NO ONE STOPS even momentarily over a headline that one has already read with an annoying degree of regularity. Repetition defeats the very purpose of the headline. A headline must not appear on two consecutive days. It definitely must not appear so many times in a month.
Unless you do not want people to read it.
But since editors are not bothered, readers have developed an instinctive sense to glide past it. As they scour the newspaper pages, their eyes trained to prioritise with the help of font sizes, blurbs, pictures and box items, they know what to ignore, what to leave out. They already know what they think they already know. So, they skip past this headline. Been there, read that. Why read again?
Karze ne layee ikk hor kisan di jaan.
Karze thalle kisan ne keeti atam hatiya.
Manse vich ikko din 3 kisana ne keeti atam hatiya.
Sometimes, a sub-editor in a newspaper office gets bored and tries to induce some poignancy in the headline.
Aarhtiye de karze thalle dabbe kisan ne keeti jeewan leela smapat.
It does not work. People have been there, read that. You know what the story contains — the name of the dead man, his village, the amount of debt, possibly details of his family members. Often, the mode of suicide is mentioned — consuming Celphos tablets is a particular favourite, hanging from a fan a close second, followed by jumping into the canal, and being cut to pieces underneath a train. Walking across to the fields and setting oneself afire makes an appearance now and then.
In more than a decade of such news about farmers committing suicide, the media or the political class has not even put a face to the issue. Which face do you recall when you think of hundreds of farmers committing suicide in Punjab?
The November anti-Sikh massacres have a face — black and white pictures of riot affected areas. The Gujarat 2002 riots have the face of Qutubuddin Ansari. It is possible you do not remember his name, but it is impossible for you to forget his face. Remember Rajiv Goswami? Chances are that you don’t. Google his name, and you will immediately recall this the commerce student at the Deshbandhu College, Delhi University, who set himself afire and became the face of the anti-Mandal agitation.
There has always been a face to any agitation that exhorted vast sections of society.
Thousands of dead farmers hung to death, immolated themselves, died by drowning selves, consumed Celphos tablets, but could not become a cause with a face and a slogan. That's because in most cases, the media did not even humanise their stories.
Now, farmer suicides make it to front pages of national newspapers only if four or six of them die on the same day. Or two brothers die on the same day.
Punjab now has villages that have seen 40 suicides, but they have never seen an OB van trudging into the village. It is damn hard to become Breaking News.
Somewhere down the line, we stopped noticing that even the routine reaction had stopped.
A local MLA condoling the death of a farmer who committed suicide, an opposition party condemning the government's apathy after a farmer, or two, or six, commit suicide — none of that happens now. Farmers or farm labourers committing suicide is so routine now that the news item reads like a pro forma. The opposition cannot be bothered about issuing template press releases of condemnation of the state government every single day. Boiler plate paragraphs also have an impact-expiry date.
The boredom tone set in long back. You have stopped reading the news report because you have been there, read that already, so many times. The local administration has stopped sending over even a lowly official to the family to seek preliminary details. The local thana has long stopped bothering about lodging an FIR and carrying out the mandatory postmortem or inquest proceedings. The local sarpanch no more makes a cursory social visit to the family. The local Akali/Congress circle jathedar/district chief is too high up in the hierarchy to take the trouble.
A Rahul Gandhi makes a visit only once in a decade, and an Amit Shah will visit and even have a meal with the family, provided an election loomed on the horizon. The House of Badals is in the village. The village is no more in the House of Badals.
But with all of this being a mere enumeration of well known facts, you cannot claim that media has been ignoring the suicides of farmers. Every single day, there is that single column news with a mugshot —
Karze ne layee ikk hor kisan di jaan, or
Karze thalle kisan ne keeti atam hatiya, or
Manse vich ikko din 3 kisana ne keeti atam hatiya.
Sometimes, even, Aarhtiye de karze thalle dabbe kisan ne keeti jeewan leela smapat.
