India's top court suspends ban on Jains fasting to death

Rajesh Jain, (centre), one of the lawyers representing the Jain community, talks to the media after the Supreme court judgement on "Santhara" in New Delhi on Aug 31, 2015.
Rajesh Jain, (centre), one of the lawyers representing the Jain community, talks to the media after the Supreme court judgement on "Santhara" in New Delhi on Aug 31, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's Jain community scored a legal victory on Monday when the Supreme Court temporarily lifted a ban on the traditional ritual of Santhara, or fasting to death.

Thousands of Jains protested across India last week after a court in the western state of Rajasthan ruled that Santhara was a form of suicide, which is illegal in India.

Jainism is an ancient ascetic religion whose followers adhere so closely to the principles of non-violence that many do not even eat root vegetables because uprooting them could harm tiny creatures living in the soil.

Rajesh Jain, a lawyer representing the community, said the court had issued a temporary stay order on the ban pending a full hearing into a legal challenge by Jain groups.

Community leaders welcomed the ruling and said it would give them time to make their case to the Supreme Court.

"Our principles have won. The Supreme Court has stayed the order," the vice president of the Jain Conference, Subhash Oswal, told media outside the court.

Only a small minority of Jains, estimated at a couple of hundred every year, take the vow to give up food and water as a way of embracing death.

But those who do are held in huge esteem by the community and thousands protested the ban in Rajasthan, saying it violated their constitutional rights to practise their religion.

In December the Indian government said it would decriminalise attempted suicide, but the law has yet to be amended.

India, a Hindu-majority country, is also home to large numbers of religious minorities including 4.2 million Jains, according to 2011 census figures.

The religion's philosophical roots are based in ancient India and are inspired by the same principles of tolerance that influenced freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi.