The death of 25-year-old Vignesh, member of the Tamil Nadu fringe group Naam Tamilar, on Friday morning, became just another addition to suicide statistics. Eighteen hours earlier, he had set himself on fire in Egmore while taking part in the party's procession, protesting against Tamil Nadu's rights over Cauvery water and the attacks on Tamils in Karnataka. He was rushed to the Kilpauk Medical College Hospital with 93 percent burns, where he fought an unsuccessful battle against death.
Vignesh hailed from Mannargudi near Thanjavur, 330 km south of Chennai. He was the secretary of the Naam Tamilar youth wing in Mannargudi. A rural boy who perhaps thought he will make Chennai remember him for some time to come.
According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, Tamil Nadu has consistently been among the top two states for the highest number of suicides in India, with over 16,000 people killing themselves every year. Chennai had the dubious distinction of the maximum number of suicides in any Indian city, 2,214 in the year 2014.
Self-immolation has been an oft-used route to commit suicide in Tamil Nadu. In 2013, around 2,098 people in the state immolated themselves, translating to an average of over five cases per day. Of the self-immolation incidents in India, nearly 13 percent were reported from Tamil Nadu.
What is it about Tamil Nadu that setting oneself on fire is one of the preferred ways to commit suicide? The state has a history of many political cadres attempting this method; during the anti-Hindi agitation or when MGR was hospitalised and later died, or over the Sri Lankan issue."
"Something is seriously wrong with the DNA of Tamil people,'' says R Mani, a senior journalist. "It is also copycat activity because these acts are subsequently glorified by political speakers instead of ignoring or condemning them."
Mani quotes the case of a Tamil journalist and activist Muthukumar who set himself on fire in Chennai at the height of the civil war in Sri Lanka in January 2009. His death not only led to considerable unrest in Tamil Nadu but also resulted in six others emulating Muthukumar in Tamil Nadu and abroad. Till date, the 26-year-old is eulogised, which only serves as some kind of an incentive to other weak minds to emulate for a cause in the quest for martyrdom.
In the book 'The Copycat Effect', published in 2004, author Loren Coleman writes about how self-immolation came to acquire the stature of a potent political tool in the mid-60s during the anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu.
He writes : "In 1965, political self-immolations were used in widespread protests in India. As the villagers of Kizhapazhuvur in Tamil Nadu's Tiruchi district looked on in shock, Chinnaswamy, a poor farmer, set fire to his gasoline-saturated body on the eve of Republic Day in 1965 for the preservation of the Tamil language. After his death, Tamil Nadu became the scene of a new, fiery form of Indian political protest: self-immolation. The next night, TM Sivalingam of Kodambakkam in Chennai immolated himself, protesting the imposition of Hindi on Dravidian land. And the next day, Aranganathan of Virugambakkam in Chennai took the same route to death for the same cause. The spate of suicides over the imposition of Hindi continued for a week that year leaving as many as nine people dead, and Tamil Nadu came to be labelled as the land of self-immolation. In the months that followed, the government withdrew its call to outlaw the Tamil language. (Today, self-immolations in India are said to be caused by the "Chinnaswamy effect".)
But it is highly unlikely that Vignesh's so-called martyrdom will get him anywhere. Social activists say Tamil Nadu sees many such youths getting sucked by the empty rhetoric of fiery speeches eulogising Tamil pride and getting emotionally manipulated.
People like Naam Tamilar leader Seeman peddle anti-Tamil venom and youths like Vignesh buy it. Those coming from a rural background get brainwashed. This kind of divisive politics is dangerous as they will now make a martyr out of the boy only to further their own interests,'' says Chandramohan, a social activist
When an AIADMK woman party member attempted suicide in August 2014, reportedly upset over a derogatory article about Jayalalithaa that was published on the Sri Lankan Defence ministry website, the AIADMK chief wrote her a letter asking the party cadre not to resort to such extreme steps. But that did not stop many of them from doing the same when she was sent to jail a month later in the Disproportionate Assets case.
Psychologists attribute this to a form of hysteria where the physical pain is seen as some kind of distraction from emotional pain. "When you think what you believe in is being challenged, you get into a self-destruct mode. In fact, in most cases, those who survive, regret the spur-of-the-moment decision. Also self-immolation in public, as opposed to say consuming poison or hanging oneself, is seen as being martyred and attracts attention. They feel they have strengthened the movement,'' says Purnima Nagaraja, clinical psychiatrist.
Vignesh's father is a farmer and mother is a tailor. He was youngest of two siblings and has a sister who is married. After finishing a diploma in mechanical engineering, Vignesh was working in a bicycle company. On Friday, Naam Tamilar cadre fought with the police, insisting that his body after post-mortem should be kept for some time at the party office in Chennai before being sent home for final rites. The process of portraying him as a hero has already begun, with Vignesh now being called 'Veerathamilan' (Brave Tamilian). This sort of hero worship is what all another weak mind needs as an incentive to emulate.