Trigger Warning: Suicide
‘A 14-year-old Dalit girl from Mallappuram, Kerala, set herself on fire for not being able to attend online classes.’
Or at least, that’s what most of the mainstream news articles declared in their headlines, as revealed by a simple Google search. Only a few mentioned that she was a Dalit. The rest hid it inside the body of their article, safely, for their indifferent savarna readers to never come across while scrolling. A significant number of people who did read the entire articles, opined on how kids these days are ‘weak-willed‘ and how suicide is never the answer to anything, especially something as trivial as missing some classes.
That made me wonder, did she really die by suicide over missing classes? Or is there something more malignant about her death that is being overlooked?
In my opinion, the investigation and the news reports have been rather one-dimensional. As someone who has suffered from depression with suicidal ideation, I can definitely say that there is never just one reason. The reason in the news reports is merely the last reason—the final tipping point. It is the one the victim’s parents are using to blame the school authorities and the one that Dalit activists are using to protest against the government. But it is not the only reason, just the one that is getting more visibility. If we looked at all the other reasons, there would be a centuries-old, casteist socio-political system to blame.
The way we report and talk about suicide is fundamentally wrong. We make it look like a one-time impulse triggered by an isolated incident; we consider it the ‘coward’s‘ way out. We blame the nearest possible incident that could have upset the victim, often the most convenient one. We make it more palatable for those who have never ideated suicide, we hide the ugly details, we make our stories sell for the audience to consume over their morning beverage and paraphrase it in social small talk later in the day, while thinking of fifty other ways they could have dealt with that exact problem, and then declare that suicide is never the answer. The truth is, forty-nine of those solutions are a direct result of the reader’s socio-cultural and consequently, their economic privilege.
A patient of severe clinical depression contemplates suicide for weeks, months, or even years before finally going through with it. They die by suicide when they cannot see any hope for themselves and they have nothing in their lives to remind them of that.
To understand all the factors that played a role in this particular suicide, let us look at the facts. Nearly three months into the pandemic-induced nationwide lockdown, in its fifth edition (Lockdown 5.0) the Central government allowed for a phased re-opening of some commercial businesses and public places. Schools however, were to remain closed for the whole month of June. Soon after, the Kerala State government announced their online sessions called First Bell, for classes I to XII, every Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., to be televised on the KITE Victers channel and uploaded on YouTube.
According to a report published by the IAMAI (Internet And Mobile Association of India) in 2019, Kerala has a 54% internet penetration, the second-highest in the country, albeit among the states with a significant disparity between the distribution of internet in urban and rural areas. Moreover, internet access to just half of the population is not good enough to make a fundamental right like education completely dependent on it, however temporarily it maybe. This was the biggest oversight on the part of the government.
Also read: A Dalit Woman’s Body In The Indian Courtroom
The victim, Devika, was the daughter of a daily wage labourer. As per The Quint’s report, she lived in the Mankeri Dalit Colony with her parents and her infant sibling, and went to school on the Ayyankali scholarship. However, they did not have a functional TV or a smartphone, which had made her very anxious about not being able to attend the online classes. Her father presumably did not have much work in the last couple of months, and the lockdown has been extremely difficult for them financially.
Devika was also a Dalit. Any Indian who is reading this, probably knows some things about Dalits, accurate or otherwise. Dalits are excluded from the Hindu caste system, and have been oppressed in this country for generations, and over centuries. If you’re born a Dalit in the Indian community, you’re automatically switched up to the hardest game mode for life. It couldn’t have been any easier for Devika. She earned her education scholarship by being an exceptionally bright student, something an average middle class savarna child wouldn’t have to worry about in middle school.
Things probably weren’t easy for her socially either, although there are no documented reports on the caste-based bullying and name-calling she must have faced in school. We can only surmise based on what happens to the (approximately) 20 crore other Dalits in this country (as per the 2011 Census Report). An analysis of NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) data from 2016 revealed that the highest incidence of suicide are among Christians, Dalits and Adivasis in India. For the sake of argument we can say that Devika was just statistically prone to suicide, same as Payal Tadvi and Rohith Vemula, without ever wondering how we might have unknowingly contributed to those statistics.
All these factors had a role to play in Devika’s suicide. She had invariably been discriminated against because of her caste, felt inferior to her savarna classmates, had financial worries, and on account of being a girl, doubly persecuted. It is quite evident that her education was the only thing anchoring her self-esteem. When she was deprived of online classes, that too was gone.
Furthermore, if we must assume that Devika had mental health problems, we must also realise that she had no therapist or counsellor to talk to. She possibly did not have enough awareness about depression to recognize the symptoms. Even if she did, she definitely could not have afforded a visit to a mental health professional. I have a safety net of online and offline therapists to consult during my darker days. Most of you have probably been to therapy or considered going to a counsellor at some point in your life.
Devika did not have that privilege. Money and the internet do not make us any stronger than the lack thereof makes her any weaker. Her safety net was her education, something that gave her the hope of a brighter future, perhaps one where she would not be oppressed because of her caste position. It was her way out of a very discriminatory system, until the same system took it away from her by sheer negligence, then chopped up her whole story and reduced her life into bite-sized articles to satiate their savarna readership.
Mehnaz is a doctor in the making, who wants to save the world although she is constantly angry with it. She loves experimenting with food and chasing pretty sunsets, and hopes to bring about intersectional change in the medical community through her work and writing.