Bravo! Netas strip Rohith Vemula down to his Dalit identity – Sreemoy Talukdar

Rohith Vemula

Sreemoy Talukdar“Like vultures excited by the smell of carrion, party leaders from all over India are now circling over Hyderabad, determined to peck every bit of flesh clean off the bone in an effort to secure their votebanks. … The early bird prize went to Rahul Gandhi who came along with senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh. Amid folk songs and impromptu lyrics, the Gandhi scion spoke before an excited crowd on the campus. Some tried to capture selfies, while others called their parents at home, requesting them to switch on the TV because it was being covered live.” – Sreemoy Talukdar

SuicideThe suicide of a Dalit student in Hyderabad has provided a god-given opportunity to our “secular” netas.

The value of a man was reduced to his identity … to a vote, to a number, to a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind, as a glorious thing made of star dust in every field. In studies, on streets, in politics and in dying and living, wrote Rohith Vemula in a heart-wrenching suicide letter.

His eloquent words seem eerily prophetic now.

In less than the time it took for family members, friends and colleagues to process the news of his shocking death, the erudite science scholar has been stripped down, buck naked, to his Dalit identity. And as the vivacious student activist foresaw, through a well-oiled paradigm of reductive politics, his voice has been reduced to just a vote. One vote that could lead to many votes in the eyes of our congenitally opportunistic political handlers.

Like vultures excited by the smell of carrion, party leaders from all over India are now circling over Hyderabad, determined to peck every bit of flesh clean off the bone in an effort to secure their votebanks.

Vemula wanted to be a writer of science “like Carl Sagan”. He was well-read, meritorious, brilliant. He was spunky, a man of action and an inspiration to co-activists. He tore down posters of ABVP, organised movements in favour of the causes he espoused, inevitably resulting in clashes with students of different ideologies. We learn from a Times of India report that PhD scholar Vemula got his admission to the University of Hyderabad on general merit quota. And although he declared himself as a member of a Scheduled Caste in his admission form, he never felt the need to furnish it.

And from his experience, he was also aware of the structured alienation that Dalits face from society. In his final letter, a veritable treatise on each of his experiences as an individual or part of a collective, Vemula issued a clarion call against disrespect for merit “in studies, on streets, in politics and in dying and living”.

But look at what we have done.

Hardly a day has passed since his suicide that long, sharp knives are being twisted into his memory. All that he stood for stands nullified. Eager to pose with his family members and co-activists in a bid to exploit the sentiment—still raw and powerful—vote-hungry netas are busy trampling Vemula’s dying wish under their foot.

Can’t blame them, really. A tragedy not exploited is an opportunity lost.

Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya, acting on a request from the BJP’s student wing, sent a letter to HRD ministry. He accused the student association at Hyderabad University bearing Ambedkar’s name of “anti-nationalism”. The Smriti Irani-headed ministry shot off four letters to the vice-chancellor. Vemula and four others were expelled and he eventually committed suicide. If the BJP had a death wish, it couldn’t have executed the plan better. For the Opposition, it is an issued served on a platter to paint the ruling party as a reflexively anti-Dalit.

Hence, we find Arvind Kejriwal, who practices throwing secular arrows on the ‘Narendra Modi Dartboard’ when not playing the victim card, jump into the cauldron with alarming alacrity.

Rahul Gandhi & Arvind KejriwalCalling it “not suicide, but murder” and demanding an apology from Modi, the ‘mufflered mango man’ who remained steadfastly silent during the violence in Malda—a district in Bengal, has since been burning in the fire of righteous indignation. The Trinamool Congress sent its emissary Derek O’Brien, the articulate spokesperson. He couldn’t travel the distance from Kolkata to Malda—around 326 kilometres—when it was burning, but wasted no time in taking the first flight to Hyderabad.

Some causes are greater than others.

The early bird prize, though, went to Rahul Gandhi who came along with senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh. Amid folk songs and impromptu lyrics, the Gandhi scion spoke before an excited crowd on the campus. Some tried to capture selfies, while others called their parents at home, requesting them to switch on the TV because it was being covered live.

Seeing all this unfold, Mayawati, whose life and career is centred around Dalit identity politics, sent two emissaries on a fact-finding mission. Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls are not too far away.

As tragedy tourism went on in full swing and the recipe for another ‘Mahagathbandhan’ was being readied, we are reminded yet again of Vemula’s immortal words: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity.

