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How To Talk About Farmer Suicides 101

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Trigger Warning: Mention of Suicide

I almost began writing by mentioning some statistics. Statistics of the number of farmers in India who died by suicide but I stopped mid-way. I wondered whether mentioning that 31 farmers died by suicide by the time this day ends would garner enough attention? I wondered whether any number would be enough before we really start talking — no — start caring and acting?

I wondered whether any number is enough for farmers’ suicides to matter to the upper-class and upper-caste metropolitans.

The metropolitans for whom the recent ‘migrant issue’ was a transportation and logistical issue, rather than an indication of the much larger problem. The metropolitans who arguably remain apathetic, if not ignorant about farmer suicides.

farmers in trouble
From our school textbooks to our mainstream cinema — the triumphs and struggles of farmers have been invisibilized to a large extent/Representational image.

I don’t blame the privileged urban citizenry entirely though. How do we talk about something that has been mythologised or packed in a statistic that seems distant at its best, and meaningless at its worst? This question troubled me. 

However, at times, to show that I care about farmers of India, I would take my turn to display woke-ness if someone brought a silly gossip from a tabloid. “Do you know that farmer suicides are still happening, right? Who will talk about it?”, I’d say. It seems not long before this too becomes akin to how we talk about poverty, hunger, and starvation in the continent of Africa. “There are African kids dying of hunger and you are wasting food!” When repeated often, these statements run the risk of becoming cliches — deprived of meaning. So why do we talk about our farmers the way we do in urban discourse and how can we do better?

Contextualization is the key.

From our school textbooks to our mainstream cinema — the triumphs and struggles of farmers have been invisibilized to a large extent.

I remember learning about Kharif and Rabi crops in textbooks but I don’t remember reading about the people behind, the ones that matter. The effect of climate change on farmers, caste, and class hierarchies that decide access to resources, informal lending system, indebtedness, and the water crisis affecting farmers. All these rarely find a mention in the national curriculum framework. Thus, as we talk about the New Education Policy, it seems more urgent than ever for the curriculum to include the ‘uncomfortable’ to equip the next generation to confront these challenges head-on. 

Is The ‘Filmy’ Portrayal Of Farmer Issues Any Good?

Mainstream cinema, supposedly operating on commercial logic, has also largely steered away from films situated in an agrarian setting and stories told from a rural perspective. Even when a film like Article 15 or a show like Panchayat is made, the trope is the urban, usually a male gaze, entering the rural setting. However, I struggle hard to recount the films that document vice-a-versa in recent times.

In a country where migration from rural to urban areas is perhaps the most commonly lived experience and comes with a myriad of rich experiences, this incongruity does seem odd. The guild of film producers will be quick to blame this on the audience and the commercial limitations. One wonders though if this argument holds any water. Is it based on the evidence of the heartfelt and warm storytelling from rural settings repudiated by the audience or is it based on preconceived notions that dictate these “commercial limitations?” I wonder. 

Is Media Doing Its Job And Covering The Issue Well?

Another important aspect that shapes popular discourse is news and media. As someone training to be a journalist, this one frustrates me personally and deeply. I usually encounter two kinds of news when covering farmer suicides: one that relies heavily on statistics, and the other that attempts to humanize farmers. The former method of employing statistics inadvertently fails to capture the scale of devastation unleashed on family members.

Statistics have also come under the attack for being unreliable owing to the under-reporting. The latter attempt at humanizing struggle, while successful at times, mostly leads to the ‘farmers’ becoming a caricature of themselves when reproduced time and again. How does one tread this dilemma of successfully capturing an individual’s plight while also being able to situate this in a socio-political context? 

To make the matters worse, with the increasingly decontextualized depiction, ‘compassion-fatigue’ kicks in — leading to the inability to empathize by virtue of increased exposure to tragedies. Perhaps, given the rise in compassion-fatigue, we need to reconsider how we report and represent the triumphs and struggles of farmers. 

How To Talk About Farmer Suicides?

In her doctoral work at Stanford University, Anita Varma argues that while using emotional language in reporting can evoke empathy and can make the ‘marginalized subject’ relatable to the privileged counterpart, it rarely stirs change.

Instead, she suggests focussing on cultivating solidarity. She insists that rather than attempting to make news “relatable” and “digestible” for the privileged counterpart, the focus should be on structures that enable this injustice throughout.

She urges those concerned about social justice to focus on the common stakes in ensuring justice. For instance, when reporting about farmers’ plight — highlighting stigmatization of mental health, the informal banking sector, poor redressal mechanisms, and caste politics in a specific context — helps cultivate solidarity. This solidarity can transcend the barriers of our region, language, caste, and class.

Thus, by documenting the systematic causes of disparity, marginalization, and stigmatization, we share the same impetus to correct the structural flaws, and then can perhaps even find innovative ways of mobilization and crusading. Who knows that an acceptance that it is not a “farmer” or a “migrant” issue but one affecting every stakeholder equally, may mark the epoch of truly intersectional activism. 

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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