Monday, August 10, 2015

Raj HC holds Jain practice of fast-unto-death illegal

The Rajasthan high court, in a judgment pronounced on Monday afternoon, held Santhara or Sallekhana - the controversial Jain practice, where a person gives up food and water till death - to be illegal and directed FIRs to filed against persons undertaking this practice.

The court has equated Santhara with suicide while deciding on a petition which likened it to sati.

The Jain community reacted with outrage. Jain studies scholar Manish Modi told dna, “It is deeply disappointing to hear of this judgement. Santhara or Sallekhana is an integral practice, custom and tradition of the Jain religion and has been so for the past thousands of years.”

According to him, “There is enough scriptural evidence in most ancient Jain texts composed in Prakrit, Sanskrit, Apabhramsha, Tamil, Braj, Dhundhari, Kannada, Marathi, Maru Gurjar, Gujarati etc. to show that Sallekhana was considered an ideal way of shedding the mortal coil. From ancient times till today, many Jain ascetics as well as lay followers have given up their body through sallekhana/santhara with faith in the scriptures.”

Calling the opposition to this religious practice a vilification, he said: “More can be said once the judgement is read in detail but one wonders if the opposition to the practice is part of a larger conspiracy to subvert minority religions in India.”

“Whether it’s the Christmas controversy with which the Centre tried to needle the Christian community or the Maharashtra government’s decision to ban beef, which was clearly done to target Muslims, it seems like its achche din only for the majority community,” said a senior Jain monk. “It’s like they want to browbeat us all minorities into accepting Hinduism and its way of life,” he said.

Others like Supreme Court advocate Rishabh Sancheti told dna how his phone has been ringing continuously since the judgment. “I have received several calls from across the community, seeking to challenge the decision. The outcome of the case comes as a shock to anyone who knows the core values of Jainism. Prima facie, the outcome does not appear to be correct,” he said.

Despite its historical and religious significance, Santhara has been opposed by activists, citing abuse and coercion. Among them is Jaipur-based lawyer Nikhil Soni, who filed the petition.

This native of Churu in Rajasthan – reputed as the world’s Santhara capital for its highest per capita incidence of the practice in recent history – recounted how, for years, he quietly watched many such fasts-unto-death. That was till September 2006, when Soni heard of one Bimla Devi being coerced into Santhara by her family.

“Diagnosed with terminal cancer, the elderly Bimla Devi was too weak and depressed to protest as her relatives went about publicly announcing ‘her decision’. In her final hours, when she started screaming in a last-ditch effort for food and water, her cries were drowned out by loud bhajans sung to the accompaniment of high-decibel dholaks,” he said.

“Bimla Devi’s case convinced me that Santhara is suicide, masquerading as a religious practice wrapped in the mantle of hoary tradition. At its worst, Santhara came across as nothing but ritual murder, devised to rid a family of the economic burden of caring for its elderly, seen as a burden on the family,” he said.

Mumbai-based journalist-filmmaker Shekhar Hattangadi has brought the focus sharply to this religion with his documentary Santhara (which won awards at both Bengaluru and Kolkata short film festivals). He said, just like his film, he would not want to take sides for or against the judgement. This visiting faculty at two Mumbai law colleges, explains: “Santhara, for me, is a classic example of the challenge that all faith-based societies face as they adopt modern, secular norms of governance, and the challenge is to reconcile individual freedom and personal liberty as well as a minority community’s religious rights on the one hand, and, on the other, with the need for state intervention in matters of religion.”

He pointed out how the HC has gone by the Supreme Court ruling in the Gian Kaur case of 1996. “The apex court had then ruled that Right to Life cannot mean Right to Death. The Rajasthan HC seems to have gone by that ruling,” he said.

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