The reductive principle at work behind the stripping down of Vemula to his Dalit identity is effectively the new caste system that the political parties are engaging in. And in this new paradigm, politics is no longer the sphere in which convictions crash or varied interests are shared. It is now just a battlefield for pitting one identity against the other. Dalit against Brahmins. Muslims against Hindus.

Vemula, the PhD scholar, is no longer a thinking individual who was convinced of his ideology and acted on basis of his conviction. That individual, tragically, is now dead. The multi-faceted scholar has been quickly ossified by politicians into a mere keeper of an identity, the very thing he warned us against in his final missive.

Henceforth, Vemula is just ‘that Dalit student who committed suicide’. – Firstpost, 20 January 2016

» Sreemoy Talukdar is a senior editor at Firstpost.

University of Hyderabad

See also

A reductive reading of Santhara – Shiv Visvanathan

Santhara of Muni Jasraj (28 February 2013)

Shiv Visvanathan“The court has held that extinguishing life, sacrificing it or effacing it cannot be considered as acts of dignity. A right to die cannot be a part of a right to life. In constructing such a judgment, the court’s ethno-centricity becomes obvious. It enshrines a piece of Christian theology and Anglo-Saxon law in its response to the logic of Santhara. Eventually, the judgment creates a monologic sense of life and a standardised sense of what death and dying is. In fact, it has missed an opportunity to look at life and death and the ethics of dignity and dying in a creative way.” – Prof Shiv Visvanathan

Charles Dickens: "If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble, "the law is a ass — a idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience." Courts, as institutions of interpretation, intrigue citizens, and often awe them. The dignity of their ritual, the imprimatur of the official, the detailed litany of textual interpretations before a judgment is arrived at, are often impressive. Judgments often have the moral gravitas and the narrative power of a novel. Yet, a badly done judgment, even if it appeals to the secular mind, lacks conviction. One felt that about the judgments around nuclear energy; equally, one senses these limits in the judicial reading of Santhara.

I refer to the Rajasthan High Court’s verdict against Santhara, or the centuries-old Jain practice of voluntarily starving to death. On August 10, 2015, the court’s Jaipur Bench ruled on a public-interest litigation (PIL) filed in May 2006 against the practice. It held that Santhara would henceforth be treated as “suicide” and accordingly made punishable under the relevant sections—Section 309 (attempt to commit suicide) and Section 306 (abetment of suicide)—of the Indian Penal Code. It made its absolute rejection of the Jain philosophy underlying the practice unequivocally clear. An appeal challenging the order has now been filed in the Supreme Court.

A way of life

The word Santhara means a way of life and encompasses a way of dying as well. In Jainism, the body is seen as a temporary residence for the soul which is reborn. One must remember that a word can embrace a multiplicity of worlds and meanings. As a result, translation is one of the most difficult of acts. It demands a delicacy of understanding about words which, in their consequences, can be lethal. Equivalences are welcome when we seek unity but we need a unity that can sustain the multiple senses of difference.

The critical word here is suicide. One is almost tempted to be facetious. I remember that moment of epiphany in the film Sholay when actor Dharmendra, as the character Veeru, standing up on a water tower, tells Basanti (played by Hema Malini) that he will commit suicide. An old man in the crowd asks: “what is suicide?” The answer is profoundly wise. It says when Englishmen kill themselves, the act is called ‘suicide’.

I was struck by this scene as I read the High Court judgment on suicide in the case of Nikhil Soni vs. Union of India. There was an element of irony to it. The scene in Sholay is straight from the 1969 classic, The Secret of Santa Vittoria and yet, in the very moment of mimicry, the movie emphasises the essential drama of difference. The court judgment, while playing with the cultures of difference, eventually succumbs to a reductive act which is textually disappointing.

There are critical nuggets of information in the initial pages. It claims that the Jain attitude to the body is different from the Christian attitude to the body and that Santhara is a ritual farewell to the body; it is an act of non-violence performed as an ethical act. The court hints that for the petitioners, Santhara cannot be suicide. The etymology and the cosmologies are radically different.

The English word ‘suicide’ means a deliberate killing of oneself. The Etymology Dictionary cites W. E. H. Lecky, in a History of European Morals where he writes of the stigma attached to suicide. He claims that even in 1749, “a suicide named Portier was dragged through the streets of Paris with his face to the ground, hung from the gallows by his feet and then thrown into the sewers.” Right from its origins up to the French Revolution, suicide was a mark of stigma of criminality and pollution.

