In Thomas Hardy’s classic, and final, novel, Jude the Obscure (1896), the child Little Father Time hangs himself and his half-siblings, leaving behind a note of one line, the line that gives this piece its title. The note and the horrific act come to mind with the suicides by young boys and girls ending their lives in the wake of the results fiasco in the State – an ongoing event that, for bizarre reasons, my friends across the country tell me, has not made the national headlines. The nation apparently does not grieve for these lives lost because, perhaps, there are too many lives anyway and only some lives are grievable, as the feminist thinker Judith Butler argued.
Children, we are told, are the ‘ideal victims’, and there is no country in the world where young lives curtailed does not elicit widespread condemnation, melancholy and anger. In the recent past, the national media made much of student union leaders’ speeches, from various universities, on nationalism, jingoism, social identities, demanding rights and accountability and such, often highlighting their sterling polemics and political commitment – because, apparently, these leaders are addressing questions of national import and the eroding idea of India under a particular government.
Not Idea of India?
Yet, this same national media does not see fit to cover these young suicides. Nor do these same leaders, morbidly worried about the future of India, have anything to say about these deaths (I, at least, haven’t seen these firebrands protesting) Why? Is it because these suicides come from a demographics that do not constitute a political constituency? Or is it that we no longer think of 15-18-year-olds as constitutive of the ‘idea of India’? Is it because in our obsessive identity politics, the ones who died are not marked as belonging to specific social categories but are spread across these categories? The disquieting quiet of the national media, from ministers and government functionaries who otherwise tweet on everything from potholes to Pulwama, signals that these deaths do not matter.
The vulnerability of students and children to systems designed to not only safeguard them but actively help them grow, learn and flourish demonstrates, as in the case of the Gorakhpur hospital deaths, that vulnerability is social. Judith Butler writes:
By theorizing the human body as a certain kind of dependency on infrastructure, understood complexly as environment, social relations, and networks of support and sustenance by which the human itself proves not to be divided from the animal or from the technical world, we foreground the ways in which we are vulnerable to decimated or disappearing infrastructures, economic supports, and predictable and well-compensated labor.
In these cases of mismanaged evaluation/results or health services, we find the state has abdicated its role of providing the infrastructure on which lives and futures depend. But this abdication from the ‘responsibility to protect’ may be examined further.
Young children and college students of the age group that has seen these suicides are not yet autonomous beings, financially, emotionally, socially, in terms of skill-sets, employability or personal development. However, we now know that for a human being to be autonomous, the institutions and social support mechanisms, from the family to the educational system (let us say, just for argument’s sake, the Board of Intermediate Education is such a necessary support mechanism), need to work. That is, autonomy is not inherent, but constructed through many stages. The feminist philosopher Catriona Mackenzie and others argue that
Autonomy [is] a socially constituted capacity … its development and exercise requires extensive social scaffolding and support and that its development and exercise can be thwarted by exploitative or oppressive interpersonal relationships and by repressive or unjust social and political institutions.
In the place of ‘repressive’ or ‘unjust’ if we say ‘inefficient’ and ‘indifferent’, we understand the factors that determined that these 20-odd students who killed themselves were never supposed to be autonomous. Having depended on a system that was designed to eventually make them autonomous as individual persons, they discovered the system was Kafkaesque: it mystified, mythicised educational and evaluation processes to a point that it did not make sense.
It is also ironic, in a tragic sense, that in the era of the Right to Education, the education system endangers children not old enough to be autonomous.
Negligence and Indifference
Article 26 (b) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – arguably one of the most significant documents of the modern world – has this to say:
Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups….
Then, what do we say to an educational apparatus where the rights of the students to life itself are systematically undermined through negligence and indifference?
When Little Father Time leaves that note, he assumes they are a burden on the adults. In our silent endorsement of the deaths, and by extension of the systems that killed them, we implicitly concede that in a nation of so many children, and more born every second, these 20-plus were indeed too many. Except to those to whom their lives mattered, and who grieve for them. When a nation puts in place formulae to decide only some lives are grievable, we have reached an all-time low.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)