In Sirsiwala village of Mansa, Nirmal Singh is a self-respecting tall Sikh man with eyes that have both — blood and ash. On a wintry day in February, 2016, his son Yadwinder jumped before a train. Yadwinder was 23. Newspapers and television programmes have little space or time for the backstory of a man who jumps before an oncoming train. A hand-to-mouth life, cultivating two and a half acres of land, Rs 4 lakh spent on digging a bore to draw water for irrigation, the bore crashing on the very first day, unable to pay loan instalments, forced to run errands for others, his father afflicted with cancer, the family not having enough money to even take the train to Rohtak to fetch medicine – and an endless number of other factors, including the studies of two sisters. One evening, Yadwinder could take it no longer. And the train was in time.
Elections to the Punjab Assembly were due. A Kejriwal wave was seemingly sweeping Punjab. A party that had made a government out of selecting the right media moment zoomed in on Nirmal Singh's fate, and face. Arvind Kejriwal made a plan to visit Nirmal Singh's home. The government put together some crack forces to ensure that it did not happen. It was an eyeball to eyeball moment. At one stage, Nirmal Singh was whisked away from his home. Kejriwal kept his word. Cameras, OB vans, shrieking scrolling headlines, breathless anchors spewing their piece to the camera with Nirmal Singh's house in the background. At least one family could not complain the media did not bother, or that the politician did not visit.
A year had passed when I ran into Nirmal Singh's daughter Kiranjit. She is the younger one. A 10+2 student whose dream is to clear IELTS and go abroad. "There's nothing here," she said. Yadwinder's elder sister Rupinder was pursuing a course in nursing, thanks to the financial help extended by a kind relative.
The house does not have a TV, so the family remains blissfully unaware of how much has India progressed ever since Narendra Modi became prime minister. But the family has had first-hand experience that it does not qualify for any relief available to suicide victim families. That is because neither the land was in the name of Yadwinder, nor was he who had availed of loans from the bank. Land was in the name of the father, and therefore it was he who was eligible for the loan. It was son Yadwinder who actually cultivated the land, since father was cancer stricken and couldn’t even walk for long distances.
The family applied for compensation four times, but for it to become eligible, the law said, Nirmal Singh himself should have committed suicide.
I met Nirmal Singh a few days after I met his daughter. At six feet, I had to turn my face up to look into his eyes. I felt strangely disturbed. His eyes reminded me of Sholokhov's famous story, The Fate of a Man
. "Have you ever seen eyes that look as if they have been sprinkled with ash, eyes filled with such unabating pain and sadness that it is hard to look into them?"
Nirmal Singh has eyes like that.
By then, Punjab elections had been over, and a new government was in place. No one from Kejriwal's party, or the Akali Dal, or the Congress had ever visited Nirmal Singh’s house again. No one. No one from the media, no one from even among the panchayat.
Nirmal Singh still takes the train to Rohtak every other week to get medicine for his cancer. I did not ask him about his feelings when the train passes the exact spot where his son.... Guess, I am not as brave as Sholokhov's narrator.
Sholokhov's narrator had a tale to tell. So has Nirmal Singh. His daughters have tales to tell. In a few minutes I spent with IELTS -aspirant Kiranjeet, she told me about her daily routine — going to school, returning with friends, looking after cattle, taking them out to graze, collecting dung, milking cattle, gathering fodder, selling milk, completing homework. Add to it dreaming about IELTS. It sure seems like a heavy schedule in the life of a young woman in an aspirational India.
"There's nothing here," she tells me. I do not contradict her.
There are more stories Nirmal Singh wants to share. Of others in his village. Of Jasvir Kaur, the widow of Pritpal Singh who committed suicide in July 2016, five months after Yadwinder died. Her little daughter Komaljit is too afraid to enter the room where she saw her father hanging from the fan. Of Iqbal Singh Nikku of Fatehgarh Sahnewali village nearby who committed suicide 11 days after his engagement. Of 45-year-old Beant Singh of Rangrial village who used to regularly attend Bharti Kisan Union dharnas to exhort the farmers not to commit suicide, but then opted for Celphos tablets on May 4, 2017. Of 29-year-old Baljit of Uddat Bhagat Ram village in the same district who swallowed poison. Each of them was reeling under debt. Each of them committed suicide directly related to debt.
