Social Issues

Child rights and faith

Print edition : November 11, 2016

Thirteen-year-old Aradhana Samdariya flanked by her proud parents, being taken on a celebratory procession after she broke her 68-day fast on October 2. She died in the early hours of October 4. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Women of the Jain community in a march protesting against against the order of the Rajasthan High Court banning Santhara, in Nagpur in August 2015. Photo: PTI

Yet another Jain practice becomes controversial with the death of a child following a fast lasting 68 days.

IT was a solemn occasion. Men and women dressed austerely sat across each other on the first floor of one of Hyderabad’s Jain prayer halls divided by wooden barricades. Three of the four holy months, known as the Chaturmas, in the Jain calendar had passed. On October 16, 10 minutes past noon, Manish Muni, the presiding guru, perched on a table at the centre of the congregation, was almost at the end of his three-hour-long sermon on Jain principles, known as pravachan, when he delved into a recent incident that had caused much disquiet within the community.

“If a seven-year-old girl can become a nun in the Christian faith, and when the appropriate age for employment under our so-called modern laws is 14, then why cannot a 13-year-old girl undertake a fast which was not forced upon her?” asked the muni.

He was talking about Aradhana Samdariya, an eighth grader from Hyderabad who died after a strenuous fast of 68 days. Several people blame the parents for allowing, even encouraging, her to undertake such a rigorous fast—having only boiled water for the entire two months. But they are unwilling to say this publicly given the media spotlight on Jain customs and practices following the incident.

The congregation, consisting of several people with their mouths covered in plain white cloth as is required of Jains, particularly at a religious gathering, nodded in agreement. Manish Muni went on to add, “Jain scriptures do not prescribe an age for fasting, but yes, there is an age for entering diksha [priesthood], which is nine years and over.”

Some young men in the gathering were seen jotting down these points hurriedly. They were asked to be present for this part of the sermon to assist in preparing a robust defence of the practices of the faith. In the course of the next half hour, Manish Muni vehemently defended Aradhana Samdariya’s decision to fast, and her parents for supporting her.

After the congregation dispersed, the young men gathered around the muni to ask him several probing questions. One of them said he had mentioned many incidents of extreme fasting from the annals of the faith, including a continual six-month fast of a young woman called Champa during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. But, he said, a lawyer had insisted that they reply only to the charges levelled against Aradhana Samdariya’s parents in the police complaint. The muni stopped the young bespectacled man in his tracks and said: “Look, all that the lawyer has to do is to cite the Preamble of the Constitution—it says liberty of belief, faith and worship—there ends the matter. The muni also asked the young men to ferret out more names of children who had undertaken such fasts.

Aradhana broke her fast on October 2 at a well-attended and lavishly celebrated function. Just 24 hours later she collapsed after sweating profusely. She died of cardiac arrest on the way to hospital in the early hours of October 4. An even better-attended funeral procession followed. Elders extolled the proud parents. They asked them not to mourn her death but to celebrate Aradhana Samdariya’s attainment of moksha, or release from the cycle of rebirth.

Spotlight on the incident

News of the death surfaced on October 9 after a child rights non-profit, the Andhra Pradesh Balala Hakkula Sangham, filed a police complaint to bring murder charges against the parents. Following media attention, the police reluctantly filed a bailable charge of causing death by negligence.

Under normal circumstances, Manish Muni would have had many disagreements with Aradhana’s parents, Lakshmichand and Manisha Samdariya, about their practices as they were divided by a schism within the faith. The Samdariyas belong to the Svetambara sect, but they believe in idol worship, while Manish Muni’s sect does not. There are several other larger disagreements on practices within the faith, all derived from one of the central tenets of Jainism, renunciation. For instance, the muni’s sect, the Sthanakvasi, or quite literally, the community at prayer halls, does not believe in ritualising many of the practices, including fasting. They espouse austerity and fasting in secrecy.

But that has changed over time. “We throw lavish parties for just about any occasion, for example weddings. Ninety per cent of Jains now spend extravagantly on religious functions,” said Aarthi Sanklecha (name changed), a Svetambara Sthanakvasi who lives in Hyderabad.

Aarthi Sanklecha says she was shocked to hear of Aradhana’s death. She got to know about it through one of the community groups that she is part of on WhatsApp. “I can tell you, the entire community is blaming the parents. They were known to be extreme. Wealth, I don’t think, was a problem, but they chose not to own a TV or even sofa sets at home! In fact, we heard that they wanted to go into diksha, but Aradhana’s sister apparently was not ready. And her grandparents were not for it either.”

