Double tragedy: A 13-year-old starved herself to death and society did nothing to stop her

Sometimes, an event takes place far from us and yet leaves us guilty, distraught, idiotic and unredeemable. A young Jain girl died a few days ago in Hyderabad. She died during the festival season, having starved herself for 68 days. For those 68 days of her fast, she was a spectacle. Community members came to see her and took selfies with her. There was a ritual festivity in the air.

A wealthy girl fasting is an oddity. She was not anorexic, sculpting her body according to the aesthetics of starvation. Or someone atoning for all the calories she had consumed. The case of Aradhana Samdariya is curious. It is the case of a student of Class 8 who decided to keep a traditional fast in the hope that it would revive her family’s declining business. She died of a cardiac arrest two days after breaking her fast. She was 13.

Her parents allowed it, claiming it was voluntary and that she had observed such a fast before. Society consumed it. Politicians and social workers watched indifferently. And after her death, the Jain community hailed her as a “bal tapasvi”. Yet, it all sounds wrong.

Fasting is an important ritual in India but like all rituals, it follows norms. It is a way of being in harmony with the world. To fast for an ideal is believable, but to do so to help a family business does not quite make sense.

First, it is not an act of Santhara, the Jain ritual of fasting unto death, where an elderly person decides to abandon life with permission and the approval of the saints. There is a deep search for salvation here.

At first sight, Samdariya’s fast has the same ritual quality. And then one asks the deeper questions: Is she an adult or a child? As a child, can she be allowed to make such a decision? And a decision by whom? Can parents and the community allow a child to thus die? Why is it that non-governmental organisations and the state are frozen into inaction when it comes to questions of orthodoxy?

No Jain leader challenged Samdariya’s fast. At the most, some called her death an accident, a child’s incompetence in not finishing her promised penance.

Among the spectators, many may have said “why interfere?”, while others congratulated her for her dedication to the family in an age of individualism and consumerism. There is a kind of political correctness that says do not interfere in religion.

Dangerous indifference

Yet, in secular terms, she was a child, a minor. She should not have been allowed to make such a decision. To allow her to fast on this scale is to condemn her to death, and that too, death by spectacle. No great end is served. No great philosophy outlined. Just a way of reclaiming family fortune. There is a banality to it that fasting and sacrifice cannot redeem.

What is worrying is this lack of interference, scandal and concern. Society is an act of caring, of responsibility towards the child. And childhood is a vulnerable state that needs protection. A child is not yet a citizen or an adult in the full legal sense. It is a pity the law did not interfere.

The government is quick to arrest a political protestor like Anna Hazare or Irom Sharmila. They can be accused of defying the law. But the law watches indifferently as Aradhana Samdariya dies. There is also a complete absence of social responsibility. There is no talk of the rights of a child. No sense of school, family or community responding. It is as if state and democracy have gone to sleep, lulled by the mythical power of her fast.

Interference could create a law and order problem, but what happens to enlightenment and the rule of law? As a society, we are treating the incident like a child crusade, knowing full well that the Children’s Crusades were bloody. It is the indifference of the media, state, police, school and NGOs that is of great concern. Did they all approve of what Samdariya was doing or did they lack the courage and conviction to interfere? It is the vacuum of law and of care that is stunning. It is as if there have been no reforms, no debates on childhood, no talk of children’s rights.

The silence of the politicians, one can understand. But the silence of civil society is incomprehensible. The emptiness of rituals sometimes signals the deeper silences of society.

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