Aradhana Samdhariya’s life didn’t end dramatically, the way the stories that get the media attention do. Her quiet death last week is, however, the most searing indictment of the brutalities millions of our children are subjected to. For 68 days, all those charged with the 13-year-old’s safety — her community, her school, and above all, her parents — watched as the child fasted, drinking nothing but water. Aradhana’s father, a well-known Hyderabad jeweller, had suffered business losses; the family encouraged what they insist was a voluntary fast, evidently believing their only daughter’s self-mortification would restore their fortunes. By all accounts, the spectacle of the fasting girl won the family considerable social status; local political notables are reported to have visited the family as Aradhana fasted, and thousands turned out for her last rites. Forced to act, by pressure from non-governmental organisations and the media, the Hyderabad Police has arrested Aradhana’s parents, accusing them of culpable homicide. Though the action is welcome, it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
It is profoundly misleading to cast Aradhana’s death as the outcome of her family’s ultra-orthodox Jain beliefs. Her parents’ beliefs notwithstanding, there were institutions of the state which should have stepped in. Aradhana, a minor, had no legal right to starve herself; in India, attempting suicide is illegal. Yet, the police did nothing to ensure her fast was terminated. Individuals in the community, including the local MP, visited the home while the fast was underway, and gave it their blessings. The murder happened in public, it had many accessories.
For years now, India has had a legal framework to prevent such outrages. It is a signatory to a UN convention guaranteeing wide-ranging protections to children. There is legislation guaranteeing every child a meal each day; laws guaranteeing there will be no corporal punishment in schools or homes; legislation promising children perpetrators of violence against them will be severely punished. Yet, we know from a 2007 government study that one in two Indian children experiences severe physical abuse, and one in seven sexual violence. Every day, Indian children go hungry and without basic medical care. There are institutions meant to protect these children when the police and community fail, like the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights — but, as in Aradhana’s case, they are generally conspicuous by their absence. India desperately needs an independent institutional mechanism to enforce the rights of children. Letting violence and deprivation rule the lives of our children will ensure a society where savagery is the norm.