A debt that the regime had promised to waive off. In writing.
Each of these cases, like hundreds of others, have actual human beings connected to them. Mothers, daughters, sons, fathers, sisters, neighbours, friends, school teachers, the local grocer they used to chat with, the Sunday game of cards they used to play, the old woman whose errands they used to run, the granthi they always hailed with a Sat Sri Akal.
All of these stories just end up in a single headline, with a mugshot. Mostly single column.
Karze ne layee ikk hor kisan di jaan.
Karze thalle kisan ne keeti atam hatiya.
Manse vich ikko din 3 kisana ne keeti atam hatiya.
Sometimes, when a desk hand makes the effort to write — Aarhtiye de karze thalle dabbe kisan ne keeti jeewan leela smapat — we say a little prayer of thanks.
Who has the time to read Nirmal Singh's eyes?
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If you have read this narrative about Nirmal Singh’s eyes, you are a reader who has compassion, wants to know the state of affairs in Punjab’s countryside, engages with this peculiar quest for fuzzily defined thing called development, and appreciates great journalism.
Stories like that of Nirmal Singh are dime a dozen in Punjab’s villages, waiting for writers, and readers, alike. Unfortunately, once suicides become staple news, it becomes second nature to start looking at statistics. And while Punjabis are themselves shocked by the suicide data collated by three of Punjab’s universities, the fact remains that the rest of India isn’t paying much attention. Not yet, at least.
Most of the narrative that India has memorised about Punjab belongs to the late sixties and early seventies, and going by what appears in the national media and popular culture. Meanwhile, stories like those that Nirmal Singh’s eyes could see are being pushed to the margins.
If you have a few minutes to spare, you can read this Special Report about an explosive survey that academicians and farm experts conducted to gauge the extent of indebtedness of the rural poor.
If Nirmal Singh’s eyes still haunt you, here are a few other people you should meet.
In Mansa’s Jhunir village, young Kiranjit Kaur is as sturdy of the soul as they come. A graduate from Mansa’s Nehru Memorial College, she still dreams of doing MA in political science. When her father committed suicide on April 23, 2016, unable to cope with the loss of cotton crop and cost of treatment of his sick daughter, Kiranjit refused to give up. She looks after her sick mother, gives solace to her younger brother, reaches out to activists for help, plans to pursue her studies, deals with bureaucratic red tape and watches debates on farm suicides. Even appeared in one. Surely, she deserves more than a cursory headline – Karze ne layee ikk hor kisan di jaan.
Why would a man, an elected member of the panchayat and a CPI activist, commit suicide eight days before his son’s wedding? In Mansa’s Rangrial village, Hansa Singh was a Left activist who drew much inspiration from Gurbani. His suicide on Feb 19, 2017 made a single column headline. We will never know the story of his family, the failing health of his wife, the broken dreams of his sons, the fact that his daughter Manjit dropped out after 10+2, or that Hansa Singh was always telling farmers not to take the path of suicide. When he died, the headline said, "Karze ne layee ikk hor kisan di jaan.”
Just the name plate next to the main entrance of Hansa Singh’s house tells who lived there – son of Garib Singh, who thought it fit to have a quote from Gurbani on the name plate. As a CPI activist, he put his phone number on the name plate, lest a farmer in distress needs to call him. Many such farmer union activists have met the same fate. Have we tried understanding their lives? The human beings behind the headlines of suicide?
Hansa Singh was elected unopposed member of the panchayat. To augment his income, he used to drive around a vehicle that few in India will be able to find in any list of automobiles. It is called a peter rehra. It is a low-performance, highly economic jugaad vehicle that rural folks in Punjab came up with a few decades ago. They take a diesel engine, used to pump water, and using a primitive gear assembly, mount it on a frame of iron/steel and wooden planks on four wheels.
