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For 25 days, Aradhana Samdhariya went to St Francis School in Secunderabad with just a bottle of boiled water. A Class VIII student, it was her breakfast and lunch. Some of her classmates knew she was on fast, but did not know she ate no food at all and was surviving only on those few gulps of water. This fact was known only to her family, relatives and close friends. After the first week of fasting, she became withdrawn and lost interest in studies. Back at her home in Kot Market, she watched TV, lay around, drank more boiled water for dinner, and went off to sleep. From the 26th day of her fast, Aradhana stopped going to school altogether.
Her parents didn’t object. Her mother and sister dressed her up every day like a princess, while she recited religious texts. Her father, Lakshmichand Samdhariya, owns the Arihant Jewellers showroom in Kot Market.
On Saturday, news that the 13-year-old had died after fasting for 68 days left the city in shock and the Jain community stunned. Aradhana died early October 4, two days after she had broken her fast.
After an NGO, Child Rights Sangham, approached the Hyderabad Police Commissioner, an inquiry was ordered. Aradhana’s parents and grandparents have been summoned for questioning.
A spokesperson at KIMS Hospital said Aradhana died of a cardiac arrest while being brought to hospital. After breaking her fast, she had been on a liquid diet for two days when her condition deteriorated. “In the wee hours of October 4, she fell unconscious probably because her blood pressure and other vital parameters dipped. She was emaciated and weak and several factors led to a cardiac arrest while she was being brought to the hospital. All we could do was give a death certificate,” the hospital told The Sunday Express.
A police official who questioned the family on the moments before the girl collapsed said that though Aradhana appeared to be sinking, the family didn’t call a doctor but advised her to take rest.
After her death, the affluent Samdhariya family held a grand funeral procession called ‘shoba yatra’, attended by hundreds. Members of the Rajasthani Marwari Jain community as well as business friends of the family attended the funeral. Aradhana was cremated with much fanfare.
Her grandfather Manikchand Samdhariya denied on Saturday that they had “hidden” the matter, ensuring that Aradhana’s extreme fasting leading to her death remained known only to a close few in the community, as is being alleged now.
“A few of her friends knew about her fasting. We do not know if her teachers or school principal knew. They never called to enquire or anything. Her father once sent a message that she was unwell, that is all. If anyone asked her sister, she told them Aradhana was doing a religious duty. We did not try to hide it from anyone. Everyone knew,” said Manikchand.
Police sources and family friends told The Sunday Express that Aradhana’s father Lakshmichand encouraged his two daughters to participate in such religious activities, earning him pride within his community. While St Francis is among Secunderabad’s top-most schools, Lakshmichand didn’t insist they go regularly because religious education at home was a priority.
A relative said that during the summer school vacations this year, Aradhana was packed off for two months to a school in the Parswanath Tirth at Patan in Gujarat, where disciples enroll to attain monkhood.
Aradhana started the fast on July 26 with 68 days during the Jain holy months as target, with each day representing an alphabet and shloka in a religious text.
Family members said Aradhana wasn’t forced but was religiously inclined since childhood. In 2014, she fasted for eight days; in 2015, for 34 days. Manikchand said she was adamant on completing the 68-day fast. “I and her father objected at first. She could not have survived so many days, we knew that, but it was either allowing her to fast or promising to let her take diksha at a later stage, which we did not want.”
Aradhana’s younger sister also fasts during holy months every year.
Dinesh Jain, a close relative of the Samdhariyas, claimed that Aradhana never appeared weak or tired. “There was a glow and radiance on her face. We never had to call a doctor. Strength was God’s gift to her.”
Every day, family members said, a few of them would visit Aradhana, bless her and say a few encouraging words.
Inspector M M Muttaiah of Market Police Station said, “The family does not see her death as a form of suicide, or that they had abetted it. Both parents are very religious and are said to be preparing to renounce everything and become monks.”
However, a senior Jain leader who knows the Samdhariya family well pointed out that it is “very rare for a Jain family to allow a minor to fast for so many days”. “Unfortunately, for a few members in the community, religious activities are a source of pride. Samdhariya is one of them. This was all done for prestige and standing in society.”
Among the larger Marwari Jain and Kutchi Jain community too, there is outrage since the circumstances of her death became known. “In some families, children fast for eight days. I am surprised Aradhana was allowed to fast for 68 days. Not only was she a minor but a human body cannot sustain for so long,” said Narendra Surana, who heads the Rajasthani Jain association.
Zaheerabad MP Bheemrao Patil, who attended the function organised by the Samdhariya family to mark the breaking of Aradhana’s fast, told The Sunday Express, “It was described to me as a very prestigious function having a lot of religious significance because the girl had made so much sacrifice. I wondered about the 68 days of fasting, but I was busy and I just blessed her and left.”