“My Birth is My Fatal Accident” Rohith Vemula
As a law student I was obsessive about Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code which defines attempt to commit suicide as a crime and prescribes a punishment of up to one year along with fine. I believed that the section was unconstitutional and inconsistent, being contradictory to the structure of the criminal justice system. My engagement and strong opinion about this provision was purely abstract and completely without any root in reality. I could be excused because that was an age where I was moony eyed and romanced with existentialism. My adrenaline was pumped by Albert Camus’ “Happy Death” moved by the words “At this hour of night, his life seemed so remote to him, he was so solitary and indifferent to everything and to himself as well, that Mersault felt he had at last attained what he was seeking, that the peace which filled him now was born of that patient self-abandonment he had pursued and achieved with the help of this warm world so willing to deny him without anger.” Severely ill, he dies a happy death: “And stone among the stones, he returned in the joy of his heart to the truth of the motionless worlds.” It took me many work years, relationships and engagement with life to understand later that Mersault’s attainment was an attainment of privilege, the privilege of leisure, a privilege that is accorded to people at the top of social hierarchy, a white man’s privilege!
My arguments against this provision were meticulous and logical. Firstly I believed (and continue to believe) that the only person entitled to take a human life is the person to whom the life belongs – obliquely it was also an argument for euthanasia. Secondly, it is violates the principle of right to life enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India – as this right in my opinion as a corollary includes the right to do whatever one wants with one’s life. Thirdly it violates a primary principle of criminal law; that is; when an act itself is not an offence, attempts and abetment to the act cannot be offences. It would be meaningless and redundant to make suicide an offence as it is impossible for a temporal force to punish the dead. So, the entire castle of cards built on criminalizing suicide collapses with simple logic. As a fundamentalist atheist at that point of time in my life, the only reason that the provision survived in the statute book was pure superstitious bigotry on the value of life.
This period also saw a discourse, of course, again in abstraction on decriminalization of suicide and euthanasia, within the judiciary. In 1994, a bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices B. L. Hansaria and S. M. Fahai in P. Rathinam vs. Union of India, supporting a radical 1986 judgement of the High Court of Bombay in Maruti Sripath Dubal vs. State of Maharashtra rendered by Justices P. Sawant and B. K. Patil and 1985 judgement if the Delhi High Court by Justices R. Sachar and M. Sharief-ud-Din in State v. Sanjay Kumar Bhatia which struck down Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code as unconstitutional and violative of Art. 21 of the Constitution of India as the Right to life includes the Right to die. One of the direct consequences of this decision was that since attempt to suicide was no longer a crime, logically abetment to a non-crime should also not be a crime effectively rendering Sections 305 and 306 of the Indian Penal Code, which define abetment and lays down the punishment for the same, unconstitutional. However Justice Sawant felt otherwise. Parallel to this a counter argument in support of Section 309 was also gaining strength with the 1987 Andhra Pradesh High Court in Channa Jagadeeshwar vs. State of Andhra Pradesh, where the bench consisting of Justices K. Amareswari and P. Rao found Section 309 to be consistent with the Constitution. This view was supported by many conservative legal academicians, who used morality largely as the basis of their opinion. To cut a long story short, the court struck down Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code and the reasoning of Justice Sachar in the Sanjay Bhatia case encapsulates what the Supreme Court found’:
“It is ironic that Section 309 IPC still continues to be on our Penal Code. … Strange paradox that in the age of votaries of Euthanasia, suicide should be criminally punishable. Instead of the society hanging its head in shame that there should be such social strains that a young man (the hope of tomorrow) should be driven to suicide compounds its inadequacy by treating the boy as a criminal. Instead of sending the young boy to psychiatric clinic it gleefully sends him to mingle with criminals…. The continuance of Section 309 IPC is an anachronism unworthy of a human society like ours. Medical clinics for such social misfits certainly but police and prisons never. The very idea is revolting. This concept seeks to meet the challenge of social strains of modem urban and competitive economy by ruthless suppression of mere symptoms this attempt can only result in failure. Need is for humane, civilised and socially oriented outlook and penology…. No wonder so long as society refuses to face this reality its coercive machinery will 1 1985 Cri LJ 931 :(1985) 2 DMC 153 (Del) invoke the provision like Section 309 IPC which has no justification to continue to remain on the statute book.”
