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April 24, 2018
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The politics of life and deathSuicide for a “cause” has crept into the Tamil psyche; it should not be glorified

Political suicides in Tamil Nadu, often in the form of immolations, continue to rudely shake society even in this day and age. Some sympathisers of such trends consider vadakkiruthal (facing north and fasting unto death), an age-old Tamil practice, as an early pointer to sacrificing one’s life, particularly by means of self-immolation in modern times, for a public cause.

Dravidian-style politics seemed to have given a new life to such regressive thinking and practices. When Tamil king Kopperumchozhan decided to end his life through vadakkiruthal, as he was unhappy with the affairs of his kingdom, he also reserved a seat for his poet-friend Pichiranthaiyar. They had never met but had developed a bond through his poems. After hearing of the king’s decision, Pichiranthaiyar came to the spot and both died together. Their story is seen to glorify death for a public cause, say some commentators.

“The practice that existed among the royals percolated to the grassroots level during the emergence of the Dravidian Movement as the leaders struck a close bond with the masses through their political discourse,” said Dr. V. Arasu, former head of the Tamil Department of the University of Madras.

Self-sacrifice was prevalent in Tamil society and there are records and stone inscriptions about the practice. Velakkara padai, a special force that gained popularity during the reign of the Chola king Raja Raja, actually was a sacrificial squad that was formed to protect the king. Nava Kandam was another practice. In this, people had their bodies chopped into nine parts and offered to the goddess Kali. Kalingathu Parani, a Tamil literary work, has references to it.

Dr. Arasu explained that the new culture of considering the party or organisation as a large family brought in a huge change in the way a cadre associated himself or herself with the leaders and the organisation. “It is beyond understanding how it crept into the Tamil psyche because the Dravidian Movement always placed a thrust on rational approach. Self-sacrifice is the zenith of all form of protests,” he said.

A new halo

Beginning with the anti-Hindi agitation, self-immolation got a new halo when cadres ended their lives when their favourite leaders died. Self-immolations immediately after the death of C.N. Annadurai, the founder of the DMK and Chief Minister; M.G. Ramachandran were cases in point.

Across the Palk Straits, where the Eelam war was fought, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) seemed to have put its imprint on suicide as a means to ‘martyrdom’.

“While political suicides cannot be equated with other suicides, even in the case of political suicides politics is not the single factor that triggered the extreme step. They are not impulsive, but slightly mature cases,’’ argued Dr. Sivabalan Elangovan, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the SRM Institute for Medical Sciences.

He said the support system — both from the family and society — from the perspective of the victims, their responsibilities and value system played a major part also in political suicides. “When the person feels that he is no longer useful, dying for a cause dominates his mind,” said Dr. Elangovan.

Dr. Arasu said the practice should not be encouraged and must be criticised strongly as a person who ended his life for a political cause also in a way assumes the mindset of a patient suffering from mental disorders and diseases.