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Debate follows Indian girl's death after religious fast

Her parents have been charged by police while the country discusses extreme religious practices

Debate follows Indian girl's death after religious fast

A school student passes by a poster announcing a religious function put up just outside a Jain temple in New Delhi in this file photo. The death of girl who followed a ritual fast has kicked off a controversy on children taking part in religious rituals. ( photo)  

The death of a 13-year-old girl after she undertook a 68-day fast as part of a religious ritual has kicked off a national debate on children engaging in extreme rituals. 

Eighth-grader Aradhana Samdariya died on Oct. 1 at her home in Hyderabad, two days after she completed the fast without food and consuming only hot water, as per her Jain tradition.

Police have filed a case of culpable homicide against the parents of the girl on the complaint of child rights activist Achuta Rao.

Police have also questioned officials at her school, St. Francis in Hyderabad, run by the  Sisters of Charity of Saints Bartolomea Capitanio and Vincenza Gerosa, according to a senior nun in the congregation.

"The school has never permitted or encouraged such fast programs," said the nun who did not want to reveal her name. The girl came to school on the initial days of the fast, but was absent for several days, she said. 

"We have done our best for the child. It is baseless to blame the school for the tragedy," the nun said, adding that schools can only report absenteeism to parents and are not responsible for investigating or undertaking legal proceedings. 

Local media reports said her parents encouraged her to take the long fast in the belief that it would bring good luck to the family’s jewellery business. 

The incident has "shocked all," said Samuel Jaikumar from the National Council of Churches in India. "It is child abuse and a sheer lack of responsibility on the part of the parents."

He said that the incident should be an "eye opener" for all religions to look critically at their culture and traditions. It should also help the country to implement child protection laws more efficiently.

Jainism, an ancient religion, began in India and has about 4 million followers mostly living in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. They follow a path of self-control and non-violence.

Lajpat Jain, president of Shri Mahavir Digambar Jain Sabha, an association of Jain adherents in New Delhi, told that the community needs to learn a lesson from this incident. "We need to think over it," he said.

He said their religion does not support imposing such fast on anyone though it advocates fasting as a method of purification. One is advised to fast according to his or her strength and should still be able to carry out day-to-day duties, he said.

Mohammad Junaid, a Muslim coordinator of the interfaith forum Minhaj-ul-Quran, said people in India need to be practical rather than emotional when it comes to religious practices.

"One has to see how far his or her body can take the pressure. All customs are good as long as they do not end up hurting you," he said.

This is not the first time the Jain community’s religious ritual has created controversy.

In 2015, the Rajasthan High Court in northern India banned the Santhara ritual, deeming it unconstitutional and akin to suicide, following the death of a 96-year-old Jain woman after she gave up eating and drinking.

In Santhara, an aged person who has completed their family commitments can slowly detach themselves from worldly pleasures over 12 years finally refusing food and water, embracing death and attaining salvation.

The ruling led to outrage among the Jain community, with religious leaders calling it ignorance on the part of the judge and the petitioner.

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