Screengrab: Sakshi TV
Vignesh (2016), Senkodi (2011), Muthukumar (2009).
The list goes back to Chinnaswami (1964).
They have four things in common – they died during political protests, they set themselves on fire, they were in their twenties, and they were hailed as martyrs.
The history of political suicides in Tamil Nadu dates to a time before the state got its name – in the 1950s, a man fasted to death to campaign for the renaming of Madras State.
But the first recorded self-immolation is that of Chinnaswami, who was 27 when he killed himself at an anti-Hindi agitation in 1964 – his death was made even more controversial by allegations that, while he threatened to kill himself by dousing himself with kerosene, it was another protester who lit the match.
Nevertheless, he was hailed a ‘language martyr’, the first of his ilk.
This set off a spate of copycat suicides, with five Tamils dying from self-immolation over the next year, in the interest of preventing the imposition of Hindi.
This cemented self-immolation as the road to political martyrdom in the state, with people setting themselves on fire from rage and grief – there were suicides when Annadurai and MGR died; there were suicides and attempted suicides even when leaders were suspended from their parties or arrested.
Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have been the states where the highest numbers of suicides were recorded for at least five years. While most suicides in Maharashtra are attributed to farmers in debt, the case in Tamil Nadu is different – the highest number of self-immolations in India is recorded in the state, and most of them are for political causes.
Though there is no logical correlation between killing oneself and fighting for a political demand, these young people are celebrated as ‘martyrs’ by the parties to which they belong, or parties which have embraced the causes for which they claimed to be ‘sacrificing’ their lives.
Psychiatrists and academics have theorised that this posthumous celebrity status may be a contributing factor in the inevitable spate of suicides that follow theirs, as well as in establishing self-immolation as a form of protest.
Vignesh was 26 years old. He was not even born when the tussle over Cauvery water between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka broke out. He had no direct stake in the decision at which the Supreme Court was to arrive a few days later. Even if he had had a stake in it, his death rendered it all pointless.
When Senkodi set herself on fire in front of the tehsil office in Kanchipuram, demanding the commuting of the death penalty for the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case, she was 20 years old. She would have been a few months old when Rajiv Gandhi was killed.
Muthukumar was 26 when he killed himself to protest against the treatment of Sri Lankan Tamils in 2009. He would have been a year old when the Sri Lankan Civil War began.
What could possess someone to wipe out several decades of one’s life?
These youths were not martyrs. They were misguided.
They were led to believe, either by precedent or persuasion, that their suicides would have an impact on the issues for which they were fighting.
They were led to believe that their deaths were in the interest of a cause.
They were led to believe they were making the ultimate sacrifice to achieve something.
If they knew how futile their deaths proved, would they have taken that step?
To die by fire is among the most painful ways of dying. What were they trying to express in choosing this form? That the headlines it would make was worth enduring levels of pain for which no one could possibly be prepared, because that was what it would take to draw attention to a cause? That setting themselves on fire was the only way they could externalise the pain they were suffering already? Does the name of a state, or the allocation of water, or the sentence of a convict to whom they have no personal connection, matter so much that it can cause such pain?
After each of these deaths, the political establishment makes all the right noises. The party leaders beg their workers not to kill themselves; they say self-immolation must be discouraged. But calling someone who immolates oneself a ‘martyr’ is not discouragement. Honouring his or her family for having raised this ‘martyr’ is not discouragement. And unless self-immolation is truly discouraged, young people will continue to kill themselves for political causes to which their death contributes nothing but negative publicity.
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