This decision of the Supreme Court was very soon overturned in 1996 itself by a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices J. S. Verma, G. N. Ray, N. P. Singh, Faizan Uddin and G. T. Nanavati in Gian Kaur vs. The State of Punjab reinstating Sec. 309 in the Statute book. It also is worth remembering that this entire discourse was happening in the backdrop of the 42nd report of the Law Commission of India, 1971 that recommended deletion of Section 309.
On the side of the executive, decriminalization of attempt to suicide was being considered seriously by both the UPA government and its NDA successor. In 2013, the Mental Health Care Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha set out to curtail the ambit of Section 309 of IPC by presuming mental illness in cases of suicide under Section 124 of the proposed law. The morality of such a presumption notwithstanding, a standing committee accepted the proposed legislation. The bill lapsed. However the new Government through it’s Minister of State for Home Affairs, Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary assured the Rajya Sabha on 24th February, 2015 that a proposal to delete Section 309 from the Indian Penal Code had been sent to the Legislative Department of the Ministry of Law and Justice for drawing up a draft Amendment Bill.
Having laid out the discursive background let me get back to the narrative that I started. Having graduated from Law School and starting work and as part of my disillusionment with the Indian left, I realized with a jolt that in majority of suicide cases, it wasn’t a utopian existentialist privilege as Camus lays out. On the contrary, it was complete lack of space and marginalization that lead people to opt to end their life – and this non-option is almost always taken in utter desperation by people who otherwise want to live. This lack of space and marginalization is an active affair. In other words, people are pushed to suicide – like they are pushed off a mountain. To put it bluntly most suicides are camouflaged homicides. According to the Registrar General of India, roughly 1,35,000 people commit suicide annually.
Let me illustrate this with four of the major types of suicides that one encounters in India. First, the farmers, the largest group of people those are in the public gaze for suicides. They constitute around 11.2 % of all suicides in India (2014 NCRB). Most of them are marginal farmers with small landholdings, where monoculture is the only agriculture possible to eke out even a meager livelihood. Apart from natural factors like drought and flood, her livelihood is controlled by a combination of State policy, Corporate interests and Market volatility. Marginal agriculture is a risky business. One failed crop and her life spirals down. Controversies regarding the estimates of the number of suicides aside, it is acknowledged that farmers are the largest professional group that commit suicide in India.
The second most visible population that commits suicide in India is women. Though on an average the male suicide rate is twice that of female suicide rates (NCRB 2012), the main reason for female suicides are domestic violence, rape, incest and dowry. An analysis of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation report was published in the British Medical Journal on 26 March, and covers data recorded between 1990 and 2010. It reveals a 126 percent rise in suicides among young women across that period. Interestingly most of these suicides are amongst women in their fertility age – 15 – 49. There can be no doubt that these suicides are triggered by external actors.
Next in terms of media visibility would be the queer population or the sexuality marginalized. Sexuality being socially repressed and queer sex still criminal in India, there are no official statistics or comprehensive academic studies on the seriousness or quantum of suicides among the sexuality marginalized, though these suicides often gets reported in the corporate media mostly for all wrong reasons. Most of these suicides are due to lack of space and rabid homophobia that starts from home and ends in the street. Because of my involvement with the community and personal friends, these are suicides that have very often had a direct personal and emotional impact on me, the last one being the death of my good friend Priya. There is also a caste angle to these suicides in as much as that even among the sexuality marginalized – but due to paucity of time and space, I am not getting into that discourse.
