Political parties are used to viewing every unnatural death as an opportunity—the ruling parties in the state get leverage with the centre, the opposition parties have a new bullet point in their litany of complaints against the ruling party, the ones that don’t matter get to enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame by sending their leaders to meet bereaved families and make the right or wrong noises about competitive examinations and police brutality and government ineptitude.
Journalists who have been crawling like maggots around the homes and workplaces of the dead will be glad to have something to report—the amount of compensation received from each party, the views of each political leader, the reactions of the disaster tourists joining the brood of maggots.
Every time a student commits suicide, we blame the “system”. The National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET) has been a sore point with several states since its inception. Politicians claim, and the public agree, that the competitive exam imposes an unfair disadvantage on those who have not had an elite education. What is does for certain is take away a point on their manifestos—they can no longer make promises on behalf of medical education. It levels the playing field in theory, and eventually will in practice.
But the problem is not competitive examinations. Every examination, even relatively unimportant ones, has been a trigger for student suicides. Students often leave behind letters saying they were afraid of the results—not simply because a low score would deprive them of further education, but because they were afraid of the reactions of their families, or were unable to live with the guilt of having been a financial burden on their families and not delivered on the investment.
We will have to live with the fact that there needs to be a gauge for qualification for entry into colleges, and then another gauge for qualification for entry into employment, particularly when performing one’s duties involves being responsible for the health and even lives of others. Examinations have been one of these gauges. There are others too.
An invisible gauge is one’s passion for the subject.
How many students writing the NEET, or any other competitive exam such as the IIT-JEE, or the UPSC, have a passion for the course that their careers will take if they were to succeed in the examination? How many more take the examination for the sake of the honour and prestige and parental or societal approval and validation that those careers will guarantee?
The villains are not the examinations. Among the three students who killed themselves in Tamil Nadu on the eve of the examinations, one had spoken of being afraid of letting her parents down and written several times that she could not handle the pressure; another had excelled in the mock examination.
The villains are not the parents either.
What kills people is the fear of betraying expectations, the shame of being a burden on their families.
And when political parties compete to dole out compensation to the bereaved, they set a trend.
Farmer suicides have been attributed not simply to the failure of monsoons, but the hope that they will be able to look after their families in death better than they could in life—whether life insurance pays off or not, the government and opposition compensation certainly will tide their families through the financial crisis.
What the bereaved need is not a channel for blame. Screaming about the unfairness of NEET converts their guilt into anger, and allows them to blame an idea or person instead of blaming themselves. The media is happy to latch on to this. The Twitterati tweet.
But in the privacy of their homes, away from the spotlight, knowing all the money in the world will not bring back their dear departed, the bereaved do feel guilt.
In the case of other unnatural deaths—unrelated to examinations, but either suicide or homicide or the result of negligence too—the families are struggling with guilt and grief. It is bad enough when someone dies of natural causes—one wonders what one could have done that might have saved them. Knowing that the person would be alive if not for a moment of negligence or hatred or self-loathing or other transient cause is a permanent source of torment.
It has always been my belief that all of us need some form of professional mental healthcare. Just as we have physical health check-ups every now and again, we ought to have our minds checked too.
People who have been through trauma need this urgently. They need their ways out of the darkness. The idea of compensation was to make up for the loss of a breadwinner. However, at the rate at which it is being doled out by vested interests, “compensation” has begun to feel like blood money.
If the government does care about its citizens, it cannot limit its aid to payouts.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Nobel for economist, tailspin for economy
Why the Diaspora has so much love to give
Hindi debate: We are all obsessed with homogeneity
We are choking the earth
The delusionary Indian intellectual
India's culture of worship has to end
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com