Different narrative

Santhara encapsulates a different narrative. It is a ritual act of purification, done in consultation with a guru, and follows the most detailed of procedures. It cannot be an impulsive act or an egoistic one. It bears the imprimatur of theology and the approval of society.

As India became colonised, many Indian rituals came under the critical Anglo-Saxon lens, and translation and interpretation became a critical part of legal exegesis. Is Santhara a giving up of life or of taking death in one’s stride? For a culture that believes in rebirth, is Santhara philosophically or ethically suicide? The frame widens as the drama becomes sociological because then there will have to be a differentiation made between sati, suicide and Santara.

French sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his Suicide, a groundbreaking book in the field of sociology, basically made a differentiation between three forms of suicide—the anomique [anomie], the egoistic and the altruistic genres of suicide (based on the personalities of people). Anomie is a state of normlessness of rootlessness where an individual commits suicide because nothing binds him. It is associated with social disorganisation and imbalance and Durkheim has tried to illustrate this by giving examples from economic life. Egoistic suicide occurs when the individual feels full of himself. These are suicides committed by persons who are self-centred and to whom self-regard is the highest regard. In altruistic suicide, a person sacrifices himself. It is a form of sacrifice in which a person puts an end to his life by some heroic means in order to promote or further the interest of the cause or idea dear to him. In a sociological sense, altruistic suicide comes closest to Santhara. It is a ritual of giving up the body in times of old age, famine or catastrophe or when an individual feels the need to be closer to cosmic cycles.

As one looks at the colonial interpretation, the critique of sati, where a woman sacrifices herself for her husband, brought condemnation. Santhara was read in a different way as an act of non-violence tuned to the deepest norms of Jain culture.

Prof Shekhar HattangadiLanguage and interpretation

Experts cited indicate that it adds a dignity to dying, where death is in continuum with rebirth. Shekhar Hattangadi, a Mumbai-based professor of constitutional law, has sought to outline some of these conflicts in his award-winning documentary, Santhara: A Challenge to Indian Secularism? But one cannot reduce it to an encounter with colonialism. To place it in the alleged opposition of religion and secularism fails to read it as a failure of language. There is a flatness, a narrowness to the English language which even the presence of James Joyce, William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Shakespeare could not contain. For example, the word ‘corruption’ lacks the multiple senses and the flair of society which invents words like upari, dakshina, seva for a bribe. Santhara is a multivalent term which cannot be reduced to the dreariness of suicide as closure or a termination. The English term cannot comprehend Santhara in terms of being a ritual exit and a rite of passage to a different world. Santhara, performed correctly, is ritual non-violence. In fact, I would feel that the court’s judgment misinterprets both the word and world.

There are doubts about Santhara. Many people have pointed to the coercive, even aspirational aspects of the practice. Witnesses claim that families whose reputations are at stake often refuse to let a person change his mind. There is an aspirational aspect as families of the individual who wishes to observe Santhara get respect and status, so they often tend to advertise the act. Here, Santara is often presented as sati. Its voluntariness is forgotten.

The court had to make a differentiation between Santhara and euthanasia, sati and suicide. It has made brief and superficial attempts to do so. And in this abortive act of comparative sociology, the ritual dignity of Santara has been lost. In the confusion between the literal and the symbol, between a construction of fact and celebration, the meaning is lost.

Santhara PetitionA narrow view

The court—after its abbreviated move through philosophy, ethics, language and law—has reduced the whole to one narrow issue, namely the test of essentiality. It asks where Santhara is an essential tenet of Jainism and declares that it is not. Such a litmus test might work in textbook chemistry but it fails to work in the contextuality and polysemy of culture. The court could have been strict about aberrations or deviations from Santhara but to reduce the ritual act to suicide amounts to an exhibition of illiteracy. The court seems more worried about the debates on euthanasia and sati than about looking at Santhara as a cultural practice with its own repertoire of meanings.

The court claims that some rights can encompass their opposite. The freedom of speech does not compel one to speak. Yet, a right to life does not include the right to die under certain circumstances. Ethics and religion lose out to the wooden definitions of Santhara, which, as a ritual, has qualities of a controlled experiment. The court has held that extinguishing life, sacrificing it or effacing it cannot be considered as acts of dignity. A right to die cannot be a part of a right to life. In constructing such a judgment, the court’s ethno-centricity becomes obvious. It enshrines a piece of Christian theology and Anglo-Saxon law in its response to the logic of Santhara. Eventually, the judgment creates a monologic sense of life and a standardised sense of what death and dying is. In fact, it has missed an opportunity to look at life and death and the ethics of dignity and dying in a creative way. In creating such a standardised theology, the fact of justice becomes secondary. This has wider implications because words in one culture cannot lose their meaning in translation. Language and justice die or are diminished when language is deprived of its right to polysemy and to a multiplicity of meaning. When language is rendered captive, justice loses out in the long run.

The aridity of a reductive secularism often comes out in displays of language. In fact, translation becomes a test of justice. This is the epic tragedy of the Santhara judgment. It conveys the fact that nation states that can inflict and adjudicate death, often feel lost in the complexity of the phenomenon. – The Hindu, 24 August 2015

» Prof Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist who teaches at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy in Sonipat, Haryana.

Jains

Members of the Jain community staging a demonstration in front of the Deputy Commissioner’s offic,e in protest against the Rajasthan High Court judgment on ‘Santhara’, in Belagavi on Monday.

Jains

The flawed reasoning in the Santhara ban – Suhrith Parthasarathy

Rajastan High Court Jaipur

Suhrith Parthasarathy“The Jaina practitioners contend that Santhara is not an exercise in trying to achieve an unnatural death, but is rather a practice intrinsic to a person’s ethical choice to live with dignity until death. These arguments were brushed aside by the Rajasthan High Court. It simply found, based on an incorrect reading of Gian Kaur, that there is no dignity whatsoever in the act of fasting, and that therefore, there exists no freedom to practise Santhara as an extension of one’s right to life under Article 21.” – Suhrith Parthasarathy

The Rajasthan High Court, in a judgment on the August 10, 2015, declared the Jain practice of Santhara, which involves a voluntary fast-unto-death, an offence punishable under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). This decision in Nikhil Soni v. Union of India, is likely to have far-reaching consequences, not only amongst the Jain community in Rajasthan but also across the country. Unfortunately, it conflates several important issues of constitutional law, and symbolises the confusion over the fundamental guarantee of religious freedom in our constitutional jurisprudence.

The court’s judgment is superficially reasoned, misconstrues findings of the Supreme Court, and, most significantly, ignores vital considerations that go to the root of a person’s right to ethical independence.

It is undeniable that Indian secularism—a form quite distinct from western conceptions of the term—envisages the intervention of the state in matters of religion, where general social welfare or substantial civil liberties are at stake. But, what our Constitution, properly interpreted, does not permit is the bestowal of any specific discretion on the courts to tell us which of our beliefs and practices are essential to the following of a religion. By directing the State government to move towards abolishing the practice of Santhara, and by holding that the practice is tantamount to an attempt to commit suicide, punishable under Section 309 of the IPC, the High Court in Nikhil Soni has created a damaging precedent, which requires immediate re-examination.

Santhara, which is increasingly widely practised by Jains in India, is a voluntary tradition of fasting till death, that Jains believe will help them attain ultimate salvation. As pointed out in The Hindu ( “Santhara in the eyes of the law”, August 15) by Shekhar Hattangadi, Santhara is embedded in deeply philosophical beliefs. The practice is premised on a foundational idea that the act of fasting, as an exercise of bodily autonomy, allows a believer to attain a state of utter transcendence. However, the court has now found that such matters of integrity, of choosing how one wants to lead life, do not enjoy any constitutional protection, and that voluntary fasting is nothing but a performance in self-destruction. By any reasonable construction, fasting ought to be considered indistinguishable from an act specifically aimed at ending one’s own life.

Effectively, the judgment in Nikhil Soni is predicated on two primary grounds. First, that the guarantee of a right to life does not include within its ambit a promise of a right to die, and therefore, that the practice of Santhara is not protected by Article 21. Second, that Santhara, as a religious practice, is not an essential part of Jainism, and is hence not protected by Article 25, which guarantees a person’s right to religious freedom and conscience. While on the first ground, the court’s reasoning is difficult to accept, on the second ground, the court’s finding is premised on a wrongly considered doctrine, carved by the Supreme Court in its earliest rulings on the right to freedom of religion.

