[lg policy] India: Suicides, Some for Separatist Cause

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Wed Mar 31 15:34:20 UTC 2010

Suicides, Some for Separatist Cause, Jolt India

Published: March 30, 2010

HYDERABAD, India — Sai Kumar Meegada, a 20-year-old straight-A
chemical engineering student at a prestigious university here, came
home from breakfast one morning early this month, slipped a length of
clothesline around his neck, tied it to the ceiling fan in his dorm
room and hanged himself.

Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

The brother and mother of Savera Begum say she killed herself in the
name of Telangana, an Indian region seeking statehood.
Enlarge This Image

Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
A poster memorializes Karunakar, who killed himself in Andhra Pradesh,
India, in for the Telangana cause in January.
“For the people of Telangana, this is my final salute,” said a note he
left, referring to the decades-old struggle to create a separate
region in Andhra Pradesh, a large state in southern India. “My final
and last request is take my body to the legislative assembly.

With that, Mr. Meegada became one of a surprising number of people —
many of them young and educated, with bright futures awaiting them —
to have committed suicide over the battle to carve out India’s 29th
state. Some estimates have attributed more than 200 suicides to the

But these politically motivated deaths are just one aspect of a
troubling trend. Suicide has become something of a phenomenon in
India, especially in the south, which now has one of the highest
suicide rates in the world — a fact that has both puzzled and alarmed
public health experts. Suicides by indebted farmers are frequently
reported in the news media and pointed to as a sign that India has
forgotten its rural poor. But according to Indian government
statistics, bankruptcy or poverty provoke less than 5 percent of
Indian suicides. A family conflict, a broken love affair or an illness
is a more likely spur.

Then there are politics. The number of ideologically motivated
suicides in India doubled between 2006 and 2008, the last year for
which statistics were available, according to the government. While
the overall number remains small, mental health experts say these
deaths illustrate the increasing stress on young people in a nation
where, elections notwithstanding, the masses often feel powerless.
“Young people see this as a way to give meaning to what seem like
meaningless lives,” said Sudhir Kakar, a prominent psychoanalyst and
novelist who has written extensively about mental health in India. “It
is a way to become a hero, to take a stand.”

Suicide is generally considered taboo in Hinduism, the religion of
most Indians, because it disrupts the cycle of reincarnation that is
central to the soul’s progress, Mr. Kakar said. But the willingness to
die for a cause, as exemplified by Gandhi’s epic fasts during the
struggle for independence, is seen as noble and worthy. Ancient
warriors in Tamil Nadu, in southeastern India, would commit suicide if
their commander was killed, Mr. Kakar said. And the practice of sati,
or widow burning, although outlawed, remains a potent symbol of wifely

In modern, democratic India, however, such drastic measures seem like
a bizarre and troubling throwback that has shattered many families.
The political causes that spur multiple suicides can seem remarkably
provincial. When Andhra Pradesh’s popular chief minister, Yeduguri
Sandinti Rajasekhara Reddy, died in a helicopter crash last year, the
news media reported suicides by dozens of his supporters, though such
reports are difficult to verify.

Other suicide epidemics have had nothing to do with politics. When a
gangster kidnapped the Indian actor Rajkumar, one of the biggest stars
of Kannada-language films, in 2000, it was reported that dozens of his
fans had committed suicide out of despair for their hero’s safety. The
fight for statehood for Telangana, an inland region that sees itself
as marginalized by coastal elites, gained attention when a fast
brought the movement’s leader, K. Chandrasekhara Rao, to the brink of
death in December.

Since then, confusing political brawling has left the region’s
statehood hopes in limbo, but dozens of young people besides Mr.
Meegada, the engineering student, have succumbed to the emotional pull
of the issue. M. Sunil Kumar was a 25-year-old reporter at a local
newspaper in the provincial town of Warangal. His older brother Anil
had dropped out of high school to run the family’s mutton shop when
their father died so that Sunil could go to college.

Mr. Kumar apparently became obsessed with the statehood movement,
attending every meeting of the local activist group. One day in early
March, the family went to a distant temple, but Mr. Kumar stayed
behind. His mother discovered him hanging from a beam, one of her
shawls around his neck.

“I am sacrificing my life for Telangana, to wake up our leaders,” he
wrote in a suicide note. But his family has also sacrificed, losing
not only a son but also their biggest breadwinner. “I lost my son
because of Telangana,” his mother, Swarupa, wailed. “Don’t burn your
mother’s womb,” she shouted, imploring other statehood supporters not
to commit suicide. Nevertheless, local political leaders have
exploited Mr. Kumar’s death. Outside the family’s two-room house hangs
a banner with Mr. Kumar’s photograph superimposed over his suicide
note. “Those who commit suicide for Telangana, we salute you,” the
text on the poster says. “Wake up people and fight for Telangana.”

Political leaders of the movement said that they tried to discourage
young people from committing suicide. “We tell them, don’t die for
Telangana, live and fight for Telangana,” Mr. Rao said. But other
leaders seem less wary about celebrating suicide for the cause. “They
are real heroes,” said Peddi Sudarshan Reddy, a member of the
governing council of the main pro-statehood party. “But we are not
glorifying that heroism.”

Glory is perhaps what Karunakar, 20, a lower-caste eighth-grade
dropout, was looking for when he doused himself in kerosene and set
himself alight in January. He instantly became an icon in his village.
A poster of him in a tough, Bollywood-style pose of defiance hangs in
the village square, next to a small temple to the monkey god Hanuman.
In life, he was unheralded: a day laborer who grew up in a part of
town notorious for prostitution. In death, he was a hero.

“He was all the time talking of Telangana, Telangana, Telangana,” said
his 70-year-old grandfather, Musku Hanumanthu. “I tried to persuade
him not to get too involved. But he used to say, ‘I will sacrifice
everything for Telangana.’ ” He survived for three days in the
hospital, expressing no regrets despite the pain of his burns, his
grandfather said. “Even in the hospital he kept saying, ‘Long live
Telangana,’ ” Mr. Hanumanthu said.

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

[Moderator's note: although the Telangana statehood issue is not a
language policy issue per se, it is a reaction
against the original formation of a Telugu-speaking state, which arose
out of the first protests in post-Independence
India in favor of linguistic states.  Sri Ramulu fasted to the death
for a Telugu-speaking state (Andhra Pradesh), so
this is a reaction against that.  (HS)]



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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