Aradhana Samadariya died of a cardiac arrest brought on by starvation for 68 days. This should have evoked horror and sympathy, but the leaders of the Jain community to which she belonged have expressed very different sentiments. They feel that she died due to her devotion to her religion and have warned that they would brook no interference in the practice of their faith. They may invoke their fundamental right to practise their religion, but equally the child had a fundamental right to life.
Her death should have occasioned some soul-searching among these religious leaders on the absolute need to protect children from such dangerous practices. But instead we see justifications about how she was religious and how she had fasted for 34 days before. Even if she had some misguided notion that fasting is an appropriate way to express her faith, she should have been dissuaded at once. Instead, she appears to have been egged on to undertake a fast in order to propitiate the gods and help her family’s jewellery business, which had incurred losses. Though the family has now been charged with homicide not amounting to murder, child rights activists say the police seem markedly reluctant to act.
The Andhra Pradesh Child Rights Association too has pressed the police to act but not much has moved since the child died. Those justifying the death of the child should also feel the full force of the law for abetting a murder. There can be no tradition which justifies child abuse or indeed homicide. There is a Jain tradition of santhara in which the elderly fast to death. This practice is alarming enough but at least it can be argued that an adult can make a rational and informed choice. But a child can easily be manipulated and coerced as seems to have happened with Aradhana.
The community leaders should not be allowed to hide behind tradition. The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights should take the lead in bringing these leaders to book. India is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under this, as well as a slew of laws, any act which harms a child is punishable under the law irrespective of whether this constitutes tradition or religious practice. Already, there are children who have talked about emulating Aradhana’s feat. This is a dangerous trend and must be tackled well in time. Aradhana’s death could have been prevented — it was not. But the authorities concerned cannot allow this to happen again.