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Activism as a ‘Blue Whale Challenge’

Indians have for long been told false and dangerous stories about the causes of suicides

A March 2016 photo of Campus Front of India demonstrators protesting to express solidarity for Rohit Vemula who was found hanging at a hostel in January. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters
A March 2016 photo of Campus Front of India demonstrators protesting to express solidarity for Rohit Vemula who was found hanging at a hostel in January. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

We are told that there is a game called the Blue Whale Challenge, that it originated in Russia and has now spread to many nations; that the game has infected an unknown number of teenagers who play by joining chat rooms on the internet and accepting assignments from the shadowy curators of the groups; that each player is given 50 tasks, most of which involve self-harm; and that the final task is suicide. We are told that the Blue Whale Challenge is responsible for hundreds of suicides, including many in India in the past few days alone. This is in line with the argument that the reason for suicide resides outside the person who has committed suicide.

We have been told that poverty pushes farmers to kill themselves; eviction from a college makes a Dalit kill himself; and that stress kills Indian students. These are false and dangerous ideas.

“Suicide is complex. There are almost always multiple causes, including psychiatric illnesses, that may not have been recognized or treated," says a cautionary note that was prepared in 2015 by a group of organizations from many nations, including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Institute of Mental Health. The note states, “Mental disorders and/or substance abuse have been found in 90% of people who have died by suicide." The note, “The Recommendations For Reporting On Suicide", which derives its moral confidence from dozens of studies and reflects the conclusions of thousands of research papers, is a directive to journalists. “Avoid reporting that death by suicide was preceded by a single event, such as a recent job loss, divorce or bad grades. Reporting like this leaves the public with an overly simplistic and misleading understanding of suicide," the note says, adding without any ambiguity, “Report on suicide as a public health issue." It discourages “describing recent suicides as an ‘epidemic,’ ‘skyrocketing’, or other strong terms".

Almost every suicide is inherently a mental health story. The social or economic causes, including those mentioned in that most unreliable yet overrated of documents—the suicide note—might be triggers, but they are triggers only in a particular type of people. Suicide is, even when committed by a poor Indian farmer or a dejected Dalit boy or an urban teenager, primarily a psychiatric matter. But there is a whole confederation of ideologues who promote the idea that suicides are crimes perpetrated by people whom the ideologues despise.

Last year, after Dalit scholar and activist Rohith Vemula hanged himself, his friends and other activists cast the suicide as the result of harassment by an upper-caste cartel that ran the university, which had evicted him for his political activities. Soon, this view was reflected by the entire liberal establishment and by the mainstream media.

Vemula was a highly vocal activist. If his death was a result of mental torture, he would have made much of it in his suicide note. He did leave an anguished note, but absolved everyone of responsibility. Activists, however, insisted that his death had nothing to do with mental issues, which Vemula himself had alluded to in his note: “I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body."

It was as though a Dalit was not allowed to be depressed. In his final letter, he had said, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity...." It appeared that even his death was reduced to just that.

What if the hysteria of political activism around his death hid the actual circumstances of his death? What if he was dejected not only by the upper-caste cartel but, as he hints in his suicide note, also by the very people he belonged to? What if the perpetual negativity of activism worsened his depression? What if his doom began with his decision to abandon microbiology, despite his dream of becoming a science writer, and taking up sociology just because he was interested in society? What if he had received better advice, what if someone had cared enough to tell him that the humanities are luxury streams in which the rich and the suave do better than the poor? What if the very mourners were the actual triggers of his death? What if a complex suicide was reduced to a simple cause of a simple effect? And what if thousands of depressed Dalit students were taking cues from the melodramatic media coverage of his death and seeking heroic ends to their miseries? This is precisely why “The Recommendations For Reporting On Suicide" nudges journalists to be more scientific than political or emotional while reporting suicides.

The most successful myth of activism, though, is the idea of “farmer suicides", the simplistic notion that poverty and debt drive farmers to kill themselves. This is a very important and passionate view of many rural activists because the hypothesis of farmer suicides shames urban capitalism, and can be used selectively to condemn any political party.

There can be no dispute that most Indians in the agrarian economy are in perpetual economic despair but the presumption that they would kill themselves without being guided by a powerful psychiatric state is plain ludicrous. Apart from the opinion of psychiatrists, and the empirical results of numerous studies, there are many pieces of statistics that seriously question the popular idea of farmer suicide. According to National Crime Records Bureau figures for 2015, the suicide rate of “farmers and agricultural workers", at 4.5 per 100,000, is way below the national average of 10.6. This has been the story over the past 15 years, a period when activists and the media successfully branded “farmer suicide" as a special form of suicide.

In fact, the Indian farmer is less likely to commit suicide compared to more affluent groups in India and other parts of the world. Also, the number of male farmers who commit suicide is many times higher than female farmers. This skewed ratio is similar to a pattern observed in many countries for suicides. In many regions, men who complete suicide outnumber women. The fact that Indian farmers, too, exhibit this trend appears to suggest that unique Indian triggers may be subordinate to more fundamental universal reasons for why people kill themselves.

A consequence of the myth of “farmer suicide" is that politicians are disbursing aid to farmers. The altruism of simpletons is not useless but it usually does not solve anything. What India’s vast but shrinking agrarian society needs is a serious and urgent mental healthcare system. But then when a lie is popular, and sacred, when a wrong diagnosis is made by the elite for ideological reasons, the solutions are farcical. And, it is possible that thousands of farmers, who were depressed, who were on the brink, were inspired to kill themselves because activists and the news media created conditions that were conducive for the Werther effect, or Copycat Suicides, a phenomenon in which people who are suicidal construe highly publicized or glorified suicides as endorsement of the act.

In the Blue Whale Challenge, there is one person in the chat room who is not expected to kill himself—the curator. Among the suicide squads of terror groups, too, the handler is the one who does not die. People who misrepresent a suicide as a political tragedy instead of what it is in its core—a psychiatric action—are not very different from those handlers who persuade the weak to die while staying alive to recruit more to die for a cause.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.

He tweets at @manujosephsan

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