Suicide Or Religious Freedom? The Jain Practice That Has The Judiciary Conflicted

Posted on September 1, 2015 in Politics, Society

By Ankita Ghosh:

It’s been a particularly difficult week for Gulab Chand Kataria, Home Minister, Government of Rajasthan after the Rajasthan High Court ruled for criminalizing of the Jain practice of Santhara. Torn between religion and responsibility, Kataria says, “If Santhara is suicide, organ donation is murder” but reaffirms that the government does not intend to move Supreme Court. Jainism, one of the oldest existing religious beliefs in the world has had a long and spiritually motivated religious history. The Jains with their unmatched faith in the principle of non-violence even restrict their diets so as to be minimally invasive to organic life, and fasting for a prolonged period of time has become a well-accepted practice among some particularly staunch and orthodox believers.

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But society has come a long way since the days when religious practices like ‘corporal mortification’ went unchallenged and without legal opposition. While fasting has always been seen as a spiritual means of detoxification of the human soul, ‘fasting unto death’ is increasingly being considered manifestation of a disturbed mental state. Hence, religious practices such as the Santhara practice among Jains have come under thorough scrutiny by law. The Rajasthan High Court, that recently passed a ruling criminalizing this practice, had unleashed a jet of protests from Jain groups across the country only a fortnight ago. The protests brought representatives of all convergent and differing Jain sects, mainly the two opposing sects of Digambars and Swetambars, together as well as gathering support outside the Jain community.

Dharma Bachao Andolan Samity, that was leading the protests, had called for countrywide rallies in a bid to defend what they consider a just ritual. In preparation for the imminent mass-protest that was supposed to be staged on the 31st of August, demonstrations in different parts of the country had already been underway. Many had reportedly shaved their heads in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh as a mark of outcry, including some non-believers. The day of mass-protest was supposed to see Jains observing complete abstinence from public institutions such as schools and workplaces.

What comes as a rude shock is the fact that Santhara had been branded as a criminal offence on the grounds of being a form of ‘attempted suicide’, which is booked under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. Now this poses us with a rather grave question. Is a secular state violating what figures on the top of the list of Fundamental rights given to the Indian citizen – Right to Religion (Articles 25-28, Constitution of India)? However the answer can’t be that simple since Right to Life comes in direct conflict with that of religious freedom.

Advocates for euthanasia will reason that Right to Life (Article 21, Constitution of India) automatically entails one’s right to end one’s own life, simply put, ‘Right to Die’. While suicide pertains to a desperate, clinical state of mind in need of medical assistance, euthanasia is meant to arm an individual with the choice of putting a logical end to suffering through medical assistance. Spiritual practices like the Santhara practice fall in a wholly different category. Practitioners in this case make conscious adult decisions with meditative calm to attain a higher form of emancipation from the cycle of rebirth (an established spiritual philosophy).

The protesting Jains had taken their appeal to the apex court following the Rajasthan High Court ruling. Latest developments however seem to be somewhat encouraging for the Jain community as the Supreme Court put a stay order on the Rajasthan High Court ruling on Monday, 31st of August, the day of the previously scheduled mass-protest. Bans on religious rituals can be legally tricky and it should be noted that legislations against religious customs are a volatile issue. Religion is the most sensitive premise in India and in most cases we are left confused with more questions than answers. As a concluding thought, Santhara is a completely voluntary method and only allowed in cases of old age, terminal illness, with consent of family and religious guru, or the complete absence of liabilities/responsibilities. A criminal ban on Santhara better have very strong humanitarian arguments in its support to escape charges of religious bias and majoritarianism.