Even as the world observes Suicide Prevention Day today, this country is mired in the most grotesque and prurient parody of how a society should respond to a suicide. Instead of compassion and empathy for the grieving family and friends, and respect for the deceased person’s dignity and privacy, vast sections of our citizenry have been blinded into a frenzied attack on his colleagues, friends and relatives and, if that was not enough, the person’s character for good measure. Led by a shrill cabal of the media which has plumbed new depths of depravity in its pursuit of TRPs, law enforcement agencies and self-appointed pundits have enthusiastically joined the demolition of lives. Observers from the future will surely study this perverse spectacle much as we look back at the notorious witch-hunts of Salem, Massachusetts where, in the 17th century, several women were put to death after being accused of being possessed by the devil.
I wish this was an aberration, an erasure of common sense and decency, precipitated by the monumental crises sweeping this country. Let us not minimise how the combined impact of the worst epidemic to infect people, an unprecedented downturn in our economy and a brooding conflict with a neighbour against whom we are no match, can affect our rational minds. But, tragically, recent history shows us that this is not a blip.
It is, in fact, an extension of a malignant growth of hate and othering that is convulsing this country to the extent that we have become inured to the sheer extent and inhumanity of the cruelty sweeping our land. The litany is seemingly endless, from migrant workers being run over by trucks and trains while they trudge home in the blistering sun, to babies asphyxiating in government hospitals because the management forgot to renew the tender to replenish oxygen, men burned alive simply because of their religion, women lynched because they are suspected of being witches, under-trials summarily executed by the police in fake encounters, children raped by those employed to care for them, and young couples murdered by their own families for falling in love.
Has our nation lost its moral compass? This is, for me, the most important question of our times. It is a question I do not pretend I have an answer to, even if it has kept me awake at night. But what I do know for sure is that the suicide of a celebrated actor, and that of the tens of thousands of other Indians who die every month at their own hands, is the culmination of a combination of factors which have seeds in the rotting soil of our society, from the stifling prejudices which crush our freedoms, to violence, marginalisation, grinding poverty, and, most of all, the absence of a compassionate state. These factors torment our minds, leading to despair and hopelessness. Many of those who will ultimately take the final step will be burdened by mental illnesses, most commonly depression, with their rationality often further clouded by alcohol and drugs. The insinuation that the actor who committed suicide was a “drug addict”, implicitly suggesting that he was already a fallen man, is yet another travesty which ignores the well-known observation that intoxicants are frequently used by people to calm their troubled minds.
Hate and resentment closely co-habit with despair and hopelessness and, in this regard too, there is little doubt that this country is failing. I can imagine some sections of the trolling community sharpening their knives to brand me as anti-national, but I am only reflecting on facts that are widely available. Consider, for example, that one-third of the world’s female suicide deaths and one-quarter of male suicide deaths occur in India, and that suicide is the single leading cause of death in young Indians. Or consider that India ranks near the bottom of the league of countries in the World Happiness Report 2020, alongside Afghanistan, South Sudan and Yemen.
Opinion: India’s suicide problem
Pakistan, the neighbour we often look at with disdain, is 78 ranks higher in the list; even Nepal, much poorer than us, is 50 ranks ahead. And what’s more worrying is that our ranking on this index, based upon a complex set of indicators including our economic strength and perceptions of social support, levels of generosity and corruption, has been falling inexorably over the past five years. No doubt, some of the protectors of our national dignity will protest that the index is unfair to India and may even call for our own version which will always put us at #1. For me, the facts clearly show that we are one of the most miserable nations in the world and, what’s more, we are becoming more miserable with each passing year. Perhaps this might be why we can behave like a pack of starving dogs thrown a scrap of rotten meat from a passing car when we sense a person is vulnerable and down on their knees; it is almost as if we have little else left to savour in our lives and look forward to as a nation.
As I try to find a light to end the darkness of this moral abyss, I realise that what I desire the most is a compassionate society. This is not a foreign idea, for this country is rich with tradition around the importance of compassion and every religion that has taken root in India extolls this ideology. Realising such an aspiration, however, will need much more than chanting religious paeans. Above all, we need for our political class and its representatives in civil society, across all its hues and beliefs, to unite around a social compact to work together, putting aside their ideological differences at least for a time, to rebuild our nation at this critical moment in our history. Imagine if all the effort and resources spent attacking one another could be turned towards building a compassionate society and fixing the ills which are making us all sick.
The key ingredient is compassion, not only towards the people we love and consider our kin, but to genuinely experience the same feelings towards the stranger, the other, the outsider; only then can we return in earnest to the unfinished task of building our nation, united around a common set of values and destiny. To quote Tagore’s magical words, which have never been so true or so urgent: “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls… where words come out from the depth of truth… where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit… into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 10 under the title “Suicide Prevention Day.” The writer is the Pershing Square Professor of Global Health at Harvard Medical School.