We don’t know why Sushant Singh Rajput decided to end his life. He didn’t leave a note. But from Kangana Ranaut to the average Sarla chachi to TV news channels, everyone thinks they know exactly what happened.
Kangana Ranaut & Co have swayed the debate from mental health to a Bollywood witch hunt. Sushant Singh Rajput’s untimely demise was an opportunity for India, the suicide capital of the world, to talk mental health. But no, Indians are more interested in his partner Rhea Chakraborty, a CBI probe, Subramanian Swamy’s ‘expert analysis’, the driver, cook and bank account statements. Locked down Indians have finally got their dose of sensationalism, largely missing from their lives in the times of a pandemic. Six weeks since the actor’s death, the drama for those preying on its coverage, it seems, is yet to reach the climax.
On Saturday, the Bollywood actor’s therapist Susan Walker came out in defence of Rhea Chakraborty, saying “she didn’t kill him”. Walker said she was dismayed with media’s irresponsible coverage on mental health. She added that Sushant suffered from bipolar disorder and that Reha “gave him courage to seek help”.
Sushant Singh Rajput's Therapist Susan Walker reached out to @themojo_in & broke her silence. Says Media's irresponsible coverage on Mental Health dismayed her & made going public her "duty". Says Sushant "suffered from Bipolar Disorder" & "Rhea gave him courage to seek help" pic.twitter.com/R4wITRsPcB
— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) August 1, 2020
If only we felt this pain at the death of every Indian who died by suicide. If only we probed the death of every engineering student in IITs, or those studying in Kota and the IAS coaching factories with the same vigour and national alarm. And if only we blamed patriarchy, academia, our education system, the increasing loneliness in our society, and depression due to exhausting work hours but inadequate wages, just as we are blaming Rhea Chakraborty, we might have taken a positive step towards saving many lives, including Sushant’s. The suicides of Rohith Vemula, farmers, CRPF personnel, and married Indian women call for equal outrage, if not more.
The suicide capital of the world
As crude as it sounds, it’s true. India reports disproportionately high numbers of suicides, and more people decide to end their lives in our country than anywhere else.
According to a 2018 Lancet report, India accounts for 36 per cent of the world’s female suicides, while being home to only 18 per cent of the global female population. We also report about a quarter of the global male suicides, every year. These victims are often very young; suicide is the leading cause of death for Indians in the age group of 15-39.
India loses one student to suicide every hour, every day. Many students kill themselves because they give in to the pressure to excel by our society and an education system that always prioritises marks over knowledge. Let’s see if the New Education Policy changes that.
Lockdown has been detrimental to students’ mental health. A 21-year-old undergraduate who lived in my neighbourhood jumped off the 22nd floor of a building right in front of my society. No suicide note was found. A few days before his death, he did step out of his house to meet his friends. In Kerala, about 66 school students died by suicide during the lockdown.
Kota in Rajasthan, known as the ‘coaching capital’ to parents, is actually a suicide hotspot. The stories of mental pressure and torture that I’ve heard from those who lived in the education hub are horrifying. Staying away from family when you are as young as 15, being slut-shamed if you return to your hostel or PG after sunset and developing eating disorders are just some of the experiences that can eat into your mental peace.
There’s pressure to excel, and the students double down that pressure on themselves because they are aware of the huge sums of money their parents invest in them to stay in that desolate environment and crack those overly-competitive exams.
In Kota, as was told to me by a friend who studied there while preparing for AIPMT (now NEET), students were categorised into strong and weak groups and put in study batches accordingly. Now you can decide how demeaning it must be for those in the ‘weak’ group.
If these students fail a paper, or even score less, they are made to feel they have spoiled all prospects of living a decent life. Generation after generation this is the message our society has given them: XIIth boards mein 95 per cent le aa beta phir aish he aish hai (score well in boards and you will find success later on).
The issue of student suicide has been explored in popular films like 3 Idiots and even Rajput’s Chhichhore. But young, discouraged, disheartened students ending their lives every hour, every day somewhere in India isn’t sensational enough for us to start Twitter hashtags or Change.org petitions. After all, you might not find a woman to blame here.
While making up 8.6 per cent of the total population, Scheduled Tribes in India accounted for about 10 per cent of total suicides among caste groups, according to this 2016 report in The Indian Express. This was followed by Dalits who accounted for 9.4 per cent of all suicides.
Societal discrimination can be blamed for suicide among oppressed groups. The visuals of two children crying while their parents consumed pesticide before the police in Guna in protest against an anti-encroachment drive is a recent example of the atrocities faced by oppressed groups that push them to end their lives.
In cases of Rohith Vermula and Payal Tadvi, a medical student in Mumbai, the victims did point out who and what made them take their lives. But this wasn’t enough to bring India together and demand justice for the two bright students who were killed by the systemic caste oppression that thrives in university campuses across India.
If the existence of nepotism doesn’t let you sleep at night and you want Bollywood to be purged of undeserving actors, you must understand how casteism works. It is the biggest reason why you see so many papa ki savarna daughters and mummy ke spoilt brats on the big screen in India.
Why would you think the centuries-old practice of ‘doing exactly what your father did for a living’ will leave the Hindi film industry unaffected? Casteism is the root cause of nepotism, not only in Bollywood but across sectors.
Brahmin-baniyas make cliques everywhere — from academia to medicine to civil services to the Army. They then bully the ‘outsider’, the Dalit, as was the case with Rohith and Payal. Why did it not bother us then?
Why were only a handful of people, who many of us brand as ‘pseudo liberals’ or ‘urban-Naxals’, were demanding justice for Rohith and raising the issue of violent casteism seeped in Indian universities?
Imagine if our collective conscience had woken up much earlier to address the mental health pandemic in our country, primarily because of the centuries-old systemic oppression and increasingly because of capitalism, where the ‘work is life’ mantra is shoved down our throats.
Where we not so focussed on Rhea Chakraborty’s bank account, arm-chair activism and Twitter monologues could have brought about real policy intervention.
Blaming his partner, bullying Karan Johar or watching Kangana Ranaut interviews won’t bring Sushant justice. What can really help is preventing other Sushants from tightening the noose around their neck. And that will only happen if we push for better mental health policies. Nothing less would do.
Views are personal.