The centuries-old practice of Santhara has been in the eye of a storm since 2006
GN Bureau | August 31, 2015
The supreme court has stayed Rajasthan high court's order declaring Santhara, a Jain ritual of voluntary and systematic fasting to death, as a criminal offence and issued a notice to centre and the Rajasthan government.
A division bench of the Rajasthan High Court, comprising chief justice Sunil Ambwani and Justice VS Siradhana on August 10 called the practice punishable under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The high court had declared Santhara as illegal under section 309 of the IPC (punishment for attempted suicide). The high court had also held that any endorsement of Santhara by the members of the community amounted to abetment to suicide.
The centuries-old practice of Santhara has been in the eye of a storm since 2006 when the case of 93-year-old Keila Devi Hirawat from Jaipur had international media debating whether there was any place for such a ritual in the modern world. Practised mostly by elders nearing death or having no desire to live any more, this ritual demands the practitioner to even sacrifice drinking water and is not advisable for young adults or children.
The ban on the Jain ritual came after a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed by human rights activist and advocate Nikhil Soni a decade ago. The activist claimed the ritual is a social evil and should be considered as suicide.
One of the concerns raised in the petition was that it is old people, who usually resort to Santhara, and allowing an elderly person to suffer without medical assistance, food and water is inhuman.
Last week, a Jain body had moved the supreme court challenging the high court order declaring the ritual of Santhara or fasting unto death a penal offence. "It is a victory of India's traditions," a petitioner told reporters outside the apex court.
The petition by Akhil Bharat Varshiya Digambar Jain Parishad said that Santhara was not an act to terminate one's life, but a vow intended to purify the soul from the karmas and it could not be equated with the offence of suicide.
"Conceptually, Santhara or Sallekhana is different from suicide as this vow is not taken either in passion or in anger, deceit, etc. It is a conscious process of spiritual purification where one does not desire death but seeks to live his life, whatever is left of it, in a manner so as to reduce the influx of karmas," the petition said.
Thousands of Jains had held a 'silent march' to protest the Rajasthan high court judgement banning the religious ritual of fast unto death. Members of both Shwetambar and Digambar sects participated in marches which were held in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradhesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Assam and other states.
Jains argue that it is a voluntary act of rational thinking and marks the beginning of a journey of understanding the inherently painful and flawed nature of earthly existence. For millions of Jains in India, the PIL was a direct violation of the Indian Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom.
While opponents of Santhara equate the practice with suicide and argue that it's a fundamental breach of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the right to life, supporters say that the right to life includes a corresponding right not to live.