Finally let me get into the crux of the discourse that I am trying to address – student suicides – particularly Dalit students’ suicides. They rarely get media attention – unless there is an active campaign to highlight these suicides. Even in the rare cases of them getting media attention, it is either buried in the labyrinth of newsprint or limited by coverage in vernacular media. The savarna media has and will not understand the complexity and seriousness of this class of suicides and therefore they will not fit into their paradigm of marketability.
Before I continue further, I have to acknowledge the immense work done by Insight foundation in documenting and highlighting the issue of Dalt students’ suicides. I also need to thank them for letting me participate in some of these efforts. Their persistence in many ways is one of the prime reasons that has brought this issue to centre stage. However, the savarna media did not devote op-ed spaces and debating airtime till Rohith Vemula.
There is a complex narrative to this which has to be laid bare before I make my arguments as conclusion. This I will start with a personal narrative. In my first year of law school, I had a classmate called Vijay, after two trimesters, he disappeared, ran away causing immense distress to his family. His father was a postman. His dress was a dead giveaway about his economic station and he was the only student to come to college on a bicycle, with packed food. The speculative rumor mills had it that he had adjustment problems. The same defense that various directors and vice chancellors of IITs and AIIMS and other elite institutions across India have used to deflect attention from their complicity in cases where Dalit students have committed suicide.
There is no exhaustive list of student suicides in India, but of the cases that have been reported majority of those who have committed suicides, especially in institutions of higher education are Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims, necessarily in that order. Of the sporadic information that is available, Dr. Sukhdeo Thorat, the former Chairperson of the University Grants Commission asserts that 23 out of 25 student suicides in Hyderabad alone were Dalits. Much earlier in his avatar as the Chair of the UGC, Dr. Thorat had headed a 3 member committee appointed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in 2006 to look into caste discrimination and harassment in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). This committee ran into open hostility from the management of AIIMS which openly refused to cooperate with the committee. However, the committee found damning evidence of discrimination and harassment not only against Dalit students, but also against Dalit faculty. The hostility was so much that the committee mentions this in it’s report:
“To verify the complaint, of notice not being displayed by the authority, the Chairman and one of the members visited AIIMS and discovered that the notices were not displayed on notice boards at prominent places, which reflect the non-cooperation of the authority with the Committee, at least in the matter of displaying the notice on the board.
It had earlier been given out that some of the students who had complained were harassed by the authority. Hence, there was a general fear among the students to meet this committee against the wishes of the administration. Therefore the committee decided on the method of direct contact and examination outside the premises of the AIIMS.”
The government did not act on the report and three years later AIIMS claimed the life of a house surgeon Dr. Balmukund Bharti to caste discrimination. To quote the Insight report on this suicide; “But the truth is that Dr Balmukund Bharti was killed much before he committed ‘suicide’. Suicide was a mere formality.”. AIIMS gave the usual line of defense of lack of ability to adapt and was helped by the police in shutting the case. The complicity of the AIIMS administration can be inferred from the case studies that the Thorat Committee has cited;
Personal testimonies of Dalit and Adivasi students on the discriminatory behaviours of AIIMS faculties
The Committee report carries many personal testimonies from Dalit and Adivasi students on this. Two of them are as follows:
Case I (Page 23 of the report)
After the final professional examination, one of the professors asked me as to which place I came from. I told him that, I am from Ghaziabad. In front of a senior resident (doing DM in IRCH), he said that, this fellow is a bad character (badmas) and he need to be stopped from clearing the examinations. Thereafter I was continuously failed in medicine. I may mention that I had never failed in that subject during the preceding three semesters. I had also scored 60 percent marks in this course in pre-final examination.
When I checked my question paper, I felt that nobody had probably checked my examination copy. Then I repeated this examination after six months in which I again failed and also failed in subsequent examination. I kept on giving examination for next one year and finally cleared after one year. In the end I passed and cleared four papers including this paper in one attempt. This was possible because the concern doctor had gone on a leave and the examination was taken by another faculty. The repeated failure had damaged my image and affected me psychology.
