The Economy of Suicide in India


In the few years I have lived in India I can’t remember a month having gone by without a news story about a gruesome suicide. Of course, the papers gladly included graphic images of the suicide, often placing them on the front page, in color. More than once I’ve read special stories in magazines like Indian Today about teen and other suicides. They have an interesting take on people’s mental health, about social pressures, economic pressures, etc. But I think there is something more obvious that is missing from most of these articles. But before we get to that, take a quick look at the following stats about suicide in India:

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB – a department of the Home Ministry of India) features this “snapshot of suicide” for the year 2008:

♦ 14 Suicides took place every hour.

♦ More than one lakh persons (1,25,017) in the country lost their lives by committing suicide during the year 2008.

♦ 1 each in every 3 suicide victims was a youth (15-29 years) and middle aged (30-44years)

♦ The overall male:female ratio of suicide victims for the year 2008 was 64:36, however,the proportion of Boys : Girls suicide victims (upto 14 years of age) was 49:51.

♦ 70.3% of the suicide victims were married while 22.1% were un-married.

(source: http://ncrb.nic.in/ADSI2008/snapshots.pdf)

Take a look at what Maithri has to say:

It is estimated that over 100,000 people die by suicide in India every year. India alone contributes to more than 10% of suicides in the world.

The point is suicide is no small matter in India. It is a major social problem that has not been ebbed by an number of different policies that have been tried so far. There are advocacy groups that are out there working hard to get people counseling and make psychological counseling seem less taboo.

What I think is generally being missed in the larger conversation is a serious look at the economy of suicide in India. To put it simply I think that suicides have been made to carry value in this country; they’ve been made meaningful acts of protest or revenge. And this has occurred in at least two ways: 1. through the media and 2. through the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

1. The Media – While India itself maybe be well along its way on its development agenda, one industry that is still “developing” and not “developed” is the media. Yellow journalism is the norm in India and any bit of sensationalism is welcome as long as it sells the papers. From fact-checking to basic things like spelling and grammar, even the best papers would get low grades. Papers will eagerly put completely random images of scantly clad women on their first and last pages to increase sales. Murders or beatings are graphically imaged throughout the paper and so it comes as no surprise to anyone when suicides are covered in the same way. Just a month ago in a Gujarati paper I clearly remember a picture on the front page that showed a man hanging from a telephone tower in some rural village. Half-charred bodies of attempted self-burnings are also not beyond the lines of acceptability in Indian media. Of course the stories, in an effort to be compassionate, tell the painful stories of the man or woman, sometimes even a child, who committed suicide. It’s always an act of desperation under horrendous social or economic pressure; the victim had no other way out. The fault is squarely placed on either parents, spouses, in-laws, or the whole of society and then there is a report about a criminal investigation.

Now what does this say to a person contemplating suicide? It says, go for it, because this is how we’ll cover you. You’ll be front page news. Your tormentors will be publicly humiliated and your last act will be seen as social martyrdom. The whole world will be on your side. Instead of making suicide tragic, fruitless, and wrong, the coverage of suicides turns them into unfortunate but legitimate and effective acts of protest. Economically, you just increased the value of suicide in the minds of potential suicide victims.

2. The tragic thing is that the laws in India only add to that value. Particularly problematic are IPC 498A, 406, and 306. These were laws written for a noble cause – the protection of women against dowry harrassment, torture, sexual harassment, etc. However, they were written atrociously and without restraint and so they have become more problematic that useful. The exact problem with these chapters is nicely given by Bharat Chugh:

The heinous nature of these laws (498-a, 406) does nothing but to help the unlawful implementation. As these laws are non compoundable & non bailable, the chances of reconciliation between the spouses after litigation are next to nil.

The biased nature of this laws is evident from that fact that unlike almost all laws in INDIA the burden to prove innocence lies on the accused……this means as soon as the complaint is made..whichever persons are named in the complaint are accused in the eyes of law…

IPC-498a is
• Cognizable – The accused can be arrested and jailed without warrant or investigation
• Non-Compoundable – The complaint cannot be withdrawn by the petitioner (chances of living together again are lost)
• Non-Bailable – The accused must appear in the court to request bail
On a single complaint of the wife, the husband and his entire family can be packed off to behind the bars, with an estimated 40,000 such accusations per year and an average of 5 members of the husband’s family implicated in each of these 498-a cases, about 200,000/- people are directly affected by these cases.

So in essence, if someone simply states that they have been driven to the point of suicide by so and so parties, all of the people indicated are automatically held guilty until proven innocent. And if the person actually commits suicide and mentions people in his/her note as the cause of suicide, then all of those parties would be charged under IPC 306, which is the law against abetting suicide – a greater crime with greater punishments. The question one has to ask is does this law devalue suicide or, under the attempt of bringing justice, actually increase the value of suicide by essentially making it a more attractive means of revenge or protest? If a woman doesn’t like her in-laws all she has to do is name them in a police report as psychologically torturing her and automatically her in-laws are landed into a years-long judicial process and social humiliation. If she actually commits the suicide, then all of the mentioned parties are now seen as murderers. That sounds like great and effective revenge. The case being made is not that there are no legitimate women victims; what I’m trying to say is that right now we have a law that is not written or applied correctly, a law that in fact adds to social ill by promoting suicide as a means to justice. Instead, there should be an effort to get women justice by leaving them and the people they wish to prosecute alive.

There is another suicide-related issue here as well. When women can so easily bring their wrath (sometimes justified, sometimes not) down upon their in-laws with the brutal force of law, there is bound to be misuse. And in those cases, what happens to the wrongfully accused spouse or in-laws? Let’s not forget that according to the NCRB the majority of suicides occurs in males and of all suicides 23% occur from “family problems” (that number increases to around 33% if you include all the listed causes that related to marital relations and social problems). It does not seem far-fetched that men who are socially defamed and abused just by an accusation by their spouses might be driven to suicide themselves.

