City City Bang Bang, Columns

A question of suicide

Two very tragic suicides have occurred in the last few weeks with little in common. In one case a young boy took his life allegedly because of being caned in school a few days ago and more recently a model took her life apparently out of frustration at her love life.

Both came from very different worlds and acted out of different reasons but became the focus of intense public discussion. In both cases, we have looked to fix responsibility and struggled to make sense of this terrible waste of human lives.

The question of fixing blame on those who responsible for someone else’s suicide, a crime that goes under the label of abetment of suicide raises complex questions. Barring a very few cases where one could argue that the person committing suicide was left with no other choice( farmer suicides in Vidarbha or the case of Ruchika Sharma who was actively driven to suicide by her tormentor by way of a systematic campaign), in the final analysis, a suicide remains an act of discretion. A person chooses to commit suicide; no doubt with some strong provocation but the choice is finally there for a person to make. The key here is that it is the person committing suicide whose actions are disproportionate; the reason why the attempt to commit suicide is a crime is precisely that we do not consider it a reasonable consequence, whatever might be the provocation. The respect for life is so absolute that we do not give an individual the right to end their own lives.

In the case of Viveka Babajee, for instance, unless it turns out to be a case of homicide, should the boyfriend be held criminally liable? Even if he turns out to be an unspeakable cad, who led her up the garden path, that is by itself not a criminal offence. Millions before him, and perhaps a larger number after him, will be unfaithful, break a loved one’s heart callously, betray those who trust them the most and make promises cynically and break them casually. It is without question a crime against all is good about human beings, but should it really be a crime punishable by law?

In the case of abetment to suicide, we use a yardstick for classifying a crime that is highly variable. A crime is usually defined by the action that is objectionable- murdering someone, robbing a bank, stealing something and the punishment depends on the nature of the criminal action. In this case, a crime gets defined not by the action of the accused but the state of mind and reaction of the victim. The same action, that of callously trampling over someone’s delicate affections, receives, in a vast majority of cases, no punitive action whatsoever, but in the one case where the victim commits suicide, becomes an offence. A suicide becomes a crime when seen in reverse; it is only through the prism of the suicide that the preceding actions appear criminal. A moral crime is not always a crime in the eyes of the law, and societies have striven hard to maintain that distinction. We cannot and do not force people to be kind, considerate or sensitive even though we try very hard to promote these values.

For the person committing suicide, the decision to end one’s life is often a result of the immediacy of a present sense of hopelessness overwhelming the grudging eventuality of future hope. The present blots out the possibility of a future which presents itself as something black, infinite and unbearable. In the cloudy depths of a troubled mind, death becomes an escape, a release from the direness of one’s situation. The relationship between life and death become reversed; life seems to be the problem for it makes us feel the things we don’t want to and death seems like freedom from one’s cage.

At a human level, it is easy to see why we want some redress for those who feel compelled to take this final irreversible action. A suicide is an act of such colossal waste, such wilfulness destruction of meaning, that it leaves a gaping hole not just in the lives of those left behind, who are forever haunted by an unshakable sense of responsibility, but it also creates a vacuum in the very idea of the sanctity of life. When we try and pin responsibility on someone or something we are struggling to attach some meaning to an act expressly designed to eliminate it. It is our way of affirming the purpose of life and our faith in its preciousness. The irony that if a suicide attempt ends in failure then the person himself is prosecuted and if it succeeds we look to punish others has its roots in this belief we have that the gift of life must be defended vigorously and that a loss of life cannot be allowed to return empty handed.

The need to fix responsibility, to make sense of this waste of human lives, is understandable. Every suicide asks questions not merely of those immediately connected to the event but of society at large. A suicide is the distillate of human pain, the concentrated price that a few pay for the scattered sins of many. A suicide is an extreme symptom of a societal disease, a nasal beep-beep warning that something is fundamentally wrong with some of our founding assumptions. There is only so much pain that we can inflict on each other in the name of civilisation, and sooner or later, someone somewhere will pay the price.