The vignette of a running youth engulfed by fire and with pain writ large on his face brings into focus a tragedy that recurs at regular intervals at various places.
But the real tragedy is that ‘self-immolation’, as the act of setting oneself on fire is described in newspapers, is often treated, rather mistakenly, as an act of valour, a sacrifice. Killing oneself, however lofty the cause may be, cannot be seen as an act of courage.
Perhaps it needs some courage to kill oneself but as you may know, suicide is only an outcome of failure — something that is a denouement of helplessness. Why then is a suicide during a protest seen differently? And why are many young people resorting to suicide by setting themselves on fire in the name of a cause or on the pretext of drawing the attention of the authorities to a particular issue?
In fact, the erroneous use of the word ‘immolation’, which has gained common currency of late, suggests a difference between suicide and ‘immolation’.
Etymologically, ‘immolation’ means sacrifice, mainly by fire. But as the word was repeatedly used to describe anybody setting himself or herself on fire — not necessarily as a ‘sacrifice’ —
immolation gained an all new meaning.
But it is not the assumption of a new meaning that has inspired all those who have killed themselves in such a ghastly fashion.
The Tibetan youth, Jamphel Yeshi, who took the extreme step during a protest in New Delhi on Monday, did it to draw the attention of the Indian government to the demands of his people. The Tibetans do not want Chinese President Hu Jintao to visit India officially. Of course, the Tibetan people have a right to protest democratically, which they were doing anyway. But did Jeshi think that by scorching himself he could impel the Indian government to get China to call off Jintao’s official visit? Perhaps he did.
He thought he was making a ‘sacrifice’ for the Tibetan cause. Many young people have thought so in Tamil Nadu, which has a long history of such suicides.
In recent times, during the height of the war in Sri Lanka, a youth named Muthukumar killed himself in Chennai to press the Indian government to intervene and stop the massacre of Tamil people in the island nation.
Later, when an agitation was at its peak in Tamil Nadu demanding clemency for the three men who have been condemned to the gallows in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, a young girl, Senkodi, killed herself in Kancheepuram, leaving a note that she was inspired
Both of them believed that their ‘sacrifice’ would make the government act according to their wishes.
Of course, their deaths did create a stir in Tamil Nadu and gave an impetus to the agitations that were on, highlighting the causes that they died for. But what about the two young souls? Even if their demands were acceded to by the authorities — it is a different matter that it did not happen — they would not have been around for the celebrations.
So is it proper for young people to opt for death when they have the option to live and fight for what they believe in?
Deputy Resident Editor, The New Indian Express