Eloquent silence

Print edition : September 18, 2015

ON August 24, the Jain community mobilised itself in large numbers in five States in protest against the judgment of the Rajasthan High Court on Santhara. But more eloquent than this was the silence of the ruling parties in States where Jains are a significant presence. Jains, who were designated a minority community (the sixth community to be done so) in January 2014 by the United Progressive Alliance government, wield considerable influence in society. Rajasthan and Maharashtra are the two States with the largest populations of Jains.

Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria, a member of the Jain community, expressed solidarity with the protesters though he portrayed himself as neutral in his capacity as a Minister. In the immediate aftermath of the High Court judgment, he made it clear that the State government would not go in appeal against the order. Kataria is considered close to Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje.

The Congress and other parties have maintained a studied silence on the issue. Shanti Dhariwal, who was considered No.2 in Ashok Gehlot’s Cabinet when the Congress was in power in the State, has backed the community’s protests against the judgment. Like Kataria, Dhariwal is a Jain. In fact, according to one political observer, it was a shame that even after more than a fortnight no political party had come out in defence of the High Court order for fear of alienating the community.

“How can one defend tradition is the question. It is doubtful whether Santhara is part of Jain texts. It is not a part of the essential tenets of the Jain religion. Just like Sati, if an individual wants to change his or her mind at the last minute, he or she is unable to do so. It is a matter of social prestige for the family and the entire action is glorified,” said a rationalist from Jaipur requesting anonymity. He said that the person seeking Santhara was advertised about for days in leading newspapers. “If it is a tradition, why advertise it?” he wondered.

A lot of opinion in favour of the ritual was being generated in the media through various forms. “Until euthanasia is legalised, Santhara cannot be legal,” he pointed out, adding that of late many women were found opting for it. “The State government should not remain silent. It should come out in support of the judgment,” he said.

VHP pitches in

Meanwhile, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) joined in support of the Jain community’s protest on August 24 in Rajasthan. It also requested that the High Court take suo motu cognisance and reverse the ban on Santhara, which the Hindutva outfit believes is a centuries-old practice. At a press conference in Jaipur, VHP State president Narpat Singh Shekhawat held that the practice was 2,500 years old, since the time of Mahaveer, and that it was not suicide but a practice undertaken to gain moksha (salvation) and punarjanam (rebirth). An observer said this was in keeping with the VHP’s thinking that Jains were part of the Hindu fold. Shekhawat also pointed out that in Sanatan Dharma, a rebirth through Santhara existed in ancient script and Jain religion.

The VHP has used this as an opportunity to make a distinction between religions originating in India and those that came from “outside”. Expressing anguish over the order, VHP’s international president Pravin Togadia, in a statement, “humbly requested the judiciary and the government not to interfere in matters relating to religious and cultural life”. The followers of religions that had originated in India, he said, be it Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism, had never shied away from reforms, which was evident from movements for widow remarriage and women’s education.

In his statement, the VHP president said that “it had become fashionable to denigrate age-old customs followed by the people of this country for which a Westernised education system, which gives rise to a pseudo-secular mindset, is to be blamed”. The High Court order was tantamount to interference in matters relating to religion and culture and we express sadness and agony over the same, the statement said.

Incidentally, Rajasthan was where the last sensational case of “voluntary relinquishment of life” in India happened. In 1987, in a case of Sati, a banned practice, a young bride, Roop Kanwar, was “voluntarily immolated” in Deorala village in Sikar district. That the Santhara controversy should originate in Rajasthan is but a serendipitous coincidence.

T.K. Rajalakshmi

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