet to reach him.
“We will decide on registering the FIR after going through the complaint,” he said.
Jain religious leaders’ attempt to justify the death of a 13-year-old girl after a 68-day fast has again shone the spotlight on the dangers of overemphasising the right to religion — often misused to defend practices prohibited by law.
“Don’t interfere with our religion ,” Jain religious leaders said on Monday after child rights activists demanded action against the parents of Aradhana Samdaria, who died a day after breaking the fast.
Police have registered a case against her father Lakshmichand Samdaria, a wealthy jeweller, and mother Manisha, charging them with culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
The Jain leaders’ stance is wholly misplaced. It is based on a mistaken understanding of the right to freedom of religion, which is the weakest fundamental right.
According to Article 25 of the Constitution, everybody has the right to freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion. But this right is subject to public order, morality and health and to all other fundamental rights.
The provision protects laws regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity that may be associated with a religious practice and authorises the state to make new laws for the purpose. The state can also make laws to provide for social welfare and reform.
A reading of the provision makes it clear that it’s a severely restricted right and certainly doesn’t include the right to take one’s life, particularly in case of a minor.
Even in the US, where the right to religion stands on a better footing than in India, the Supreme Court has ruled that it’s not an absolute right, upholding a conviction under a law banning polygamy.
The Indian Supreme Court has ruled in several cases that the right to religion protects the basic tenets and not all religious practices.
One is free to believe and practice one’s faith so long as it doesn’t conflict with public order, morality, health and other fundamental rights.
India is witnessing a spate of cases involving conflict between religion and law. Be it the issue of allowing women into Haji Ali dargah, Shani Shingnapur and Sabarimala Temple or Muslim women’s petition against triple talaq and polygamy – age-old religious practices having gender bias are being challenged on constitutional grounds.
What needs to be understood is that the right to religion is a very weak right and it isn’t a licence to perpetuate religious practices that impinge on individual rights, in particular those of children and women.
Police have registered a case in Aradhana Samdaria’s death and the law must take its own course without bothering about what religious leaders say.