Before the British took over India, Hindus admired and respected suttees; one can see memorials to suttees in Rajasthan and Gujarat. There is a case of suttee once in a while; this column was written on that occasion, but was really a reflection on the right to end one’s life. It appeared in Business Standard of 3 September 2002.
THE RIGHT TO DIE
I have written much on the riots in Gujarat; let me this time choose a less macabre subject: suttee. Kuttu Bai burnt herself in her husband’s pyre in a Madhya Pradesh village; all the villagers turned up to watch the spectacle. The villagers enjoyed it so much that they stoned the two policemen who turned up to stop the burning and sent them packing. The burning in Daurala, a Rajasthan village, some years ago, was also a local hit.
Ceremonial burning of widows was banned by William Bentinck, who was Governor General of India, in 1829. While the British were around, the ban was pretty effective. It is not yet seriously eroded – it is certainly more effective than the ban on dowry imposed after independence – but as popular mandate takes root and law and order crumbles, it may lose its sting; if the Hindu joint family consolidates its power, suttee may become an everyday affair.
In the meanwhile, a new version of suttee has emerged – male self-immolation – which may be appropriately called sutto. Sutto is as yet confined to Tamil Nadu. It does not involve burning oneself on one’s dead wife’s pyre; it involves burning on account of promises broken, or purported to be broken, by Jayalalithaa, who acquired a divine status since she acted appropriately in certain old films. In this case, the chief minister is not available for burning, so the sutto has to go on on his own. Without the ceremonial surrounding the burning, it is not worth while to incur the expense of firewood and invite an audience. So suttos choose a cheaper fuel, kerosene, and burn themselves on the streets without much ado.
Now that we are abandoning colonial practices one by one and reverting to primordial indigenous ones like political corruption, it is time to re-examine our policy on suttee and sutto as well. For an authentic Hindu pronouncement we must wait for Shreeyut Murli Manohar Joshi; but until his scholarship and wisdom deliver precious words on the subject, we must stumble on regardless.
Let us start by asking: what is wrong with suttee or sutto? The subject becomes emotive because of the feminist angle when we think of suttee, so let us confine ourselves to sutto. Suppose someone wants to burn himself because Jayalalithaa has disappointed him; what are the reasons for stopping him?
There are two: first, that being burnt is a most painful way of dying, and even worse of living if one survives. And second, it is possible that the subject is not burning himself voluntarily. In the case of widows, obviously, social pressure and economic distress may force them into sutteehood. In the case of the suttos as well, their plight on being disappointed by their patron must be distressing enough for them to kill themselves.
On the first, there are now ways of dying that are utterly painless. Everyone who has been anaesthetized for an operation has experience of them; it is possible to get anaesthetized and never to wake up. Paperbacks can be picked up in American bookshops on painless do-it-yourself suicide. Suicide is bound to be an amateur operation since one can do it only once. And as with all amateur acts, it can go wrong, often painfully so. But medical professionals can make it foolproof and comfortable. That is what Dr Kerkorian did to a number of people before he was sent to jail in the US. But the Netherlands has legalized suicide under certain circumstances. The technology is available and reliable; it is only the circumstances that remain in doubt.
Amongst these, chronic, incurable ailments must score high. Some are painful, others lead to terrible depressions. Those who suffer from them may feel they have had enough, and they should have the right to end it. Over my own life, death has changed considerably. Medical technology has been so successful that many people go on living far beyond the point where they can look after themselves and enjoy life. Their quality of life deteriorates, they become dependent and resent it; many live on as vegetables. The choice of dying should be available to them – with qualifications. The qualifications should be to ensure that the decision is voluntary and considered. It should be subject to approval by a public body, and the permission to die should be granted after a certain waiting period.
Such a procedure will take care of the situation where a subject has the choice of living on in material comfort and wants to forgo it. The really difficult case is where a subject may be under social pressure or economic distress; there the decision may be forced even if the subject says it is voluntary.
But the remedy in such cases is not to force people to live even when they do not want to, but to enable them to withstand social pressure and economic distress. If people can move easily out of their communities, or if there is a safety net to prevent people from falling into destitution, there would be a case for forcing them to stay alive. But there is no such thing in India. In the circumstances, which should be closely defined and verified in each case, people should have the right to end their lives.
For doing so there should be well regulated clinics, just like hospitals. They should specialize in the most painless ways of euthanasia. Those applicants who want a trial should be given one: they should be anaesthetized and brought back to life; they can rehearse death as often as they like before they take the plunge.
Suppose, then, that someone decides to time his or her death to coincide with his or her spouse’s or beloved’s; I do not see why it should not be allowed as long as the other conditions are fulfilled. Such people would have to complete all the formalities much before the spouse dies. On the spouse’s death, they should be put to death in the approved, humane manner. And then, if they wish, their bodies can be placed on the same pyre as their spouses’.
Man evolved in the midst of terrible hazards, and so imagined an equally hazardous world after death. Now that life has become much safer and more comfortable, it is unnecessary to imagine dragons and hellfire after death. Whatever comes after death – and it is not describable in human vocabulary – need not frighten.
The last years of life, on the other hand, have become less endurable because people live longer thanks to modern medical technology. Many of them would not want to live as long as it makes it possible for them to. For them, there should be a possibility of a deliberate, dignified exit. Once this possibility is granted, the ceremony that follows it – whether it is being burnt in pairs or tipped into the sea – is immaterial.