(for more information on Indian laws against domestic violence visit: http://www.indiatogether.org/manushi/issue137/laws.htm and its sister article: http://www.indiatogether.org/manushi/issue120/domestic.htm)

The question then is whether or not we’re serious about addressing suicide in India. If we are, then we must take a serious look at all the causes of suicide not just the normal poster-child causes of mental illness, depression, social pressure, etc. We must also squarely face the fact that we live in a society that, through its media and laws, increases the value of suicide and makes it an attractive option for those pressured, mentally ill, or depressed people to choose. We need to somehow devalue suicide. The media can surely cover the ills of suicide with social policy articles instead of using suicidal tragedies to sell more stock. Laws can surely be altered to allow both for the protection of women and for adequate due process and checks that decrease if not prevent those from being abused to further promote suicide and suicide attempts.

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Mumbai’s Religiously Oppresive School Uniforms


During a recent visit to India’s greatest city, Mumbai, I had the chance to speak to a few Swaminarayan devotees in an area commonly referred to as “Proper Mumbai”. In the course of conversation I came to learn that their elementary-school-aged children were being harassed by a teacher because they wore their tilak-chandalo* to schools. They were being hit over the head and ridiculed among other things. Once, during an exam, a teacher even walked over to take a swipe at a kids forehead hoping to smudge or spread the mark of his faith. I was appauled that teachers in such a supposedly civilized city and at a respectable private school would act in such a way.

Of course, I soon discovered that the reason for such rash actions was that the school, like many private secular schools in Mumbai, has a uniform code which prohibits students from wearing any religious symbols in public. Meaning if you’re a Christian you can’t have your cross on the outside of your shirt, if you’re a Sikh you can’t have your hair tied up in a pagh or bun, if you’re a Muslim you can’t wear a hat or headscarf. In essence, you should cleanse yourself of your faith’s marks before entering school. I was a bit stunned to say the least. As I tried to understand the policy and my reaction my mind focused on the following thoughts:

1. What is the purpose of a school uniform? I’ve always heard it’s to assure an environment focused on learning. It stops the genders from peacocking themselves to each other with unspoken contests about who has the coolest, most expensive, or most revealing clothes. It stops people from wearing gang symbols that lead to battles on school grounds. So maybe this policy was also meant to make sure that there were no fights in school over student’s religions. I can see how one might wish to do that. But the fact is, I’ve yet to come across any epidemic of fights caused by religious hatred in Mumbai’s schools – including those without such policies. Is it really necessary to make religious symbols the equivalent of gang signs in private schools? And isn’t taking the idea of uniformity to such an extreme of erasing any traces of personal identity just another form of zealotry (albeit nonreligous)? This position makes even less sense when one considers that institutions that value discipline alot more that elementary schools, institutions like the military in which discipline is the difference between life and death, don’t ban such benign marks like the tilak chandalo. Members of the BAPS fellowship are well aware of the example of Prakash Mehta – a satsangi who was supported by a military court in wearing his tilak-chandalo while serving in the Ameican Army. Interestingly the school’s policy only applies to students. I asked a man who teaches at the school where those kids studied what he would do if Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India, came to visit his school. He said, of course Mr. Singh would be allowed to wear his turban. The rules are only for kids. Why is that? If religious symbols are so potent and distracting, why shouldn’t anyone who enters the school grounds be stripped of their religious identity as well? On the one hand, we accept as a fact of life, if not with pride, that our nation’s Prime Minister is a conspicuous Sikh and on the other hand we insist our children should not have to deal with conspicuous faith. That doesn’t sound like good policy; it sounds like hypocrisy.

2. There is also the question of what such a policy teaches children about faith. It is hard not to see such policies as overt efforts to promote the lack of faith in children. Schools are institutions of learning. They hold a place of respect and honour in our communities. When schools ban religion from their compounds, they essentially send a message the religion is not a thing welcome in respectable and honourable society. They implicitly teach children to be ashamed of their faith and practice it only in hiding away from the public eye. Some people may just call this secularism, but I disagree. This flavour of secularism, as practiced in nations like France, has lot led to more and more segregation and hostility. On the other hand, I grew up in a secular nation, in America, and I wore my tilak chandalo proudly and was often encouraged by my Caucasian Christian peers to do so. So this isn’t just a secular effort to bring peace and goodwill; it’s a dangerous policy because…

3. It means the school is not serving it’s purpose – to educate the future citizens of the world; it shows that the school is failing at one of its main missions – to prepare these children for the “real world”. The communities these child citizens and future leaders live in will certainly be pluralistic societies. They will see and interact with Prime Ministers who are overtly Sikhs and businessmen who are conspicuously Muslim. They will be dealing with people from different cultures from around the globe and if they can’t learn to tolerate each other, understand each other, and cooperate with each other, you will have created just a new order of extremists.

The long and short of it is this. There is a trend in private education in Mumbai that is working against the religious freedom that true secularism includes; there is a rising tide trying to relegate religion to shameful recesses away from society. And something must be done. People with means and minds should be talking about this policy in a real open debate and working to expunge this policy. And for people without means but with minds: they should use their hearts and minds to make powerful decisions like changing schools and enrolling their children in their fellowship’s version of Sunday school or bal mandal to assure that while receiving a “world-class education” their children are not falling prey to the false-secularist who wish to wash them of their moral and spiritual values.

*the tilak-chandalo is a religious mark applied by Swaminarayan devotees ont heir forehead. It consists of a large U made from sandalwood paste with a filled red circle in the center made from vermillion.