Outcry Over Death of Indian Girl, 13, After 68-Day Fast

A Hindu devotee prays at the Alopi Devi temple on the eighth day of the nine-day long Navratri festival in Allahabad, India, October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash

By Neha Dasgupta

NEW DELHI, Oct 9 – A children’s rights group has called for Indian police to arrest the parents of a 13-year-old girl from the minority Jain community who died after observing a religious fast for 68 days.

The girl, Aradhana Samdhariya, died due to cardiac arrest on Oct. 3, a day after her family held a procession in the southern city of Hyderabad in which she rode in a chariot with her parents to celebrate the end of her fast.

The tragedy exploded into the national headlines at the weekend, and raised new questions about whether India’s tradition of religious tolerance is failing to protect the most vulnerable.

The girl’s parents likely coerced the girl to participate in the ritual of surviving only on water, for a second straight year, the child rights body said in its complaint.

“It is a planned, cruel murder. We have complained to the police to arrest the parents and the priest,” P Achyuta Rao, honorary president of Balala Hakkula Sangham, an Andhra Pradesh-based children’s rights group, told Reuters on Sunday.

Hyderabad police have registered a so-called First Information Report that marks the initial step in an investigation, and summoned Aradhana’s father and grandfather for questioning on Saturday.

“We are booking the case. The investigation shall go on,” said the officer handling the case who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The relatives, who were not represented by a lawyer, said in their questioning that Aradhana had wanted to continue her fast for the full 68-day period.

“In fact, in the meantime, they objected also but she didn’t listen to them and she was very much interested to continue for 68 days, is what they are saying,” the officer said.

Family members have publicly denied forcing the girl to fast during the holy period of Chaumasa, observed by the Jain community from July. About a fifth of India’s 1.27 billion people identify themselves as belonging to faiths other than Hinduism.

“We did not hide anything. Everyone knew Aradhana was fasting. They came and took selfies with her. Now some people are pointing fingers at us for allowing her to fast for 68 days,” her grandfather, Manekchand Samdhariya, told news channel NDTV.

Jainism is an ancient religion whose central tenets are non-violence and love to all beings. Jains, who make up around 0.4 percent of the population, typically observe a strict vegetarian diet.

“It is unfortunate that such an incident has occurred. People in responsible positions should take necessary steps to avoid such a situation,” Uttam Kumar Reddy, from the opposition Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee, told Reuters on Sunday.

The children’s NGO, the Balala Hakkula Sangham, gathered photos of the procession on Oct. 2, copies of which it made available to Reuters, as part of the documentation to support its police complaint.

The NGO has also sought government custody of the other two girls in the family, aged seven and five, Rao said.

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