Fasting is central to the Jain faith. It stems from the tenet of ahimsa, or non-violence. Children learn it early on watching their parents. The initiation into fasting is usually gradual. It begins with giving up anything that could be considered life-giving, like potatoes, carrots or onions. A person graduates to avoiding a meal, and then onto avoiding food from sundown to sunrise. Every year, at the end of two of the four months of Chaturmas, Jains ideally fast for eight days, but most do not complete it. The idea is to fast until your health permits.

The majority of Jain parents ensure that their children are not subjected to extreme fasts like the one Aradhana undertook. Aarthi Sanklecha said her elder son, who is in the seventh grade, had been insisting on fasting for sometime now. “I have refused sternly. But I told him that if he could hold off food from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., I would consider allowing him to skip a meal. Children don’t know how to take informed decisions. It is adults who have to guide them on such matters,” she said.

For all of what the faith propagates, Jains are a largely wealthy minority.

The 2011 Census lists about 45 lakh as the community’s national population, and a little over 50,000 for the undivided State of Andhra Pradesh.

Shutters are down on the Samdariya jewellery store in Secunderabad’s crowded Pot Bazaar area 10 days after Aradhana’s death. The board on Arihant Jewellers mentions “Samdariya’s 1857”, indicating the long standing of the family in the jewellery retail business. The family owns the two-storey building that faces the road, with the shop located on the ground floor. Lakshmichand’s parents live right above it. Multiple sources, including those at the prayer hall the family attends, corroborated the family’s intense devotion.

While the family is tight-lipped about the whereabouts of Aradhana’s parents, the convener of the child rights group, Achyuta Rao, claimed they had fled to Ahmedabad to avoid facing charges. The police said they were on a pilgrimage as part of the funeral rites. According to them, they are “not in a hurry” to arrest the parents as there is insufficient evidence to even stick the charge of death by negligence.

Aradhana’s parents did not inform her school about the fast. An upset teacher at St. Francis Girls High School in Secunderabad who knew her well said: “She was one of our best students. She was much liked by all.”

Lakshmichand and his wife had sought prolonged leave for Aradhana days after the beginning of this academic year without stating the reasons for it. The school authorities refused to oblige. Teachers insist that contrary to media reports, Aradhana had stopped attending classes from mid August. They said her parents never divulged the reasons for the prolonged absence despite “several detailed” meetings with them. The school was simply told that Aradhana was “sick”.

The Jain community has been in the news lately for other faith-based practices such as Santhara, the voluntary renunciation of life, usually when a person is terminally ill or when suffering from extreme pain caused by an incurable disease. The Rajasthan High Court banned the practice in August last year (“The Santhara debate”, Frontline, September 18, 2015). A challenge to that judgment is pending in the Supreme Court, which has granted interim stay to its applicability. The community is hoping this incident is also viewed as an “essential religious practice” as laid down by the Supreme Court in other faith-based matters.

Legal issues

“In this case, even the civil society did not act. It was indifferent to the fact that a child’s life was in danger. They even glorified the fast. My question is when Irom Sharmila could be arrested 20 times, then why not Aradhana? The issue then becomes that the fast is an essential part of the religion. But then the issue here is whether a minor could be allowed to take such a decision? Not every religious practice is preserved and protected by law, and particularly not when the issue concerns a minor,” said Justice K. Chandru, who retired from the Madras High Court.

In Aradhana’s case, she was a minor. Legal professionals dealing with juvenile justice argue that laws governing the rights of a minor supersede all other provisions. Section 3 (ix) of the recently amended Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act lists out the “principle of non-waiver” of a child’s rights even “when sought by the child or a person acting on behalf of the child”. It further goes on to state that “any non-exercise of a fundamental right shall not amount to waiver”.

Justice Chandru said there was more clarity in the law following India’s ratification of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child on December 11, 1992. He said that over the course of independent India’s jurisprudence, a constant effort had been made to remove minors from the ambit of religious laws—for example, the ban on child marriages.

The Juvenile Justice Act, the Right to Education Act, 2010, and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, derive from the basic principle of the “best interest of the child” as listed in the U.N. Convention.

Justice Chandru said these laws empowered courts to deprive even the biological parents of their responsibilities if it was found to be in the best interest of the child. He said: “I myself had appointed a lawyer for a child, and handed over his guardianship to an uncle because the home environment was not conducive. His parents were always fighting.”

Going by the Juvenile Justice Act, Aradhana’s parents could face a maximum of three years in prison for neglecting her health.

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