Court verdict on Santhara triggers huge debate, protests

The Rajasthan High Court’s recent ruling to ban the religious practice of “Santhara and Sallekhana” (a traditional ritual of voluntary fast unto death) has evoked strong reactions among the followers of Jainism. On a petition filed by a social activist, the court ruled that the practice of Santhara is illegal and considered it a punishable offence under IPC section 306 (abetment to suicide) and 309 (attempted suicide).

The Jain community across the country came out in open disagreement to claim the judgment as an ‘encroachment on their freedom and right to practice the religion’. While some legal experts believe that court has upheld the right to life through its judgment, the community members claim that Santhara is a 2000-year old custom practiced in Jainism to achieve salvation.

Amid the two view points that have triggered a countrywide debate, the Jain community has announced that it will initiate a ‘legal war’ and approach Supreme Court against the decision of Rajasthan High Court.

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in Rajasthan High Court way back in 2006 by social activist Nikhil Soni demanding immediate ban on Santhara practice. The petition was filed after two acts of Santhara in Jaipur hit the national headlines.

In the first instance, one Bimla Devi (60) was diagnosed with terminal cancer and she fastened unto death. There were charges that her family members had forced her to practice Santhara while she wanted to live. In another case, Kaila Devi (93) took up Santhara and died a similar death.

It was eight years after this petition, that the division bench of Chief Justice Sunil Ambwani and Justice Virendra Singh Siradhana started day to day hearing in the case and pronounced judgment to ban Santhara on August 10. The decision, community members say, hurt the sentiments of the Jains, who observed nationwide strike on August 24 and claimed that suicide and Santhara are two different things and the court failed to figure out the difference.

“Santhara is not at all suicide. A person undertaking Santhara or Sallekhana is devoid of all passions, likings, dislikings, emotions and any kind of attachment. A Santhara practitioner gives up food and water voluntarily with an intention to become free from karmic encumbrance and attain the highest state of well-being or salvation (Moksha). On the contrary, suicide is an intentional act to harm oneself with a known outcome that negatively affects those left behind,” said Muni Praman Sagar, a Jain guru.

Poonam Chand Bhandari, respondent’s advocate claimed that the court could not make out any difference between suicide and Santhara despite strong arguments from them. He claimed that even the written arguments submitted in the court were not given due importance.

“Even after announcing Santhara, a person is free to withdraw it. Santhara is a voluntary practice. We made all possible arguments but the court was not convinced. We have now filed a revision petition in Rajasthan High Court. Our petition is likely to be heard in the first week of September. Many community members have already filed petitions in Supreme Court in this regard,” said Bhandari. Santhara is an act of spiritual purification practiced voluntarily, he added.

Community leaders claim that Santhara is in line with the religious philosophy of sacrifice, which includes similar practices such as ‘Samadhi’. “Santhara involves total sacrifice of passion, desires and physical belongings. A person going for it leaves everything behind and he/she is left with no wish for life or death. Even the death of his close family member wouldn’t bother him because he raises himself above all social, physical and mental boundaries,” said Vinod Jain, a community leader.

No right to die
Santhara or Sallekhana, is a spiritual tradition in Jainism dating back to 250 BC in which a person starves until death. It is a voluntary practice performed only under guidance of a guru. According to media reports, around 250 Jains in both Digambar and Shwetambar sects observe Santhara in India every year, mostly in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

During hearing of the case, petitioner Nikhil Soni’s advocate Madhav Mitra argued that any kind of fasting with a goal to attain death should be treated as suicide. “The court accepted our argument because it was a valid point. Be it a religious practice or one driven by other intentions, fasting with a goal to attain death is always suicide,” said Mitra.

He said respondents argued that Article 25 of the constitution guaranteed freedom and right to practice any religion. “This argument could not stand because Santhara is to be practiced by the head of the community and not by every other person. More over, constitution guaranteed right to life which doesn’t not means that a person has right to death also. In India, mercy killing or euthanasia is not allowed,” Mitra said.

Even in the recent Aruna Shanbaug case, Bombay High Court didn’t consider her mercy killing petition and she had to struggle for 37 years.

Though a majority of the community members in Digambar and Shwetambar sects are united over the issue of Santhara, many are backing the court judgment despite the widespread criticism. Sociologist Rashmi Jain calls this form of voluntary death “a religious act accompanied by frenzy” while activists like Sandeep Bhutoria feel Santhara is a completely inhuman act which is often misused.

Man Singh Khandela, General Secretary, Akhil Bharatiya Jain Jagriti Parishad, calls the practice antithetical to the religious message of Jainism. “Those helping one perform santhara are also abetting suicide. You can’t take away a life that you can't give.”‘

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