India’s Puzzling Surge of Suicides

Suicide has become something of a phenomenon in India, which now has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, a fact that has alarmed public health experts.

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.

“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 southernIndia. “My final and last request is take my body to the legislative assembly. Goodbye.”

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 cause.

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 fewer 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 devotion.

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.

Continue reading: NEW YORK TIMES

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Posted in India, Reports/Studies/Books

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