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Opinion - News Analysis

Politics and suicides

Tamil Nadu has the dubious distinction of pioneering a fiery form of protest, self-immolation writes Radha Venkatesan.

AS THE villagers of Kizhapazhuvur in Tamil Nadu's Tiruchi district looked on in shock, Chinnasamy, a poor farmer, set fire to his petrol saturated body on the eve of Republic Day in 1965 for the cause of the Tamil language. After his "martyrdom", the State became the pioneer of a new, fiery form of political protest: self-immolation. The next night, another Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam volunteer, T. M. Sivalingam of Kodambakkam in Chennai, immolated himself, protesting the Centre's imposition of Hindi on Dravidian land. And, the next day, Aranganathan of Virugambakkam in Chennai took the same route to death for the same cause. The spate of suicides over Hindi imposition continued for the next one week that year leaving as many as nine persons dead, and Tamil Nadu came to be labelled the land of self-immolation.

The "Chinnasamy effect" continues even now with as many as 1,584 people committing self-immolation last year and another 1,451 in 2000, possibly the highest in South India. And, what started as a means of protest among the political underclass in the 1960s, turned into a ghastly expression of political loyalty in the 1980s and in recent times, a sure-fire answer to their personal problems.

In a dangerous new trend, the spectre of suicide has invaded the State's seat of power, Fort St.George as well, with people flocking there with bundles of petitions and bottles of poison and petrol. In the last three months alone, three persons killed themselves at the Secretariat while another seven who attempted suicide were saved in time. But, the petition show continues with a counselling centre to treat the "depressed" petitioners.

But, psychiatrists and political analysts say, the problem lies in political parties and successive Governments offering ``incentives'' for suicides. And, it is true. The suicide attempts at the Secretariat sharply rose this April after the Chief Minister offered "on compassionate grounds" a generous package of Rs. 1 lakh and a job for the daughter of a couple who took their lives at the Secretariat on March 27.

As a political commentator points out, the "peculiar trend" of deification of political leaders in the State has also contributed to the political suicides. In 1965, the "language martyrs" were immortalised by the DMK leadership through staging of plays on Chinnasamy, naming of a subway after Aranganathan in T.Nagar and a park after Sivalingam.

A couple of years later, when DMK leader and then Chief Minister, C. Annadurai, died there was another rash of suicides. But, it was for the matinee idol-turned Chief Minister, M. G. Ramachandran, that the most number of people plunged into a suicidal show of loyalty. It began in October 1972, when two persons took their lives protesting the suspension of MGR from the DMK. A decade-and-a-half later, when MGR fell sick and was rushed to the U.S. for treatment, a mass hysteria gripped the State with over 100 people attempting self-immolation. When MGR died after a prolonged illness on December 24, 1987, 31 persons ended their lives. The DMK president, M. Karunanidhi, too has drawn suicidal devotion from party cadres, though on a much smaller scale. When he was arrested in 1986 after another spurt in anti-Hindi protests 21 persons died, most of them through self-immolation. "These sort of suicides will not stop unless all leaders jointly denounce the practice and refuse to give relief to the victims families," asserts Lakshmi Vijayakumar of the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

Apart from political suicides, the number of apolitical commoners killing themselves is clearly on the rise in the State. With cruelly surging economic disparities, rampant industrial recession and continuing dowry harassments, as many as 11,290 people killed themselves last year, accounting for one-tenth of the nation's suicidal deaths.

Sadly, more women in Tamil Nadu, as in most parts of the country, burn themselves to death. While a considerable are suspected cases of homicide, psychiatrists say there are historical, cultural and social reasons for women setting themselves alight. "Apart from the fire being a purifying symbol, women possibly feel their death should pass off as an accident so that the family does not suffer in shame," says a counsellor.

And, another depressing trend is youth, particularly students, falling prey to suicidal tendencies. Last summer, as many as 185 students in Tamil Nadu who failed in their exams either hanged themselves or drank poison, bringing a tragic end to their lives.

With exam results out now, Sneha, the free-counselling centre for people with suicidal tendencies, is working round-the- clock. "We receive at least 20 calls a day. They cry out for help. But, we don't fire questions or lecture to them. We empathise, and that helps them," says Sneha director, Ram. In a State where on an average over 30 persons commit suicide every day, Sneha's helplines, it appears, will be busy forever.

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