New Delhi: India’s extremely visible Prime Minister Narendra Modi yesterday began a speech with a black “joke”. Telling a story of the death of a young woman by suicide, he did so by quoting purported outrage of the life being taken by her father. The speech that has drawn huge outrage was uttered at a media event on April 26. Many on social media, have noted that for a prime minister to recite a purported joke about suicide is extremely insensitive.
At the media meet, Modi spoke in front of an audience in Hindi and his speech was broadcast live on a television channel. The following is a translation of his speech. It may be triggering to some, so caution is advised.
Modi said: “In our childhood, we would hear a joke. I want to tell you that.
“There was a professor and his daughter committed suicide. She left a chit, ‘I am tired of life and don’t want to live. So I will jump into the Kankaria Lake and die. In the morning, he saw his daughter was not at home. On the bed he found the letter. The father was very angry. “I am a professor. For so many years I have worked hard, and even now, she has spelt ‘Kankaria’ wrong.” (Kankaria is an area in Ahmedabad, the home state of the prime minister!)
The audience bursts into applause at this point. Modi is also seen laughing.
He then said, “I am happy that Arnab [Goswami, Republic TV head] has begun speaking great Hindi.” More applause followed.
“I didn’t hear what he said but I was paying attention to whether his Hindi is correct or not,” Modi added. “Maybe you have learned Hindi properly because you have been living in Mumbai.”
It is unclear why this “joke” was necessary to “compliment” Goswami’s Hindi.
High suicide rates, distress in the young
According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s latest data, 1,64,033 people died by suicide in India just in 2021. This means that 450 people died each day. This was an increase of 7.2% in terms of absolute numbers as compared to the previous year.
According to this paper published in Indian Journal of Psychiatry, this was the highest recorded ever since the NCRB came into existence. Over a third (34.5%) of those who died by suicide belonged to the age group of 18-30 years. Another 31% were aged between 30-45 years – thus showing that the very people who are referred to as India’s “demographic dividend” are who are dying by suicide.
The fact that mental health does not figure in as priority and people don’t consider suicide a serious issue was revealed in a survey carried out by the The Live Love Laugh Foundation.
In a survey of 3,556 respondents from eight cities across India, a staggering 47% could be categorised as being highly judgmental of people perceived as having a mental illness, Quartz had reported.
Recent reports have also shed light on how academic distress among young Indians is combined with factors like caste discrimination even in elite institutions, rising unemployment and financial struggle, leading students to feel isolated like never before.
Young persons on twitter were articulate.
Pooja Tripathi’s Video on her twitter handle is powerful
कहते हैं छोटी ताबूतों का वजन स
Listen to Congress spokesperson @SupriyaShrinate slammed Narendra Modi on his insensitive & Shameless comments on suicide . She said since 2014 there has been an increase of 60% cases of suicides because the people can’t cope up with inflation, high price, unemployment .
Shrinate said this was his (Modi’s) real face peeping out through his carefully crafted image. “This is your truth. The shining image of yours, painted and polished by the media, is just a mask that slips frequently and the truth comes in front of the people. The cheap jibes, the meanness, the cruelty… that’s the real face,” Congress social media head Supriya Shrinate said. RJD Rajya Sabha member Manoj Jha said what was more distasteful was the laughter and clapping from the audience at the Prime Minister’s joke. “We have become a very sick society,” he said.
Other Opposition leaders are among those who have registered their outrage against Modi’s comments.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said on Twitter in Hindi that thousands of families lose their children due to suicide and the Prime Minister should not make fun of them.
Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “Thousands of families lose their children because of suicide. The Prime Minister should not make fun of them.”
News of suicide by a 19-year-old girl, Rashi Jain, who was preparing in Kota for the medical entrance exam, had come in barely hours before the noise of laughter from the Republic TV event where Modi spoke.
Many social media users reacted with horror. Some put out an old video that appears to show Modi laughing while purportedly speaking on the people’s miseries following the 2016 demonetisation.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra posted a message saying: “Depression and suicide, especially among the youth, is not a laughing matter. According to NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) data, 164,033 Indians committed suicide in 2021. Of which a huge percentage were below the age of 30.