Case II (Page 23-24 of the report)
The students belonging to reserve category are failed always. Last year no scheduled caste students were allowed to clear in first year final professional examination. For instance Sujo had got 70 percent in 1st professional and 55 percent in 2nd professional examination, but was not cleared in last professional examination. Due to this he suffered from mental depression and received psychological treatment.
Many students from first year were not cleared in the final examination. In fact those who did well in earlier examinations were kept hanging in last examination. It appeared that by not clearing the deserving SC and ST students, the institute used them as buffer, under the pretension that in any case nobody will raise any objection as there is stereotype about the under-performance of reserved category students.”
This case and the response is typical of all the cases that have been documented in-depth by Insight. The list of the documentation showcases clearly attitudes in institutions of higher education:
• M Shrikant, final year, BTech, IIT Bombay, January 1, 2007
• Ajay S Chandra, integrated PhD, Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc), Bangalore – August 26, 2007
• Jaspreet Singh, final year MBBS, Government Medical College, Chandigarh, January 27, 2008
• Senthil Kumar, PhD, School of Physics, University of Hyderabad – February 23, 2008
• Prashant Kureel, first year, BTech, IIT Kanpur, April 19, 2008
• G Suman, final year, MTech, IIT Kanpur, January 2, 2009
• Ankita Veghda, first year, BSc Nursing, Singhi Institute of Nursing, Ahmedabad, April 20, 2009
• D Syam Kumar, first year BTech, Sarojini Institute of Engineering and Technology, Vijayawada, August 13, 2009
• S Amravathi, national level young woman boxer, Centre of Excellence, Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh, Hyderabad, November 4, 2009
• Bandi Anusha, BCom final year, Villa Mary College, Hyderabad[/B], November 5, 2009
• Pushpanjali Poorty, first year, MBA, Visvesvaraiah Technological University, Bangalore, January 30, 2010
• Sushil Kumar Chaudhary, final year MBBS, Chattrapati Shahuji Maharaj Medical University (formerly KGMC), Lucknow, January 31, 2010
• Balmukund Bharti, final year MBBS, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, March 3, 2010
• JK Ramesh, second year, BSc, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, July 1, 2010
• Madhuri Sale, final year BTech, IIT Kanpur, November 17, 2010
• G Varalakshmi, BTech first year, Vignan Engineering College, Hyderabad, January 30, 2011
• Manish Kumar, third year BTech, IIT Roorkee, February 13, 2011
• Linesh Mohan Gawle, PhD, National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi, April 16, 2011
The story everywhere follows a certain script with minor variations. Direct taunting, harassment and discrimination leads a student to end her life, the administration sweeps the incident and their role in pushing the student to suicide under the carpet and adopts a stand that the problem was with the student herself – sometimes gets a bogus enquiry that ratifies the position of the Adninistration. If someone persistently rakes it up, the administration goes silent till a compliant and insensitive media also goes silent. To understand the gravity of what I am trying to demonstrate let me quote the contrast that Thorat demonstrates;
“It is almost as if we have become immune to these frequent instances of suicide mainly by Dalit students. The student population on campuses of higher education has become increasingly diverse: according to 2008 data, of the total number of students in higher education in the country, 4 per cent were Scheduled Tribes, 13.5 per cent Scheduled Castes (SC), and 35 per cent Other Backward Classes (OBC). Hindus accounted for about 85 per cent of students, followed by Muslims (8 per cent) and Christians (3 per cent). And yet, 23 out of 25 were of Dalits.”
