Updated: September 19, 2015 12:11:59 am
An age-old Jain ritual of santhara was declared illegal by the Rajasthan High Court in August this year. Until then, most people outside the community had little idea of the tradition in which a person voluntarily chooses to die by starvation or, spiritually speaking, renounces the world by merging the physical with the universe. As the debate between the right to life and death rages in legal, intellectual and theological circles, a Mumbai-based law professor and filmmaker Shekhar Hattangadi provides a wide-angle view of the issue through his documentary, Santhara: A Challenge to Indian Secularism?
The 25-minute film unfolds like a book, with white screens breaking the narrative into chapters titled Jainism and its Adherents, What is Santhara? and The Jain Establishment on Santhara and Suicide. Each chapter contains interviews with an expert, ranging from a Jain sadhvi to a medico-legal professional. Nikhil Soni, the litigant against santhara in the Rajasthan High Court and his lawyer Madhav Mitra appear in the chapter Santhara: The litigation. Among the only other visuals in the film are photographs of white-clad Sadhvi Mainibai lying on the floor, surrounded by nuns, as she undergoes santhara in 2006. She died in 15 days.
Hattangadi’s previous film Teen Behnein dealt with three sisters from Kanpur who had committed suicide to free their parents from the burden of dowry. Santhara has won awards at film festivals in Bangalore and Kolkata and will be screened as part of the Woodpecker Film Festival in Delhi on September 20. Excerpts from an interview:
Santhara is surprising for what it leaves out. There are no visuals of anybody undergoing santhara at present or a description of the process.
I deliberately decided to drain the sensationalism and emotionalism from this practice. It was screaming to be shown in its experiential dimensions, with its intense emotions of extreme hunger and religious passion. I did not want to make a tearjerker. I said, ‘Let me look at the issue from the perspective of objectivity. This is Jainism, this is ritual of Jainism, this is what the court has said and this is what the litigants are saying’. It wasn’t an easy job because there are too many raw facts and they are too raw.
Was the film a response to the Rajasthan High Court ruling?
The film began when I was assigned as a part-time lecturer in Mumbai to teach Constitutional Law. I had been seeing cases of santhara reported in Mumbai newspapers. I came to know there was this PIL filed in the Rajasthan High Court against santhara and I took that clipping to class and we discussed it. It was a lively topic to debate in class and everybody got very involved and, for two sessions, we discussed only santhara. For me, the takeaway was that here was something that I wanted to explore and I started searching on my own. I went to Rajasthan, I met with the litigants, I met the Jain sadhvis who help in administering santhara, and I came to Delhi and talked to Constitutional experts.
The interviewees are very comfortable with the camera, including the monks.
The camera part came much later. I started this exploration in 2010. This is an issue about which people were not going to talk easily and, definitely, not easily on camera. Finally, after five years I had earned enough trust and confidence. I have written a lot about santhara in journals as well as the popular press. I told them, ‘You can continue talking, I will put a camera behind me’. The Jain priesthood was a little wary but, once they knew my approach, they said ‘go ahead, shoot’ and I shot.
There is only one line telling the audience that Nikhil Soni, the litigant against santhara, had witnessed abuse of the ritual while growing up. Why didn’t you elaborate?
He grew up in a district called Churu in Rajasthan which, in one of my articles, I have called the santhara capital of the world because it has the largest per capita incidents of santhara. His contention is that, at least some of these are coerced. There is an old woman in the family, she has been detected with cancer, the doctor says, ‘You can spend three lakh or five lakh in palliative treatment but she is going to die anyway’. So, according to Soni, these people would lock the woman up and tell the world that she has taken santhara. And then, in the last throes, when she is yelling for food and drink, they bring a bhajan mandali to make a noise so that her cries are drowned out. I just touch on it but not explore it because there was no way to explore it. There is no documented evidence or FIR.
What is the correct process of santhara and how common is it?
Media reports say there are 200 santharas a year, the figure in Mumbai is even higher if you approach some Jain organisations. I went to a digambar Jain monk and he told me something interesting. He said legitimate santharas or official santharas were just 10 or 12 a year. In an official santhara, if you are a Jain and think that your innings in this world is over and you want to depart in a benign way by not disturbing anybody, you go to the head of your Jain samaj and you make a proposal for santhara. That proposal is screened very strictly. They want to ensure that you are not taking santhara because you are running away from some responsibilities or you have debts you can’t clear. They check if you are temperamentally suited to undertake this severe practice. Most proposals are rejected. When a proposal is passed, the person comes under the wing of the orthodoxy and they monitor the santhara all the way to the death. They assign a person to take care of the daily needs of the one undergoing santhara, there is a person who sings inspiration hymns so that the person’s fortitude is
Do you have details you couldn’t incorporate in the film?
There is a place outside Mumbai, an area called Mira Bhayandar, where there are serial santharas. Somebody takes a santhara and dies, somebody else starts taking a santhara and dies and so on.
The film will be screened at Siri Fort Auditorium, Delhi, on September 20, 12 pm.
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