If there is one thing that Hansa Singh’s son Jagseer hated the most, it was this peter rehra. It had turned his farmer father into an errands driver. Hansa Singh’s Rangrial village is a little unique in Punjab where dalits were actually given ownership of land when the village was formed. Hansa Singh himself owned three kanals of land. He committed suicide on February 19, 2017, just eight days before the wedding of his son Jagseer. Left with little choice, Jagseer now drives around the peter rehra. As I moved around in the courtyard of his house, peeping into the rooms, snapping pictures and constantly asking all the time if I can, not for one moment did Jagseer say that photographing the missing supports of the bed in the room was an extreme invasion of privacy. But when I wanted to click a picture of the peter rehra parked in the courtyard, he politely asked me not to. "It’s something I hate, and still I drive this thing around now. Please do not click its picture.” I didn’t. It’s one picture that will haunt me perhaps for a long time — the one that I never clicked.
Hansa Singh’s wife Angrez Kaur had undergone an eye surgery sometime back. "You know very well if someone undergoes a surgery, all the income of the family goes into it,” she told me. I did not have the heart to tell her it does not happen this way for many others, the ones who publish or read those single column headlines – "Karze ne layee ikk hor kisan di jaan.” I was looking at some frames on the shelf in the room. Hansa Singh’s daughter Amandeep quickly educates me — "We are Ravidasias.” I did not know what to say, except that "we are all Ravidasias.” I told her my family members are practicing Sikhs, so they all regard Bhagat Ravidas very highly. In that sense, we are all Ravidasias.
No, there is little chance of her being confused at such a claim. Just look at the shelf — Lord Rama with his wife and his brother in one frame, Hansa Singh in a Ravidasia procession in another, a poster showing a daughter taking leave of her mother after the wedding, a plaque of honour presented to Hansa Singh upon his unopposed election as panch. It had the picture of Shaheed Bhagat Singh.
If the media’s cameras had any sensitivity, they would perhaps have focussed on the shelf itself — not the frames on it. It’s the condition of the shelf that reflects the true state of life in homes like Hansa Singh’s.
The unplastered walls, the cement giving way, the bare bricks peeping out, a hard working family finding it difficult to even afford a coat of cheapest whitewash. We miss understanding life in some homes because all we get are default headlines – "Karze ne layee ikk hor kisan di jaan.”
Punjab Vidhan Sabha committee of MLAs meeting families of farmers/farm labourers in Banga.
In early July, a committee of the Punjab Vidhan Sabha, comprising five MLAs, was set up. Under the chairmanship of MLA Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria, the panel comprising MLAs Nathu Ram, Kuljit Singh Nagra, Nazar Singh Manshahia and Harinderpal Singh Chandumajra was to visit and meet families of farmers and labourers who had committed suicide to assess if they need any help and what kind of relief can be granted. I am typing these words as November is ending. In more than half months, as a result of the visits of the committee, paid for by the taxpayer, not one member of one family had received a single rupee as relief.
The committee had not written a single letter to any family conveying the fact that it was on the job, that it commiserated with the families, or that it prayed for their well being.
In more than four months, the committee did not send a single psychologist to provide counselling to a single family member of any suicide victim. When I called a member of the committee to ask if this was also very difficult for the panel to do, he told me that Punjabis are very brave people and they do not need any counselling if someone in their family dies.
I have no reason to doubt the sensitivity of the Punjab Vidhan Sabha’s committee (or in other words, I have a thousand reasons to doubt it), but perhaps it may not match the portrait painted by SS Vanjara Bedi in his autobiographical work Galiye Chikkar Door Ghar wherein a family places cots against the main gate of the house to ensure that the wind does not fling open the gate. The gate does not shut properly and the family does all it can to ensure that no one is able to peep inside the house, but it simply does not have the resources to get the gate repaired.