“This is a tragedy, not a joke. The Prime Minister and those laughing heartily at his joke ought to educate themselves better and create awareness rather than ridicule mental health issues in this insensitive, morbid manner.”
Modi has been known to crack questionable jokes on unfortunate people earlier too. He had ended up mocking dyslexic students (who have difficulty reading) a few years ago while taking a dig at Rahul Gandhi during a video conference with students. When a student spoke of a project to boost the creativity of dyslexic children, Modi asked whether it would also help “children who are 40-50 years old”. When the student said it would, Modi responded: “The mothers of such children will be very happy in that case.”
In a Hindi tweet, Rashtriya Janata Dal MP Manoj Kumar Jha, incisively, noted the applause that followed Modi’s comments:
“Malaise is visible when the Prime Minister of the country tells a joke on a sensitive issue like ‘suicide’. But even more frightening is the applause and laughter after the joke. We have become a very sick society…Jai Hind.”
Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi shared 2021 NCRB data to show India’s numbers when it came to deaths by suicide. She also called the video triggering.
I won’t share the triggering video where you cracked a joke on suicide while the audience laughed at the insensitive ‘joke’, however I’d definitely like to remind you that 2021 NCRB data shows that over 1.5 lakh Indians committed suicide, also deaths by suicide… pic.twitter.com/
— Priyanka Chaturvedi (@priyankac19) Ap
Aam Aadmi Party tweeted through its official handle, “Imagine the insensitive disregard for human life by our Prime Minister who needs to crack a joke on suicide!?!?”
Samajwadi Party’s Gaurav Prakash cited a report from The Quint, to note that “every nine minutes a woman in India takes her own life.”
Journalists, too, have spoken on the joke.
“No aspect of insensitivity should be devoid of your indulgence,” Abhishek Baxi tweeted.
“Modi outdoes himself,” wrote Swati Chaturvedi.
BJP’s Selective Outrage on PM’s Image
The ruling party , the BJP was on Thursday, April 27, more outraged about a comment by Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge.“Modi andre, ee vishada havidhange. Neevandru, edu visha ada illa nodona swalpa nekki nodona antha nekkakka hogiri…. Nekkra satha. Illa idu visha adano illvo Modi kottana, olley manushya pradhana mantri, naavu swalpa nodona, nekki nodona antha heli aa vishavanna nekki nodidare, neevu malage bidtiralli,” Kharge had told a poll rally in Karnataka.
A translation: Modi is like a poisonous snake. Do not try licking it to confirm whether it’s poisonous. If you do it you will be dead. If you think it’s been given by Modi, a good man, the Prime Minister, so let’s lick and see, you’ll be left sleeping (you’ll be dead) there itself.
Kharge was quick to issue a clarification, asserting that he was talking about the divisive politics and hateful ideology of the RSS-BJP and not about Modi the individual. He said he had nothing personal against Modi and that the fight was against the ideology he represented. Kharge said he had suffered a lot in life and never made fun of people or launched personal attacks. But the BJP pounced on him, alleging that Kharge had revealed the mindset of the Congress.
Karnataka chief minister S.R. Bommai said the poison was in Kharge’s mind, while Union minister Anurag Thakur said “this is worse than Sonia Gandhi’s maut ka saudagar (merchant of death) comment”.
Sonia had made the comment during the 2007 Gujarat election campaign. Modi, a dab hand at playing the victim of personal vilification, had exploited the remark to seek voter sympathy. With the BJP so far on the defensive in Karnataka, the party and Modi are expected to use Kharge’s comment to divert attention from bread-and-butter issues.
Congress spokesperson Gourav Vallabh sought to undo the damage by recalling how Modi had used foul language all along, going to the extent of describing Sonia as “Congress ki vidhva (the Congress’s widow)”. But the Congress fears that its issue-based campaign might get hijacked now.