[Achyuta Rao, the head of a nongovernment children’s rights group in Hyderabad, got word of Aradhana’s death from an anonymous tip posted to a child welfare chat group. He filed a criminal complaint on Oct. 9, urging the police to charge her parents with murder.]
By Suhasini Raj and Ellen Barry
NEW DELHI — The police in south India are under increasing pressure to take action in the case of a 13-year-old girl who went into cardiac arrest after completing a 68-day religious fast.
The girl, Aradhana Samdariya, who died in the early hours of Oct. 4, was a devoted follower of Jainism, a religion that celebrates radical acts of renunciation.
Child welfare advocates called for her parents and spiritual leader to be prosecuted, saying they encouraged her to continue when the fast had clearly become life-threatening.
The police opened a case into culpable homicide and child cruelty, but they have moved slowly, interviewing her parents only twice and making no move to arrest them.
A child welfare group organized a march on Saturday, calling on the police to arrest the parents and ratchet up the charges to murder. Religious activists pushed for the criminal case to be dismissed.
Aradhana’s death falls in delicate legal territory in India, whose Constitution protects both the individual rights of citizens and the rights of groups to their own religious practices, even extreme ones.
Her father, who owns a jewelry store, has said that he and his wife had tried to persuade the eighth grader to break her fast earlier, but that she had insisted on continuing for 68 days, to match the number of letters in a Jain mantra.
It is also evident, however, that her family was eager to celebrate and publicize her extreme fast.
When Aradhana had completed 68 days of fasting, she was dressed in bridal finery and paraded in a chariot before a crowd of 600, including a member of Parliament from the area. Local Hindi papers carried a quarter-page advertisement that referred to her as a bal tapsvi, or child saint. People took selfies with her. She was so weak at the gala event that photographs show her father carrying her over his shoulder, like a baby.
Late the next night, after she had broken the fast with some liquid, Aradhana began sweating profusely and gasping. The family rushed her to a hospital, where a doctor pronounced her dead of cardiac arrest, her father told the ANI news service.
Her father, Laxmichand Samdariya, has said the fast did not cause her death.
“On the day she broke the fast, she was in fine health,” he told a local news station. “It happened on the 70th day, not even on the day she broke the fast. Nothing like that happened. If that were the case, would we have paid our own child’s life in the line of fire?”
Achyuta Rao, the head of a nongovernment children’s rights group in Hyderabad, got word of Aradhana’s death from an anonymous tip posted to a child welfare chat group. He filed a criminal complaint on Oct. 9, urging the police to charge her parents with murder.
“We say this is daylight murder,” Mr. Rao said. “As per the rituals and for the prosperity of their business, her family egged her on to do this.”
Investigators have interviewed Aradhana’s parents and grandfather, said M. Mattaiah, a police inspector. He said there were as yet no plans to arrest them.
In the meantime, many Jain leaders in the area have rallied around the family, arguing that the state should not interfere in their traditions.
On Saturday, Lalit Sakalchand Gandhi, the president of the All-India Jain Minority Cell, based in the neighboring state of Maharashtra, appealed to Mr. Rao to withdraw his criminal complaint.
“These are our religious rights as per the Constitution, and no one can stop us,” Mr. Gandhi said in an interview.
He added that many observant Jains had undertaken fasts more extreme than Aradhan’s; he said he knew of 13 people who had fasted for 180 days.
Last year, a challenge to Jainism’s most extreme form of fasting — santhara, or a fast unto death — reached India’s Supreme Court, generating debate over when the state should be compelled to interfere in individual religious practice.
Though critics of the practice have compared santhara to suicide, which is illegal under Indian law, Jains cast it as a protected form of worship, and it is most frequently embraced by people who are old or fatally ill. A Supreme Court panel last year appeared sympathetic to that view, suspending a state ban on the practice.
Jains, who number about six million, are a powerful and prosperous sect, dominant in India’s diamond industry. They glorify acts of extreme austerity: Some Jain monks are forbidden to touch money or use electricity, and are taught to pull out their hair as an act of penance.
Adolescent girls are some of the most enthusiastic embracers of diksha, or the renouncing of material things, and diksha ceremonies resemble lavish weddings, with videographers and printed invitations.
Members of Aradhana’s family said she had kept her fast quiet, attending school for almost a month with nothing to eat and only a bottle of boiled water.
“We do not know if her teachers or school principal knew,” her grandfather told The Indian Express. “They never called to inquire or anything.”
Ashok Sanklecha, the president of the Jain Seva Sangh, an organization that oversees Jains in Hyderabad, said Aradhana had visited the family’s spiritual guru every day to demonstrate that she could safely continue her fast.
“She was very healthy,” Mr. Sanklecha said. “She had completed her 68 days in normalcy.”
He said his organization would “stand by the parents,” who he said came from “a reputed Jain family.”
“What hurts us most as Jains is that this practice has been followed for thousands of years,” he said. “The practice is not faulty. At an individual level, if this happens, what can the community do?”
Follow Suhasini Raj @suhasiniraj and Ellen Barry @EllenBarryNYT on Twitter.