CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India’s child protection agency has appealed to parents not to let children take part in religious rituals that could be dangerous, following a teenager’s death after a 68-day fast.
The appeal follows public outcry over the death of 13-year-old Aradhana Samdhariya from the minority Jain community in the southern city of Hyderabad.
Samdhariya died due to cardiac arrest on Oct. 3, a day after her family held a procession in which she rode on a chariot dressed in bridal finery to celebrate the end of the ritual of surviving only on water.
“We are appealing to all communities to ensure that they do not adopt customs and rituals like fasting or self flagellation that will harm their children,” Stuti Kacker, chair of the National Commission for the Protection of Child’s Rights, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“There is an urgent need to change mindsets.”
The commission has drawn up a plan to raise awareness about religious rituals that it says children shouldn’t be involved in for their own safety. These range from self-flagellation and festivals in which tongues, cheeks and skin are pierced to walking on embers and child marriage.
Kacker said spiritual leaders would be called upon to help make sure such incidents don’t happen again.
Child rights activists have called for the arrest of Samdhariya’s parents on charges of murder, saying they likely coerced her into participating in the fast.
Her parents, devoted followers of Jainism, a religion that celebrates acts of renunciation, have denied they forced her to fast during the holy period of Chaumasa, observed from July.
“The parents should have known better,” said Achyuta Rao of child rights charity Balala Hakkula Sangham, which filed a police complaint.
“In cases of hunger strike also, the police shift people to hospitals after a few days to make sure they don’t die. This was just a 13-year-old girl. How can parents get away by saying the fast was voluntary?”
The Communist Party of India has also written to the Supreme Court, asking them to “take appropriate measures to stop this absurd orthodoxy”.
Police have registered a case of culpable homicide against the parents. They are also seeking legal advice on whether to arrest them given that the body has been cremated without a postmortem.
“Her parents are in deep sorrow. No parent wishes this on their child,” said Lalit Gandhi, president of the All India Jain Minority Cell.
“Many of our children go on short fasts of 10 to 20 days. It is a normal ritual. This incident was very unfortunate but certainly not intentional.”
Gandhi added that the incident has started a debate within the community on whether children should be allowed to go on fasts at all.
“We are discussing it with our spiritual leaders,” he said.
Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj; editing by Timothy Large; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org