Ajaz Ashraf


Then, like now, the government attempted to attribute the suicides to personal difficulties. To buy those stories would be to ignore the deep structural problems that have caused acute rural distress.


The apparent suicide of Gajendra Singh Kalyanvat at the Aam Aadmi Party rally in Delhi on Wednesday (April 22 – eds.) is reminiscent of the self-immolations committed in protest against the implementation of reservations for OBCs in 1990. Then as now, a self-inflicted death has become the feeble scream of the helpless, amplified through extensive media coverage.


Suicide has long used by the relatively marginal to arouse the conscience of the powerful. It is irrelevant whether the cause espoused by the protestor courting death is justified. This is not always the case: for instance, in 1990, the approximately 152 upper-caste students who tried to resort to self-immolation were attempting to preserve their privileges and deny OBCs an equal share of opportunity. It is also true that in those months of fiery deaths, upper-caste students did indeed feel powerless.


From this perspective, it is pertinent to dismiss those who ascribe the suicide of Gajendra Singh to his disturbed state of mind. Singh may have been mentally fragile, but in choosing to hang himself at a public rally, a veritable theatre of protest, he consciously injected political meanings into his personal anguish and death.


The Aam Aadmi Party rally was being held to protest against the Modi government’s ordinance on land acquisition. This context has forged a link between Singh’s suicide and the ordinance, the provisions of which also constitute the Bill that was introduced in Parliament on Monday. On the day Gajendra committed suicide publicly, the Confederation of Indian Industry issued a press release describing the Bill as “pro-farmer” and “pro-growth”.


Reflections of Mandal


Not only does the death of Gajendra mock such descriptions, it demonstrates that the government’s measures have both supporters and opponents, as had been the case during the anti-Mandal protests of 1990.  Singh’s body will become the symbol of sacrifice for those who oppose the land Bill, as Rajiv Goswami became for anti-reservationists. Goswami was the first person who set himself ablaze during the protests against the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, but survived the ordeal to live for another 14 years. His abortive self-immolation, however, triggered copycat suicides around the country.


Singh’s suicide also reflected the agrarian anguish and the precarious nature of life in rural India. This we can infer from the suicide note in which he cites the destruction of his crops because of unseasonal rain as the reason for his action. The existence of agrarian anguish is reiterated by the statistics on the increasing incidence of suicide by farmers.


But never before has suicide by a farmer received such extensive media coverage. It is arguably because Singh chose to make his death a spectacle, to be filmed by TV cameras. Not for him a self-inflicted death in isolation. Would media houses have cared to send their crews to his village in Rajasthan’s Dausa district?


His choice of venue to die suggests two aspects of India’s contemporary reality – no protest is effective unless it is played on TV, and that to be featured in the media, protesters must reach where journalists are. This is why Singh came to the media hub of Delhi to die. His death mocks the insensitivity of us journalists, too.


We must now fear the future. In his seminal study of suicide in 1897, social thinker Emile Durkheim noted that imitation leads to a spurt in self-inflicted deaths. People teetering on the brink, sharing the same distressing socio-economic situation in a given area, tend to copy the first person to voluntarily embrace death.


Fear of imitation


You hope villagers reeling under the agrarian crisis will not begin to imitate Singh’s spectacular death. Through his tragic act, he has conveyed to rural India the possibility of turning suicide into a protest, which holds out a greater meaning for the rulers when it occurs in the city.


A person who thinks suicide is a release from crushing debt may now be tempted to simultaneously turn his death into a cause célèbre. It might, if nothing else, prompt the government to provide relief to the deceased’s family members. Singh’s death conforms to Durkheim’s model of anomic suicide, which is ascribed to a breakdown in societal and moral codes during economic upheaval. Confusion grips people, even the relatively prosperous, because their economic status is incessantly fluctuating.


Singh was not economically impoverished, given that his family owned 50 bighas of land and a pucca house. Yet it seems he couldn’t cushion himself against the blow of crop failure for even a season. His death tells you how fraught rural existence has become in the post-liberalisation, post-Green Revolution period, during which suicide became noticeably frequent. His participation in the AAP rally, and his suicide there, suggests he did indeed think the Modi government’s ordinance on land would push rural India to the precipice.


His death was a declaration to the Modi government that the ordinance facilitating the appropriation of land for industry is grossly unjust, which was precisely what the self-immolation of Rajiv Goswami had conveyed to the VP Singh government of 1990.  Gajendra Singh, willy-nilly, has become the Modi government’s Goswami.


The government will now attempt to script a new narrative around Singh. It will be said that he was mentally unstable or his personal problems were the source of his anguish. It will claim that Singh anyway wanted a release from life, and its problems, but sought to rationalize to himself the morally reprehensible act of suicide as dying for a cause, for the benefit others.


Inspiration of martyrs


This was true also of some of those who immolated themselves to register their protest against Mandal. A protest movement draws inspiration from its martyrs. Indeed, the narrative countering martyrdom rarely persuades those who are wedded to the cause for which the person dies. It is they who appropriate his death and ensure his death isn’t in vain. Gajendra Singh has become an eloquent symbol for the opponents of the Land Bill, precisely the constituency Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to steer away from the path of resistance.


In this context, there remains a debate about whether Singh’s death was an accident or suicide. Some have claimed that his legs slipped off the branch of the tree on which he was sitting with the noose around his neck and he inadvertently hanged himself. He did drop a note in which he had wanted to know how he could return to the village where his crop had been destroyed. Did he want to remain alive to return to his home? Or was it his way of explaining his suicide? This question will never be answered.


But the opponents of the Land Bill will not buy this script. They will not let his death acquire the ordinariness of an accident, which is what the Modi government will want.


The competition to produce various narratives is perhaps why we also need to examine the live media coverage from Ground Zero. The television cameras immediately turned the focus from the cause for which Singh died to the conduct of AAP leaders on the stage. Ignoring their own inhumanity in focusing on his suspended body or reading from his purported suicide note, TV anchors hypocritically began to berate AAP leaders for proceeding with the rally. Should they not have also turned their morality microscopes on themselves and halted the live telecast from the venue?


Careful choice of venue


It’s also important to speculate why Singh, who was not a member of AAP, chose to die at a rally by the rally. He had the option of committing suicide at the one the Congress had held against the Land Bill days ago. Perhaps Singh chose the AAP rally because he was said to have been enamored of its leader, Arvind Kejriwal. Or perhaps he thought it was easier to die at a place unlikely to have forbidding security. Or because the AAP rallies are inherently theatrical, he thought it was suited to turning his death into a spectacle of protest.


It is also tempting to see in Singh the kind of people who are attracted to AAP. I am reminded of a conversation I had at the tea shop last October near the NOIDA office of the HarperCollins publishing firm. Those at the teashop were voters in Delhi. They thought Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party would sweep the Delhi assembly polls whenever it was held. So you all would vote for the BJP? I asked. No, they said. What’s the point of voting AAP if you all think it is bound to lose? One of them said, to the furious nodding of others, said, “All those tormented by their lives will vote AAP.”


The motivations for suicide by people like Singh, Durkheim told us a century ago, needs to be tracked to the social structures. This is something the Modi government needs to know and something we all too need to understand. In this sense, we were all responsible for Singh’s suicide.


( 4/24/2015)

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