As the Rajasthan High Court correctly recognises in Nikhil Soni, Section 309, which criminalises the attempt to commit suicide, has been found to be constitutionally valid by the Supreme Court, in 1996, in the case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab. However, the Supreme Court was concerned here primarily with the unnatural extinguishment of life. To die through an act of suicide, the court held, is not an extension, or a recognised corollary, of one’s right to life under Article 21. But contrary to what the High Court holds in Nikhil Soni, as a recent intervention petition filed by the Delhi-based Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy points out, the Supreme Court in Gian Kaur explicitly recognises that a person’s right to life also partakes within its ambit the right to live with human dignity. “…This may include the right of a dying man to also die with dignity when his life is ebbing out,” the court wrote, in Gian Kaur. “But the “right to die” with dignity at the end of life is not to be confused or equated with the “right to die” an unnatural death curtailing the natural span of life.”

Taraben Chovatia, 78 years old, had renounced food in 2008, as part of Santhara.A dignified choice

The Jaina practitioners contend that Santhara is not an exercise in trying to achieve an unnatural death, but is rather a practice intrinsic to a person’s ethical choice to live with dignity until death. These arguments were brushed aside by the Rajasthan High Court. It simply found, based on an incorrect reading of Gian Kaur, that there is no dignity whatsoever in the act of fasting, and that therefore, there exists no freedom to practise Santhara as an extension of one’s right to life under Article 21. But, perhaps, even more damagingly, the court in Nikhil Soni also rejected arguments that sought to locate such liberty in Article 25. Here, though, the folly in its reasoning wasn’t as much a product of its own making, as it was a consequence of a vague doctrine established by the Supreme Court.

Plainly read, Article 25 guarantees to all persons an equal entitlement to freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practise and propagate religion. The right is subject only to public order, morality, and health, and other recognised fundamental rights. However, as the debates in the Constituent Assembly demonstrate, these community exceptions were included purely to ensure that the guarantee of religious freedom did not come in the way of the state’s ability to correct age-old social inequities. It wasn’t the Assembly’s intention to allow organs of state any substantial latitude in determining which religious practices deserved constitutional protection. But, in practice, perhaps out of an anxiety to ensure that the state is not constrained in passing legislation to remedy social evils, the Supreme Court has interpreted Article 25 in a manner that has greatly restricted the scope of religious liberty.

Interpreting religious practices

The court’s constriction of this freedom has been achieved by invoking a rather curious principle: that Article 25 protects only those exercises that are considered “essential religious practices.” Through the 1960s, this doctrine, which was first envisaged in the Shirur Mutt case, decided in 1954, ingrained itself as an integral part of India’s constitutional theory. The court, on a case-by-case basis, often examined individual religious canons to determine what constituted an essential religious practice. Significantly, the court began to examine whether a particular exercise was indispensable to the proper practice of a religion.

This interpretation has allowed the court authority to determine for the people what their religious beliefs and practices, through a correct reading of their religious texts and customs, ought to comprise. Invariably, the determination of what constitutes an essential religious practice, therefore, amounts to a very particular form of moral judgment—a form of cultural paternalism that is quite antithetical to a liberal democracy.

It is this authority, which the High Court in Nikhil Soni, has invoked to rule that the criminalisation of Santhara would not breach a Jain’s right to religious freedom. “We do not find that in any of the scriptures, preachings, articles or the practices followed by the Jain ascetics, the Santhara … has been treated as an essential religious practice, nor is necessarily required for the pursuit of immortality or moksha,” the judgment states. This analysis, as is evident, does not consider whether a person indulging in Santhara performs the act out of an intrinsic belief that the practice flows from his religion, but rather adopts an almost-avowedly paternalistic outlook. It tells followers of Jainism that under a purportedly proper interpretation of their religious texts, Santhara is simply not an essential practice. As a result, the question of whether a Jain’s right to religious freedom is violated by prohibiting Santhara is examined in a wholly unsatisfactory manner.

If, and when, the Supreme Court sits on appeal over the judgment in Nikhil Soni, it must ask the right questions: of whether any social inequities arise out of the practice, of whether any other right of its practitioners are violated through Santhara, of whether the rights of any other person are infracted when a person goes on fast. In so doing, the court must also reconsider its now age-old doctrine of essential practice, which has caused a substantial weakening of the state of religious freedom in India.The Hindu, 24 August 2015

» Suhrith Parthasarathy is an advocate practising at the Madras High Court.

