Aradhana Samadariya, a young Jain girl, undertook a fast of 68 days for the betterment of her family’s fortunes. She died of a cardiac arrest shortly after she was feted for her feat. The parents who seem to have pushed her into this have been arrested and charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Despite this horrible death, leaders of the Jain community still insist that this is a matter of faith and that people should not interfere. The parents claim the child asked for permission to fast. This raises questions of religious freedom and juvenile justice.
Unfortunately the debate is getting polarised around a reductive idea of consent - did she volunteer or was she coerced? This, in fact, does injustice to the idea of consent. All of us ‘volunteer’ to do things that are possibly painful or difficult for us - often for the ones we love or for the sake of a greater cause, often because we are driven to by something from within us, which we do not always recognise.
There is in our internal world a clamour of voices - of people we have loved and admired in our lives - that echo in our heads. We have little choice but to try and quieten the noise within ourselves. Sometimes these voices are harsh and demanding - as for instance, Gandhi describes in his autobiography, when he ate meat and the cock crowed all night in his stomach! Punitive voices often demand desperate sacrifices and we may ‘willingly’ decide to jump into a fire or walk on burning coals to make our peace. So, of course, it is done without being dragged over the coals, but is this what we mean by consent?
Read: Those justifying Aradhana’s death should feel the full force of the law
Those of us who are more easily disturbed than others have a greater clamour in our minds, more ceaseless demands, a more punitive idea of the world and this may be aided and abetted by our environment. And we can be driven by our demons to any length. The truth is that unknown to ourselves, these ‘demons’ are a part of our fantasies that shape our thoughts and behaviour, often at the cost of external circumstances.
Nobody can tell us about Aradhana’s internal world. Not yet. But seeing her pictures, dressed as a bride, the serene smile on her face, the adulation for her sacrifice - it makes me wonder did she ‘know’ what she was doing or was it a child’s fantasy, a desire to be exemplary. In a culture where renunciation is the supreme act, does there exist a free space where consent can be thought through, where a choice can be unpacked - where consequences and contexts can be spoken of without fear?
Nilofer Kaul is a psychoanalyst