Now, look at Hansa Singh’s front gate, from inside. That wooden bat valiantly keeps it shut. I asked Jagseer, Hansa Singh’s son, if the mechanism succeeds during a storm. "No, then we simply open the entire gate and place stones against the two gates so that it does not slam shut or break down.” And then he adds: "Toofaan vich kis ne andar vekhna a eke kinna marra haal hai ghar da.” ("Who is going to peep inside in a storm to see in what poor conditions does the family live?”)
That wooden bat keeping the tin gate in place tells one much more about the state of life in that household. Of course, a committee of the Punjab Vidhan Sabha can pose questions — "Hor tan koyee takleef nahin?” — but I seriously doubt if that door stopper will be educative enough for the lawmakers.
Or the fact that the bed in the only sitting room in the house has some supports missing. May be the MLAs will sit on this bed and ask them if the family is facing any problem!
When I reached Rangrial's gurdwara, an impressive structure when viewed in relation to the average household in the village, the bhog of Beant Singh was on. It was May 12, 2017. Beant Singh (45) committed suicide on May 4. Of course, his friends were sad, but they were more shocked since Beant Singh was someone forever arguing that farmers need to unite and struggle rather than opt to end their lives. He was a fixture at farmer union's dharnas. As a group of his friends huddled together in the gurdwara, I was shocked by a casual reference to how they had met right here in this gurdwara the previous afternoon also. That was for the bhog of Mithhu Singh, who had committed suicide hours before Beant Singh.
Back to back suicides, back to back bhogs in the same village also do not make it to headlines now. Beant Singh's suicide claimed the headline - Karze thalle dabbe kisan ne keeti khudkushi. Mithhu Singh died without the headline. The local Punjabi newspaper's stringer said he did not get to know.
I asked if anyone from the local administration had come to attend the bhog of Mithhu Singh or Beant Singh, and found that no one had even come to the village. The local sarpanch is a woman, so her husband, one Naib Singh, acts as the de facto sarpanch. A sarpanch is a member of the Deputy Commissioner-led panel to grant any assistance, but Naib Singh did not know that.
Beant Singh was friends with Bharti Kisan Union's activist Devi Ram, but even he did not know that Beant was contemplating such a step.
Sometime later, I was at Mithhu Singh's house. I was polite, and my objective was clear. I was there to commiserate with the family and tell them not to be disheartened and that the kids were the future. Instead, I soon found out I was here for a lesson in extreme honesty.
Virtually every family of any suicide victim believes that sooner or later, some regime will extend it some kind of relief. Mithhu Singh's family has no such hope. Reason? "Our man did not die due to any debt. He was actually a drug addict." Mithhu Singh's widow Kuldeep Kaur stated upfront. She knows if she claims that her husband died because of his inability to pay off his debt, she might qualify for relief. Three lakh rupees is a sum that Kuldee Kaur cannot wrap her head around, but then it is not enough to sway her moral position. "Bhayee, jhooth bol ke jaana kithe hai?" She gets widow pension, off and on, and gets work under NREGA for a month or so. She said if NREGA work becomes available more often, she will be very satisfied.
Behind her, on the door, is scribbled a mobile number with some paint. "Is that your number?" I ask her. "No, this was Mithhu's number. He painted it here so that if he is not home, someone can call him for any errand. He would earn a few bucks by running such errands." That number denotes much: a missing member of the house, a source of income that has died, the memory of a man whose cause of death will be scribbled as 'consumption of drugs' and not poverty, poor planning, bad administrative policies, utter neglect of the landless rural poor and an apathetic regime. It is on the back of people like Mithhu Singhs that politicians ride to power. When they die, we get to know through descriptive headlines - Zehar kha ke khudkushi keeti nasherri mazdoor ne. A Vidhan Sabha committee can read a headline in that phone number painted on the door, or it can miss it. I know which way you will bet!