Santhara Petition

Santhara in the eyes of the law – Shekhar Hattangadi

Prof Shekhar Hattangadi“The systematic codification of Indian criminal law … began soon after the colonialists survived the blood-soaked Mutiny of 1857 and formally established the British Raj. The IPC, which forms the bulwark of our criminal jurisprudence, bears an 1860 vintage … and was drafted by Lord Thomas Macaulay who was known to be a devout Christian. Inevitably, … the wily administrator put forth a code that not only set a low threshold of culpability for political dissent and for spreading disaffection against the government … but which also reflected his own deeply held convictions about right-and-wrong, and good-and-evil.” – Prof Shekhar Hattangadi

Jain Hand : The word inside the Dharma Chakra reads That conflicting religious philosophies often propel nations into war has long been a truism of history. But when Samuel P. Huntington gave the oft-used “clash of civilizations” phrase a foreboding—ven menacing—contemporary context during a 1992 lecture in the aftermath of the Gulf War, it’s unlikely that the American political scientist was thinking of an emaciated Jain muni peacefully awaiting death on a bed of dry grass after weeks of starvation.

Although it may seem far from obvious, Huntington’s thesis—that differences in religion and culture would spawn conflict in the post-Cold War world—lies at the root of the angst that has gripped the Jain community following the Rajasthan High Court’s verdict against Santhara. Earlier [Monday, 10 Aug], the court’s Jaipur Bench ruled on a public-interest litigation (PIL) filed in May 2006 against the centuries-old Jain practice of starving to death. It held that Santhara would henceforth be treated as “suicide” and accordingly made punishable under the relevant sections—Section 309 (attempt to commit suicide) and Section 306 (abetment of suicide)—of the Indian Penal Code. In the use of harsher language in its directive to the State—that the latter shall “stop and abolish” the practice “in any form” and register any complaint against it “as a criminal case”—the court made its absolute rejection of the Jain philosophy underlying the practice unequivocally clear. It also unwittingly bared the cultural divide between disparate end-of-life concepts.

During the five-year-long research for my documentary film on this controversy—Santhara: A Challenge to Indian Secularism?—I met several members of the Jain clergy and other lay adherents of the faith as well as scholars who had studied the philosophy of Jainism through its scriptures and rituals. Without an exception, they were all at pains to point out the fallacy of characterizing Santhara as a form of suicide. True, both acts culminate in the self-extinguishment of a human life, but the motivations of the actors are poles apart. Whereas suicide is an act of extreme desperation fuelled by anguish and hopelessness, a Santhara practitioner relinquishing food and drink voluntarily by this method has arrived at that decision after calm and unruffled introspection, with an intent to cleanse oneself of karmic encumbrances and thus attain the highest state of transcendental well-being. Santhara, for him, is therefore simply an act of spiritual purification premised on an exercise of individual autonomy.

Admittedly, dietary abstinence as religious ritual isn’t unique to Jainism. There’s Ramzan among Muslims, Lent among Christians, fasting during Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av among Jews, and a host of astronomy- and astrology-related fasts among Hindus. But none of the others takes fasting to the point of starvation and ultimately death as does Santhara. Since any kind of eating or drinking would result in a disruption (however minimal) of and add a burden (however small) to the natural ecology around them, orthodox Jains consider zero-consumption—i.e. starvation unto death a la Santhara—to be the high-point among the Jain traditions of austerity and self-denial, and therefore the truest real-world act of ahimsa or non-violence, the fundamental tenet of Jainism.

Disregard, for a moment, the radical extremism of the act itself. And contrast its broader theological rationale—which is more or less common to Eastern religions, and which resonates nicely with the basic theory of karma that underlies the beliefs and practices of most Indian religions—with the ecclesiastical values prevalent in the cultures that brought us the forms of governance we presently live with. A conspiracy of history, circumstance and expedient decision-making has resulted in our law-making and law-administering bodies being structured on the Westminster model of our colonial rulers, not to mention our judicial machinery and its key statutes—notably, criminal laws—remaining largely untouched since the time they were first designed by the British and written with their colonial feather-pens. Even the bulk of our Constitution, mulled over for all of three years on the cusp of Independence by worthy home-grown sons and daughters representing a cross-section of our population, was derived from the Government of India Act, 1935 and arguably its most important articles (i.e. those enshrining our Fundamental Rights) were inspired by the American Constitution.

