Media and Suicide: Sushant Singh Rajput and Kalikho Pul, Four Years and Two Worlds Apart

I do not recall TV anchors trending the hashtag ‘Justice for Kalikho Pul’ and screaming that the persons Pul had named in his note were “murderers’, or abettors of suicide.

Trigger warning: Discussions of suicide.

On World Suicide Prevention Day, which is today, September 10, you might consider looking away for a moment from the continuing media circus around the tragic death by suicide of film actor Sushant Singh Rajput and thinking, even if in passing, about Kalikho Pul.

It was only four years ago that the former chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh died by suicide and left a note implicating two sitting judges of the Supreme Court and a former president of India. One of the judges was chief justice of India at the time; the other went on to succeed the other as CJI.

A case crucial to Pul’s political career had come up before the Supreme Court and the note indicated that his inability to satisfy the demands for money made by persons supposedly acting on behalf of the judges had led him to take the extreme step. Sushant Singh Rajput did not leave any note blaming anybody for his death. Kalikho Pul did. He wrote 60 reasoned, methodical pages,titled ‘Mere Vichar’ or ‘My Thoughts’ and he named many names.

However, on August 9, 2016, three days after Pul’s body was discovered, the ANI news agency – widely recognised as the unofficial mouthpiece of the regime – put out a ‘flash’ tweet saying that “MHA sources confirm no suicide note found. Reason could be depression.”

Also Read: Ex-Arunachal CM’s Explosive Suicide Note that BJP is Refusing to Probe

Official sources officially neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the suicide note. Unofficially, through ANI, under the cover of anonymous ‘sources’, they denied it and put out ‘depression’ as the cause.

Nowadays, the TV anchors who have turned into studio psychiatrists overnight are taking great pains to debunk the possibility that Sushant Singh Rajput may have had depression. As if depression, which apparently cost Kalikho Pul his life, and which is an illness like any other, were something to be ashamed of.

How would Sushant Singh Rajput’s ‘reputation and standing’ be affected in any way if the fact that he may have had depression were to be considered? The TV pundits refuse to answer this question. Instead, they persist in walking the thin edge of risking stigmatising depression and those who suffer from it, in order to maintain their stance of being in denial. This, despite the fact that Sushant Singh Rajput blamed no one, leaving no indication that he wanted to communicate an ‘external cause’ for the extremity of his distress.

On the other hand, the existence of a detailed first-person testimony articulating what drove a seasoned politician like Kalikho Pul to suicide demanded at least an investigation firstly into its veracity, and secondly, into the possibility that factors beyond the presumption of depression alone may have been at play. The TV news cycle did not consider either of these lines of inquiry worthy of attention.

When The Wire obtained and published the full text of Pul’s note in February 2017, I do not recall TV anchors trending the hashtag ‘Justice for Kalikho Pul’ and screaming that the persons Pul had named in his note were “murderers’, or abettors of suicide.

I don’t even recall any attention being paid to Kalikho Pul’s widow’s efforts to seek legal redress. She demanded a CBI enquiry, but was not listened to by the Big Media or, of course, the BJP, which was so keen to bring the CBI in to the Sushant Singh Rajput case. Barring reports in a few places like The Wire and The Quint, the matter remained encased in a hushed silence. As if there had never been a man called Kalikho Pul. As if he had never risen from very humble beginnings to become chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh. As if he had never killed himself.

Was that because there was no young woman available who could be pilloried to satisfy the misogynist collective conscience of the Republic? Or was it because there was no urgent political mileage to be gained from squeezing the circumstances surrounding his death by suicide for all that it was worth? Whatever the case may be, I do not recall news crews waiting in stealth, in breathless anticipation, ready to pounce on pizza delivery men at the door of the residence of the chief justice of India.

The persistently rising figures for death by suicide involving people thrown to the margins of our society – farmers, workers, daily wagers, students, young women, soldiers – reveal the heartlessness of our republic. The name of Rohith Vemula still haunts us all.

The suicide of a politically significant figure like the former chief minister of a sensitive border state reveals the hollow centre of the political and judicial order that maintains our republic. The name of Kalikho Pul has been forgotten.

But neither of these realities are ‘sexy’ enough for the attention of our predatory television news networks. It’s very sad to know that the culture of Indian television is cold enough to take a call and make decisions based on the cosmetics of suicide and the fine art of making the necessary distinctions between TRP-raising suicides and TRP-lowering suicides.

There’s a word for this in English – it’s the fetish of ‘Necrophilia’.  The next time you see anchors like Arnab Goswami or Rahul Shivshankar or Navika Kumar or their clones, remember that word. It reveals who they are and what they do.

If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers (www.spif.in/seek-help/) they can call to speak in confidence. You could also refer or accompany them to the nearest hospital.

Shuddhabhrata Sengupta is with the Raqs Collective in New Delhi.