Everybody loves a good death in India

Can the direction of India’s agricultural and land-use policy be swayed by the suicide of one farmer?

Indian farmer irrigates his field on the outskirts of Allahabad, India [AP]
Indian farmer irrigates his field on the outskirts of Allahabad, India [AP]

“Everybody loves a good drought,” goes the title of the Indian journalist P Sainath’s classic book about rural distress in India. To judge from the unseemly clamour of India’s political class in the Indian capital, New Delhi, over the last day, everybody loves a good death too.

The Indian farmer Gajendra Singh Kalyanwat was one of a few thousand people to attend a rally organised on April 22 by the Indian political outfit the Aam Aadmi Party, which runs the state government of Delhi. Like many of the parties in opposition in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, the AAP had in the last week been trying to drum up resistance among India’s peasantry to the Land Acquisition ordinance, a forerunner of a crucial bill that Narendra Modi’s government had been trying to pass into law in the current session.

The bill, which the opposition parties have painted as a “pro-corporate” conspiracy designed to allow big business easy access to the lands of small farmers, had also run into some literal rough weather in recent weeks.

Indian farmer hangs himself at protest over land reform

Unseasonal rains in north India had grievously damaged maturing crops, leading the media to focus (as it does intermittently) on the long-term crisis in Indian agriculture, which over the last two decades has resulted in thousands of farmer suicides. 

Ignored at first

For a while, it seemed as if Singh, clad in the dhoti, kurta and safa (or turban) of the Rajasthani peasant, was just one of the throng. Even when Singh climbed up a tree, most people assumed he was trying to get a better view.

What happened next was, in the end, definitely a tragedy, but in the slow progress of its details it played itself out as a farce. Eyewitness reports said that Singh tried without much success to attract the attention of the crowd from the tree. Those politicians on stage who noticed him also ignored him. So did the police.

Finally, Singh tied a towel around a branch and then his neck, and let go. He hung for close to 10 minutes before the crowd got wind that something had gone terribly wrong. By the time he was brought down, he was already dead. As he was taken away to hospital, the rally, headed by Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, continued.

A politician with a flair for both political theatre and conspiracy theories, Kejriwal seems to have been persuaded to the very end that Singh’s actions were a stunt pre-programmed by his political adversaries and likely supported by the police (whom his state government does not control).

Even a day after his death, the reasons for Singh taking his own life remain mysterious. A “suicide note” emerged stating that the deceased, a father of three, had been turned out of his house by his own father after the unseasonal rain had destroyed his crops.

It’s hard to see how a law that has yet to come into effect can be the cause of a suicide, or why Singh should in death serve as a tabula rasa for political parties to write simplistic scripts that serve their own agendas.


But it’s hard to work Singh into the larger narrative of farmer suicides that, occurring in their thousands, have been a pointer for many years to the crisis in Indian agriculture. Reporters found that he came from what seemed to be a relatively prosperous farming family, that he had ran in two local elections in the past, and that he’d come to the Delhi protest with the intention of meeting Kejriwal and trying to join the Aam Aadmi Party.

Rhetoric and reality

None of these details held up the rhetoric of Delhi’s three major political parties, all of which rushed to claim the high ground on Singh’s death, proving, even if by a trivial example, just how hard it is to separate rhetoric from reality and sympathy from self-interest when it comes to arguments about the future of Indian farming.

Party spokesmen outdid themselves in trying to win the war of moral outrage for the benefit of TV cameras waiting to begin the long night of accusations and recriminations routine in nightly debates on prime time in news-hungry India.

For the AAP, Singh’s death was to be attributed both to the Delhi police and to the Land Acquisition ordinance.

The Congress, the main opposition party in Parliament, was particularly delighted to make Singh a martyr in support of the shallow tirade, full of simplistic binaries, against the bill launched this week by Rahul Gandhi, the party’s vice president and eternal heir-in-waiting of the Gandhi dynasty.

And the BJP, though thankfully not Modi himself, was only too keen to paint as cynical the AAP’s decision to continue its rally despite Singh’s death. The debate consumed proceedings in parliament, to no good end.

Manufactured war

The manufactured war over Singh’s death, and claims by all parties to represent the interests of the Indian farmer, will continue to play itself out for as along as the media can find viewers and performers. One hopes, though, that Indian citizens, if not the political class, have the good sense to leave Singh out of the debate on the Land Acquisition bill in the coming months.

Tragic though the farmer’s death was, it would be ridiculous if the direction of agricultural and land-use policy for a country of over a billion people were to be swayed by a single emotive incident in the capital, and not on facts and careful scholarship.

It’s hard to see how a law that has yet to come into effect can be the cause of a suicide, or why Singh should in death serve as a tabula rasa for political parties to write simplistic scripts that serve their own agendas.

In the absence of self-restraint or argumentative rigour among India’s political class, the strange demise of Gajendra Singh in New Delhi would be mourned best by a dignified silence.

Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and columnist based in New Delhi. His work on Indian politics appears regularly on Bloomberg View and in The Caravan.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.