YOUR COLUMNIST, always firmly convinced that choice of death is an inalienable right of a human being, was once upon a time an admirer of the Jain custom of Santhara, where a person, usually aged, decides to fast to death. He thought it a dignified and courageous exit when life has fulfilled its potential. However, the fullness of time has caused a revisitation of those views, primarily for two reasons—Santhara requires an enormous act of willpower and the adulation that accrues from it within the community might lead those who don’t possess such will to embark on it; secondly, it is a public spectacle and a person once committed to it will find it hard to reverse the decision because of the humiliation and embarrassment involved. Like most things in life, what seems gracious in principle turns out to have numerous twists and turns in practice. What should have been a spiritual journey has an in-built craving for glory since it is a public event.
This great felicitation by the community of those who go on long fasts explains how a large section of the Jain community still refuses to concede their responsibility for the death of 13-year-old Aradhana Samdariya in Secunderabad after fasting for 68 days. She had embarked on fasts stretching a few weeks earlier but 68 days was more than what her body could handle. Her parents claim they just acceded to her desire for such a long fast and the police have charged them with culpable homicide. The Hindustan Times reported a meeting of community leaders following this and quoted Jain guru Mangilal Bhandari as saying: “Nobody has a right to interfere in our fundamental rights to practise our religion. The filing of cases against the parents of Aradhana amounts to interfering in the spiritual matters of the community.”
There is a humanitarian case for not giving jail time to the parents because losing a child seems to be punishment enough, but to argue that religion absolves them of irresponsibility is arrogance. It is the mindset that would have celebrated Sati and untouchability in perpetuity. The least the community’s leaders should do is to immediately bar all non-adults from extended fasting. Instead, if they eulogise the death, it only romanticises fasting for other children.
For a country that has been at starvation levels for so much of its history, the attraction of fasting is extraordinary. The whole Independence movement was based on periodic shots of adrenalin from Mahatma Gandhi’s fasts. He made political capital out of a spiritual practice, fasted all the time, encouraged others to do it, and yet also said that fasting is ‘not altogether free from danger. I myself have before condemned fasting when it seemed to me to be wrong or morally unjustified’. Allowing a 13-year-old to go on a 68-day fast is both wrong and morally unjustified. Failing to concede this makes it criminal.