There was a pearl of honey on her palm. “Show it, show it,” the journalists who were assembled in front of her yelled. She showed her palm. There was much excitement. Then she began to cry. For a moment the journalists fell silent before their murmurs rose again and the sound of camera shutters rolled like mild applause. She tapped a finger on the honey and put it on her tongue. And she felt a revulsion, for more than just honey perhaps.
Irom Sharmila had tasted food for the first time in 16 years, since she began her fast at the age of 28 to protest against a law that allowed the Indian Army to get away with atrocities in a few Indian states, include her own, Manipur. For 16 years, the Indian government had inserted a tube up her nose to force feed her fluids, actually an almost perfect diet but not fit for human nature. Now she was like any of us. She would also look into a mirror, comb her hair, acts that she had renounced in protest. But not everyone celebrated. Her nasogastric tubes fed not only her but a whole system of activists. Suddenly they were unplugged.
They said she had betrayed their cause. They had promoted her as “iron lady”, but now she was not behaving like one. Fair-weather friends and family isolated her. People who had made her a deity, now abused her. At least one group threatened her. She said that she had not given up, that she was not abandoning the cause for the love of a mere man, that she was in fact going to enter electoral politics and that she was only quitting the pain of an inhuman life and a slow death. But the parasites were not appeased.
It would appear that if Rohith Vemula decides to return to life, he would be in a lot of trouble with some people. The Dalit student had, a few months ago, committed suicide for reasons he did not specify in his suicide note beyond the words, “It was always with myself I had problems. I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body.” Various genres of activists interpreted his death as a response to a Hindu cultural cartel that had tormented him.
The abuse of Sharmila, who chose a form of death from which there is return, reminds us of a disturbing question that was not asked after Vemula’s irrevocable death. The question, as uncomfortable questions should be, is to many of us who have a daily claim to righteousness.
Do we have the moral right to use a person’s suicide to flog our favourite ideas?
There are suicides that have direct beneficiaries. When an impoverished farmer ends his life, it is used by rural reformers, socialists and the foes of genetically modified organisms to shame the government or to condemn capitalism. When a troubled Dalit scholar commits suicide, it is used by the secular to kick the right wing. When a Tibetan boy kills himself to protest Chinese occupation of Tibet, activists make the most of his remains to draw world attention.
It would seem unfair to suggest that the public mourning of suicides by well-meaning activists who then infect many of us with outrage is similar to how the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam deified impoverished girls who blew themselves, or how the Islamic State handlers congratulate their suicide bombers. However, there is a strand of truth in the comparison.
Every suicide is a mystery. This is true even when there is a suicide note. Depression is the most cited cause in the absence of a social, political or economic cause. People imagine that depression is extreme sorrow, but the depressed have been trying to tell us for centuries that it is something much deeper, more abstract and innate than that. There are other famous reasons for suicide that we have been trained to view as misfortunes and not variations of depression – failure, love, poverty, exam-stress and injustice. These are common reasons that people leave behind in their letters or the survivors presume. But often they do not tell the whole story.
Suicide is a mystery to science, too, but the general mainstream medical opinion points to something far more complex than just environment and a single trigger. Genes, mental health, gender and age are very powerful forces that influence almost every instance of suicide. Sharmila, for instance, did not accomplish suicide because she was not suicidal.
Framing a suicide purely as an ideological action, especially when it suits us, is not only factually incorrect but is an act of glorification in which there is an undercurrent of endorsement, even celebration. The conversion of a suicide, or its attempt, into a social movement lights up the darkest parts of people who are prone to taking the ultimate steps but were awaiting an honorable reason to quit life.
Did the extraordinary branding of rural suicides as “farmer suicides”, push many farmers into killing themselves? Did the world attention on the self-immolations of some Tibetan young men inspire others to do the same? Will the growing cult around Vemula’s suicide push other young Dalit men to choose death as a form of valiant protest?
There is another danger when suicides become centerpieces of social rebellion. An unspoken understanding comes to be in society that if people are not killing themselves maybe their suffering is not that great. The overt or covert or sophisticated celebration of suicide diminishes other forms of protest. This is an underrated factor in the failure of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. The Congress government was terrified that the Gandhian nuisance may fast unto death. But the man always ended up drinking orange juice. One of the reasons why the movement fizzled out is that Hazare did not die.
But then what must one do with a suicide that appears to have been caused by powerful people? It is hard for us to accept the notion that a suicide usually has no villain. But we must. When we reject suicide as political action we also challenge activists to think of deeper, more substantial ways to move us.
In rejecting the option of death, Sharmila herself chose a harder path – electoral politics and life.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People. Twitter: @manujosephsan
The views expressed are personal