Rohith Vemula’s death was not the first of Dalit student suicides and definitely will not be the last, and it had followed most of the script that usually happens in the case of the suicide of Dalit students, but it suddenly changed the dynamics of how Dalit student suicides are perceived in a radical way. It found entry and support in the Savarna domain discomfiting many and profiting many others. It is important to understand the politics of how and why this happened and the politics of the timing of this act. Here it is important to contextualize the trajectory of growth of the Ambedkar Students Association that Rohith represented in the University of Hyderabad. At the point of time that it made its presence known I had a ringside view as I was based at NALSAR and was very involved in the Human Rights discourse. The backdrop was an altercation on campus between members of ASA and three wardens in 2002 (one of them ironically being the present Vice Chancellor Appa Rao – which might explain his hostility to ASA) over a Dalit student being removed from his responsibilities of the mess and given the charge of toilets. The students were arrested and I was called over late in the evening to see how I could help and met them at the Police Station. 10 students, all of them leaders of the ASA were rusticated and later permanently expelled. This caused enough outrage outside the university as well and the ASA emerged with renewed vigour. From a small organization the ASA has grown big enough to win elections in the university. Here we also have to remember that UoH has been notorious for Dalit Student suicides with 9 suicides in a decade!
It was as an active participant of this powerful movement that Rohith along with four other Dalit Students was suspended for allegedly assaulting a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad – the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the instance of the letter written by a BJP Member of Parliament to the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development – despite the allegations being found baseless by an enquiry committee. In other words Rohith’s death comes as a leader of an ongoing agitation by a credible student association. All other elements of the usual script including harassment, discrimination and denial of resources being constant – this and the following outrage could not be ignored. This was also happening bang in the midst of ongoing student unrest and Union government intolerance of dissent across the country. A completely discredited opposition jumped into the fray to rejuvenate its credibility. But despite all the distractions Rohith’s friends and comrades were persistent in their focus to bring attention to the camouflaged scourge of discrimination that was regularly leading to loss of lives. However the most significant and radical demand that came through this issue and struck a chord with me was the demand for the Rohith Act to criminalize who directly indulge in or indirectly promote the factors of discrimination that leads to a person deciding to commit suicide. This demand is not radical for its novelty, for it has been experimented rather unsuccessfully with dowry death. This demand is radical because it calls a spade a spade and because of that is very much implementable. The demand is also radical because it has found centre stage in an environment that is totally against it.
Coming back to the legal discourse on suicide and conflating it with the demand for Rohith Act, 19 years of work has radically altered the perspective with which I view suicide – for now I am sure that most suicides are subtle and camouflaged homicides. But, my stance remains that Section 309 is unconstitutional as it violates the right to live with dignity under Article 21 and the Right to Equality under Article 14. Further, it is unfair to further victimize those that have been pushed to suicide. However, I must point out the eagerness of the present government to decriminalize attempt to suicide is mischievous. It is mischievous in that it will exonerate the individuals who are responsible for creating the conducive social environment for harassment and discrimination that pushes people to suicide – as abetment to a non offence cannot be an offence, and even if it is retained as an offence, it is not serious enough to address hegemonic violence. The only way decriminalization has to be engaged with is by getting the government to recognize these suicides as not suicides and as camouflaged homicides and prescribing the most stringent of evidentiary burden and punishment to all those in the chain that are responsible for the hegemonic violence directly or indirectly, by commission or omission. Even more insulting than decriminalization per se is the Mental Health Bill route to dilute Section 309. This route labels the victim, while effectively taking away the onus from the perpetrators as the attempt to suicide is purportedly caused by mental disturbance – and the fault is with the victim. And this endorses the regular line of defense that the college administrations have been taking and falls mwithin the consistently replaying script. This should ideally be done by replacing the current Section 309 and getting it to focus on the perpetrators of hegemonic violence, rather than those at the receiving end along with corresponding amendments to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. A lesser solution could be a special legislation overriding Section 309 that focuses only on deaths caused due to hegemonic violence, but this is likely to have implementation problems as experience with most other special penal legislations addressing social inequalities have shown as it will be difficult to get the Police to understand and study a new legislation, and much less act against prevalent prejudices. Nonetheless, it would be a beginning if we stop calling deaths caused due to hegemonic violence as suicides and calling them camouflaged homicides, regardless of such violence being caste, gender or sexuality based or a combination of all! Then we can ideate Rohith Vemula’s movement “from shadows to the stars.”!
Bobby Kunhu is a human rights activist and lawyer.
Illustration by Unnamati Syama Sundar.