A SUICIDE phenomenon is unfolding in Telangana, similar to the self-immolation of Tibetans demanding a ‘Free Tibet’, but the demand for a new state is not the only factor fuelling it. In 2013 alone, there have been five reported cases of suicide, mostly among students. While most suicide notes, like that of 19-year-old Kadavendi Neeraj Bharadwaj, a civil engineering student from Warangal, who took his own life on 4 February, blame the Congress for its inaction on the issue of a separate Telangana state, that is not the whole story.
Between November 2009 and January 2012, Telangana had seen 849 suicides. While some of the suicides have been over the issue of statehood, many are the result of debilitating socio-economic conditions. Today, farmers, weavers and students are being pushed to the brink by a deadly cocktail of poverty, indebtedness, agrarian crisis, dim employment prospects and constant political propaganda that they have no future without a separate state.
While lives are being lost, political muckraking continues to rage in Andhra Pradesh. A local court in Ranga Reddy district in the Telangana region, acting on a private petition, has urged the police to register FIRs against Finance Minister P Chidambaram, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and the Congress AP in-charge Ghulam Nabi Azad for “making false promises, cheating the people and creating a situation dangerous to social order”. A Hyderabad-based BJP leader has moved another private petition against UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi for abetting suicides in Telangana.
In the Telangana movement, the lower castes seem to have become the foot-soldiers whose suicides are often the result of being pushed into an existence devoid of human dignity. In fact, almost all those who killed themselves in the name of Telangana were from the Scheduled Castes (SCs) or Other Backward Castes (OBCs), while no one from the Velamma community of K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) — the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) supremo leading the Telangana movement — is reported to have committed suicide.
In the village of Mansanapalli in Warangal district’s Bachannapet mandal, nobody knows that better than the parents of 25-year-old Ponnaibona Ashok. Belonging to the extremely backward Mudiraj caste (hereditary village watchmen), they work on their 2-acre farm that barely fetches them an annual income of 50,000. On the morning of 14 December 2009, Ashok consumed pesticide and left behind a one-page suicide note, barely a month after completing his BEd course, which said he had failed to find a job despite his education. “He thought Telangana was the only hope if he was to land a job,” says Ramaswamy Yadagiri, his father.
Soon after Ashok’s suicide, activists from pro-Telangana groups arrived in the village and claimed he had died for Telangana, driven purely by the “sense of betrayal for not being given a separate state”. A large number of youth in the village are graduates, some are even postgraduates. Most loiter around the village and help their families in the fields.
Mansanapalli is part of an ‘atrocity prone area’ under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. No village in the Bachannapet mandal has received funds under the Rajiv Yuva Shakti Scheme, launched in 2004 by the then CM of AP, YS Rajashekhara Reddy, for providing employment to the youth. “Many students drop out at the higher secondary level because they have to help their parents in the fields,” says Ashok’s roommate Srisailam. “Those who manage to reach college and graduate also end up working in the fields along with the school dropouts.”
While many youth from Telangana’s villages study in the big cities of AP, few manage to eke out a living there and often return to a life that seldom justifies the huge investments made in acquiring their degrees. Agriculture, too, is a risky proposition. A drought-prone region, Telangana’s woes have multiplied with the massive use of borewells. In Ashok’s village, the water table has dropped to 150 feet and many farmers face crop failure in a bad rain year. The passbook of Ashok’s parents shows they still owe the bank a sum of Rs 45,000 and are teetering on the brink of defaulting on loan repayments with another Rs 10,000 due to an LIC agent.
WHILE SUICIDES are invariably branded as emotional responses to a political problem, politicians in the state have been guilty of pushing real issues like unemployment and chronic indebtedness under the carpet, choosing instead to hijack personal tragedies and drown them in the cacophony of propaganda. Take the case of Manda Srinivas, a 32-year-old farmer from Athmakuru village of Warangal district. TRS activists and panchayat leaders claim Srinivas died “fasting” for Telangana on 22 December 2009. Srinivas left behind a wife and two daughters aged 10 and 4, who now live in a one-room house in the Dalit quarter of the village. Srinivas had taken a 2-acre plot on lease for cotton farming, on an annual rent of Rs 15,000. To buy pesticides and hire labourers, he took a loan of 1 lakh at a low annual interest of 5 percent, besides promising a part of his produce as part of the repayment.
In December 2009, Srinivas took his cotton produce to the market, but it was rejected on account of its poor quality by private buyers as well as the Cotton Corporation of India. Confronted by his creditors and humiliated, Srinivas consumed pesticide on the night of 22 December that year. “When Srinivas could not support his family, he ended his life. A Dalit who barely managed to keep his family alive could not have given up his life for Telangana,” says Sanga Mahendra, a member of the Dalit organisation Madiga Reservation Porata Samiti. After Srinivas’ death, his wife now works as an agricultural labourer on a daily wage of Rs 100-150. The daughters too join in on some days when work is abundant, bunking school to augment the family income.
