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Kerala hit by spate of unexplained 'copycat suicides'; families, activists struggle to explain reasons

Shobhana still cannot get over the shock of losing her brother, Divakaran. "I am clueless as to why he would commit suicide. He deserted his two children, aged 13 and six. I can't see any reason why he would take such a drastic step," she said.

Relatives of Divakaran C

Divakaran's relatives. Firstpost/Rejimon K

Even more worrying is the fact that Divakaran's suicide is no isolated case. He was only the latest of several youngsters, all members of Scheduled Tribe communities, who have killed themselves in and around Padole, a small hamlet on the foothills of Kerala's Western Ghats.

Divakaran, who was also an elected member of the local government body since the last 10 years, was found hanging in his house in Pangode, a tribal settlement located 60 kms from Kerala's capital city of Thiruvananthapuram.

According to the state government, 45 tribals have committed suicide in Palode and nearby areas since 2012. Of them, 43 were found hanging. All the deceased were aged between 15 and 50.

It was actually an alleged suicide by a college student that led to an inquiry that uncovered several other, possibly related cases. On 31 July, a studious, college-going girl had killed herself over trivial reasons at her father's house. Before this, it turned out, 47-year-old Sreekumar was found hanging at his house in Njaraneeli, leaving behind his wife, two young children, and an aged father.

Ambily Sreekumar. Firstpost/Rejimon K

Ambily Sreekumar. Firstpost/Rejimon K

"Everything was fine. He was a loving person, who always spoke of togetherness. In the mornings, when I went to the goat shed, I found him dead," said his widowed wife, Ambily Sreekumar, her voice breaking and tears streaming down her cheeks. "Just the night before, he was talking of doing the paperwork regarding our daughter's marriage. But the very next morning, I found him dead."

Sreekumar was the sole breadwinner for the household. Since his demise, his 12-year-old son has also become extremely moodi, Ambily cried. "The future looks so bleak for us," she said.

Social activists, who have worked with the locals in these tribal settlements, are afraid of a "copycat suicide epidemic" doing the rounds. "The numbers are increasing. And when we go into the details, we will realise that there are no valid reasons behind any of these suicides," said Mini Mohan, a social activist in Thiruvananthapuram.

Vikraman Kani, a neighbourhood resident, said that social exclusion, unemployment, alcoholism and an increasingly bleak future were leading to so many people committing suicide. "When people like us are harassed by the upper castes, we go to the police. But we aren't treated fairly. We don't get justice. We are pushed away," said Kani, who himself belongs to a Scheduled Tribe.

Kani, who works at the state transport corporation, alleged that his colleagues often look down upon him on the basis of his caste.

Firstpost/Rejimon K

Vikraman Kani. Firstpost/Rejimon K

Dhanya Raman, a social activist who focuses on issues faced by Dalit communities, said that a detailed study has to be initiated to find the real reason behind these suicides. "I have visited 38 houses in the Njaraneeli area. Not everybody who committed suicide was alcoholic. There are even some cases of young girls who killed themselves. We clearly need to have a detailed probe into these cases to find a solution," Raman said.

Citing a recent case of sexual abuse that was uncovered in Njaraneeli, Raman said timely intervention was the only thing that might have avoided yet another suicide. "A tribal girl was molested by an auto driver. Fortunately, she managed to free herself and run away. We supported her through counselling and support, or she too could have committed suicide," she said.

Raman added that on one fateful day in 2011, they registered 57 rape cases, which indicates the spread of the problem.

Meanwhile, Mohan Roy, a professor of Psychiatry at Thiruvananthapuram Medical College, said that most people who take such a drastic step have an emotional or mental disorder. "In areas where suicides are occurring frequently, a probe has to be initiated. We should identify the issues and address them. We also need a long-term, holistic support system in place," Mohan added.

Meanwhile, the Kerala State Human Rights Commission (KSHRC) has sought a deeper probe into the series of deaths. P Mohandas, acting chairperson of the commision, directed the district police chief to ensure an inquiry into the incident is carried out by a police official not less than the rank of deputy superintendent of police, and a report is submitted within one month.

The commission also sought the chief secretary of the social justice department to open an inquiry into the reasons behind the incident and to submit a report within one month.

Updated Date: Aug 16, 2017 15:26 PM

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