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Live and let die: SC upholds the Jain practice of Santhara

Sudhanshu Mishra | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 4:03 IST

The practice

  • Santhara is the Jain practice of a fast unto death
  • A person who takes this vow gives up eating and drinking water and waits for death

The order

  • The Rajasthan HC equated it with suicide and made it punishable under the Indian Penal Code
  • This led to massive protests from the Jain community in Rajasthan and other states

The stay

  • On 31 August, the Supreme Court stayed the HC order and issued notices
  • Jain religious leaders and politicians have hailed this as a victory
  • They feel a religious or cultural practice cannot be equated with suicide
  • Others argue that the same could be said of the illegal Hindu practice of Sati too

The Supreme Court on 31 August stayed the Rajasthan High Court's decision banning the Jain religious practice of Santhara.

This has come as a relief for the members and religious leaders of the Jain community, who were up in arms against the ban.

Also read: We must protect the right to die, even if it's a mistake: Anand Gandhi on Santhara

Santhara means a fast unto death. A person, after taking a vow of Santhara, stops eating and drinking water, and awaits death.

"Issue notice. Leave granted," a division bench of Chief Justice HL Dattu and Justice Amitava Roy ordered while issuing notices to the Centre, the Rajasthan government and others. The notices are returnable within four weeks.

Suicide versus religious practice

The order came on a batch of petitions by various Jain religious bodies against the High Court order.

The High Court, on 10 August, had equated the age-old practice, also called Sullekhana, to suicide, and declared it an offense. It was acting on a PIL filed by one Nikhil Soni of Jaipur.

The division bench, comprising Chief Justice Sunil Ambwani and Justice VS Siradhana, held Santhara as illegal, making it punishable under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as an attempt to suicide. The court also ordered support to Santhara by any person punishable as abetment under section 306 of the IPC.

Petitioners claimed that the HC order was passed without appreciating the basic philosophy and tenets of the Jain religion.

The petitioners included the Akhil Bharatvarshiya Digambar Jain Teerth Kshetra Committee, the Akhil Bhartiya Digambar Jain Parishad, the Sthanakvasi Sanstha and others.

Religious and political leaders react

"The SC order is a victory for truth. I was convinced it would be so. This order has reaffirmed religious freedom to the Jain community," said Jain saint Praman Sagar Maharaj.

"One who understands Santhara/Sullekhana in its true spirit would not equate it with suicide, but would consider it religion. Crime can't be equated with religion."

Firebrand Jain saint Tarun Sagar added: "It is the victory of the beliefs of the Jain religion."

He held that Santhara was 'atma sadhana (self realisation or enlightenment)' and 'atma swatantrata (self liberation)' and not 'suicide', as wrongly held by the High Court.

Santhara means a fast unto death. A person taking this vow stops eating and drinking water, and awaits death

Dinesh Muni, a Jain leader based in Shirdi, hailed the stay order. "Our judicial system needs to understand that by reading a few law books and becoming an 'honourable' is not enough. Non-violent cultural values must be respected. The Jain community has shown great togetherness and upheld democratic values [in its protest]," he said.

Om Birla, the MP from Kota-Bundi, also praised the stay order. "The Jain religion considers the body as a means to spiritual upliftment, and Santhara is an embodiment of the religious and cultural belief. It can't be seen as fitting the definition of suicide," he said.

Bikaner MP and BJP's chief whip in the Lok Sabha, Arjun Ram Meghwal, added: "The Jain community's views on their beliefs should be considered. In the case of Santhara, the age of the person undertaking it must also be kept in mind."

Original petitioner's view

On the day the SC overturned the decision, the original petitioner, Soni, was unavailable for reaction. His counsel Madhav Mitra told Catch that Soni was scared to comment on the issue and had directed him not to give his mobile number to any media person.

Mitra, however, said he was sure the apex court was not going to be influenced by the protests. Though the HC order has been stayed and notices issued, Mitra doesn't think the development is a setback.

"We will put in our appearance before the apex court. We still maintain that Santhara is illegal and is suicide, according to the law of the land," he asserted.

There are members of the Jain community too who agree with the High Court's view that Santhara was 'equal to suicide'. It's no different to the practice of Sati or Svecchamrityu (self-willed death), said Dr Man Chand Jain, general secretary, Citizens' Association for Rights, a Jaipur-based NGO.

Man Chand claimed that Soni had filed the petition before the High Court after he was moved by an incident in his neighbourhood, when a woman was allegedly forced to observe Santhara.

"It was a crime and justly held so by the High Court," he said.

He hoped the SC would consider see the decisions on Sati and self-willed deaths when giving its final verdict.

Community agitation

But the fact remains that people like Man Chand, also a former director of the Jaipur-based Subodh Institute of Management and Career Studies, run by the Jain Samaj, are either in microscopic minority or don't want to invite the wrath of the majority and religious leaders by making their views public.

Welcoming the apex court order, Rajasthan home minister Gulab Chand Kataria, who also belongs to the Jain community, maintained that Santhara was an age-old Jain religious practice. It was practiced even before Lord Mahavira, he asserted.

The HC decision had upset the Jain community and religious leaders to such an extent that lakhs of them in several cities and towns in 17 states took to streets, calling it an onslaught on their religion. They claimed that the Jain religion was under threat.

About a lakh Jains - men, women and children - took out a silent protest march in Jaipur on 24 August. Similar protest rallies were organised in all major cities across the state, under the banner of the 'Committee for Agitation to Save the Religion'.

Full page insertions were given in the leading dailies of the state, urging community members to keep their establishments closed, not to send their children to schools and colleges on that day.

With inputs from Patrika staff.

First published: 1 September 2015, 12:26 IST