Thomas Babington MacaulayThe concept of suicide associated with religion is a repugnant one for the mainstream Anglo-Saxon West, whose Judeo-Christian beliefs would denounce such an act as antithetical to the moral and ethical principles espoused by Christianity. The systematic codification of Indian criminal law as we know it today began soon after the colonialists survived the blood-soaked Mutiny of 1857 and formally established the British Raj. The IPC, which forms the bulwark of our criminal jurisprudence, bears an 1860 vintage (it came into force two years later) and was drafted by Lord Thomas Macaulay who was known to be a devout Christian. Inevitably, it would appear, the wily administrator put forth a code that not only set a low threshold of culpability for political dissent and for spreading disaffection against the government—which was tacitly welcomed by successive regimes well into the post-Independence era, and which is why it’s still so easy to slap “sedition” cases against innocuous cartoonists—but which also reflected his own deeply held convictions about right-and-wrong, and good-and-evil.

The Crown couldn’t have found a more faithful and capable servant. As a public policy maker, Macaulay had telescoped his personal beliefs into an official document that upheld the “civilizing mission” of his masters while taking care of the everyday chore of maintaining law and order among the unruly “natives” as well as the tricky task of subverting their pagan values. The IPC accomplished the first, and Macaulay’s introduction of English as a medium of instruction in schools and colleges contributed to the second. It paved the way for Christian missionaries to press forward with their conversions mainly among the needy, and with their “convent education” among the aspiring middle-classes. From this large-scale acculturation emerged a new generation of brown sahibs and babus eminently qualified to maintain the institutions of the Raj.

But it also set the ball rolling for a fundamental and deep-seated—albeit seldom articulated—discordance between the Western ideologies that created those institutions and devised their operating norms and procedures, and the Eastern philosophies that shaped the world-view of the people those institutions were meant to serve. Compare, for instance, the singularly focused zeal of a proselytizing religion like Christianity with the Jain tenet of anekantavada (non-absolutism or openness to differing—and even contrasting—opinions and beliefs) or with the inclusive live-and-let-live approach of Hinduism, and you begin to empathize with Rudyard Kipling’s twain-shall-never-meet conundrum.

And the Santhara case serves to emphasize the seemingly irreconcilable difference in perspective on the specific issue of “suicide.” In contrast to a Christian believer who looks upon the human body as a God-given “temple of the human soul” and therefore beyond the realm of willful and deliberate destruction by any human being, a devout Jain views that same body as a “prison of the human soul,” the fulfillment of whose needs corresponds to the accumulation of bad karma.

This basic contradiction between a statute founded largely on a Christian-inspired bioethic and the essentially Eastern variant of the idea of spiritual advancement through abstinence and renunciation rears its head whenever an ancient religious practice like Santhara collides with contemporary law. The conflict becomes particularly glaring in a faith-based society like ours whose polity has embraced norms of governance and administration that are transplants from an alien soil.

What, according to me, remains a significant take-away from the court proceedings in the Santhara case is not so much the petitioner’s—and consequently, though not expressly, the court’s—characterization of the death-ritual as suicide simpliciter masquerading as a religious practice wrapped in the mantle of hoary tradition. That approach could arguably be critiqued as a narrow, unkind and mechanical application of the law. More telling however is the fact, recorded for posterity in the judgment, that the pro-Santhara counsel, seeking to establish the scriptural validity of the practice, recited slokas “to the amusement of the general public sitting in the Court.” Is the recitation of a sloka in an Indian courtroom during the hearing of a case involving the legality of an ancient rite or ritual such an incongruous act that it should invite mirth and derision? Could there be a more vivid illustration of the incompatibility between traditional religion and modern governance?

Which raises the question:

Are countries such as those in Europe, which enforce a strict separation between religion and governance and which discourage public displays of religious festivity, faring any better?

Having painstakingly achieved that ideal—the Church-State divide—through centuries of struggle, these countries are apt to look askance particularly at the Indian nation-state where an avowedly “secular” (the word figures in the Preamble to our Constitution) government regulates religious institutions, subsidizes Haj trips and deploys state resources to safeguard Amarnath Yatra pilgrims.