The Telangana region has been a hotbed for suicides, especially among farmers, weavers and others from the backward castes. Two-thirds of the suicides in AP from 1996 to 2007 were reported from this region. The Sri Krishna Committee report notes, “Due to drought, failure of new varieties of cotton and loss of livelihood among weavers, between May 2004 and November 2005, Telangana reported 663 suicides out of a total of 1,068 reported suicides (in AP). Based on an analysis of one district from each region, Prakasam from coastal Andhra, Medak from Telangana and Anantapur from Rayalaseema, coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema showed greater number of suicides among the forward castes while Telangana showed a distribution across forward castes, OBCs and SCs.”
While suicides due to distress, especially among the Dalits and the backward castes, have been a recurrent feature in Telangana, the 2009-10 phase of the agitation for statehood saw 313 suicides between 30 November 2009 and 27 February 2010, 218 of which were committed by people aged 18-50. “Many were influenced by the antics of KCR and his nephew Harish Rao. On 29 November that year, Harish doused himself with kerosene but could not find a matchbox to light the fire. KCR threatened to cut himself with broken glass and bleed to death,” says S Simhadri, a professor at Osmania University (OU), Hyderabad. “This sent a dangerous message to young and gullible minds already apprehensive about the future. They kept reminding the people that Telangana is the panacea to all their woes. Many youngsters saw in such actions a chance to redeem their lives and become heroes.”
Simhadri’s opinion finds an echo in the Sri Krishna report, which notes, “The oratory of TRS leader KC Rao has made them believe that a secure future for them lies only in a separate state.” Psychologists term this phenomenon as the ‘Marilyn Monroe syndrome’, where people blindly kill themselves after the death of their revered icon.
ONE WORRYING aspect of this politics of suicide is the predominance of students who have succumbed to it. On 19 February 2010, Venugopal Reddy, a 19-year-old student of a private college on Hyderabad’s outskirts, was found charred beyond recognition behind an auditorium of the OU. Soon after, the nation was shocked by visuals of a youngster ablaze outside the university gates. Yadaiah, an orphan who worked at a local restaurant to fund his own education, was neither a student of OU nor associated with any political party. Once his self-immolation was aired live on TV, politicians of every colour scrambled to brand it a Telangana suicide. However, many photojournalists who were present near Yadaiah recall he was shouting, “Save me, please save me” rather than “Jai Telangana”, as the TRS claimed.
Students from Telangana are often the first in their families to reach college and have a steely resolve to succeed. Take Meegada Sai Kumar, son of a marginal farmer and a second year chemical engineering student, who was paying his way through college by giving private maths tuitions. He hanged himself to death on 7 November 2010. “Kumar was frustrated that exams were not being postponed despite a shutdown of classes at OU, and feared he would fail because of the time he lost participating in the Telangana movement,” says Kumar’s close friend.
Few people have seen this frenzy at such close quarters as Diana Monteiro of the Hyderabad Institute of Psychology. Diana admits there has been a spate of ‘copycat suicides’, with students emulating what they see on the television. Within 12 hours of Yadaiah’s suicide, three other students committed suicide after watching the footage on television. Many students have got their friends to visit Monteiro for counselling when they saw suicidal tendencies in them. “The glorification of suicides by politicians exacerbate the suicidal tendencies among students from Telangana. The OU is an unpredictable place where the situation changes from calm to volatile in a matter of seconds. It can be shut down a day before exams and this really scares poor students, who are the only hope for their families,” says Monteiro. “The Telangana agitation reinforces these fears, and students are pushed to the brink by the propaganda of a doomed future without a new state.”
Yet, not many are willing to question the leaders who brand every suicide a contribution to the political goals of the Telangana movement. Till date, the TRS has not issued any directive calling for an end to suicides. “It’s not as if students are not bothered by social issues. The only way to stop these suicides is to form Telangana,” says M Kodandaram, Convener, Telangana Joint Action Committee.
There are no signs that the suicides will stop. Farmers are still consuming pesticides when they cannot afford one square meal a day. Weavers are committing suicide when they cannot bear the daily humiliation by their creditors. Dalit students are ending their lives when they fail to extricate their families from a life of misery. Opportunistic elements seem to have hijacked a people’s movement, ensuring that even if Telangana becomes a new state, it will only be a mirror image of what it is as part of AP. The suicides reveal what pushes people to the edge: feudalistic mindsets and perennial problems, both of which won’t go away anytime soon.