But times might be changing. Although the conventional idea of secularism in western democracies largely keeps religion out of governance, the influx of immigrants of various faiths into these countries in recent times and their assertive—even militant—stance with regard to their rights of religious practice has made these countries confront the problem anew. The spiky issues of burqa-wearing in France and of circumcision in Germany manifest the same law-religion conflict with which we are grappling here. The unease over Santhara may well be part of a global discontent. – The Hindu, 15 August 2015

» Prof Shekhar Hattangadi is a Mumbai-based professor of constitutional law and an award-winning documentary film maker.

Santhara

The Art of Dying – Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar Etteth“Society has always been afraid of what it cannot fathom. Though holding all life sacred, it perceives unnatural death as a moral faultline; a dark passage to a private hell, deserving stigma. Which is the reason why, many nations outlaw euthanasia. In India, the Hindu understanding of life is based on karmic progression, where an evolved being gives up its breath to merge with the Divine.” –  Ravi Shankar Etteth

Aruna ShanbaugDeath is a grim business and life can be even grimmer. Mankind’s obsession with death and pain is governed by two principles—closure and the expectation of a better afterlife. Last week, the Supreme Court referred the question of making euthanasia legal to a Constitution Bench. It was a change of heart that signifies the evolution of law and society, when the court noted that its previous judgment in March 2011 rejecting a painless farewell for Aruna Shanbaug was delivered on a “wrong premise”. Strangely, passive euthanasia for a person in a permanently vegetative state is already permitted through Regulation 6.7 of the Code of Ethics Regulations, 2002. Society is evolving. Recently, Belgium made euthanasia legal even for minor children suffering unbearable pain.

Pinki ViraniFor 40 years, Shanbaug has existed in a vegetative state in a hospital after violent rape. For mercy activist Pinki Virani, who has been a relentless campaigner for Shanbaug’s release, much hinges on what the Constitution Bench will rule. The law on painless death as an act of compassion is confusing. A 1996 Supreme Court judgment had laid down guidelines to allow “passive euthanasia”—which the Bench led by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam noted lacks clear conclusions, active or passive. Now, the Constitution Bench will examine the issue in its entirety and lay down definite guidelines on assisted death.

Ever since Cain killed Abel, murder has been defined as a subversion of society. One who took the life of another, whether by violence or by the cowardice of poison is declared a threat to society. The right to order death was the exclusive privilege of kings and emperors. Only governments have the right to take a life, acting on behalf of the people. Hence, ironically, one who takes his own life is considered a criminal, and therefore deserves to be imprisoned. The agony caused to a human being is punished for the larger good, goes the theory.

Thomas Babington MacaulayFor this bizarre law—like the many which find pride of place in the Indian Penal Code—we can thank the Christian ethos of the British who ruled India for almost two centuries. The missionary wave that came after the 1857 Mutiny and the Victorian moral blindness the Empire imported to India dictated a colonial life protocol that obeys the Biblical commandment—“Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Earlier, Christianity did not permit suicides to be buried in hallowed ground. No mourning was allowed, and prayers for the unfortunate soul were forbidden. The corpse would be thrown into a pit at the crossroads at midnight, and a wooden stake would be hammered through the body—a treatment usually meted out to suspected vampires and witches. In the mid-13th century, suicide was perceived as “self-murder”; a crime under English common law. Such a death was declared a “Felo de se”—a “felon of himself”. To discourage suicide, the methods were brutal; the Crown took away all belongings and property of family of the victim reducing them to penury.

Society has always been afraid of what it cannot fathom. Though holding all life sacred, it perceives unnatural death as a moral faultline; a dark passage to a private hell, deserving stigma. Which is the reason why, many nations outlaw euthanasia. In India, the Hindu understanding of life is based on Sallekhana : Death by Fastingkarmic progression, where an evolved being gives up its breath to merge with the Divine.

The Victorians had a death guide—The Ars moriendi or The Art of Dying, which was originally written in the 15th century, complete with woodcuts illustrating the rituals and procedures of a ‘good death’—how to ‘die well’. It is now time for a good death for those like Shanbaug. To inherited retrograde Imperial laws, it’s time to say, “Go, for God’s Sake, Go!” And let hopeless ones like Shanbaug go in peace. – The New Indian Express, 2 March 2014

» Ravi Shankar writes a Sunday column for The New Indian Express. Contact him at ravi@newindianexpress.com

See also