The suicide last week of V G. Siddhartha, who pioneered the indigenous Café Coffee Day brand has shocked the whole nation. The question everyone asks is why he chose to end his life by jumping into the Nethravathi River in Mangalore. Reports say that he had accumulated huge debts and large tax arrears. Many industrialists and industry watchers have revealed that the ‘Coffee King’ was a victim of tax terrorism and was hounded by certain tax officials.
According to Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa his death was a huge loss to the state. He also mentioned that the assets of the deceased far surpassed his liabilities. Former Infosys director Mohandas Pai had told NDTV that “Tax terrorism is the biggest threat to the ease of doing business in India.” Before his death Siddhartha in a letter that has gone viral, had said that he faced a lot of harassment from the tax officials”. The tax department has denied the allegations saying that the department acted as per provisions of the Income Tax Act. Whatever that may be, the public perception seems to be that one of the reasons for Siddartha taking the extreme step may be the harassment he faced.
Siddhartha established Amalgamated Bean Company [ABC] in 1993 with a Rs. 60 million turn over and grew to be one with the largest curing capacity in India at 75,000 tonnes. Owning over 10,000 acres of coffee plantations he had sold his brand of Coffee Day powder through 200 exclusive retail outlets with a turnover of Rs. 25 billion. Though India had its own India Coffee House had its origin in 1936 when the Coffee Cess Committee which grew to be a workers’ cooperative later with 400 outlets, it was Siddartha who in 1996 started Café Coffee Day, a chain of what is known as “youth hangout” coffee parlors. Café Coffee Day or CCD caught the imagination of students , young working professionals and even the senior citizens which ushered in a ‘coffee house culture in the country. By 2018 CCD had over 1700 cafes attracting 40,000 to 50,000 people every week. It may be mentioned here that Starbucks, the international coffee house chain which entered the Indian market in 2012 in collaboration with the Tatas has today around 150 stores in India.
Siddhartha had diversified his business empire, but soon got into trouble with tax authorities with raids on his establishments in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Chennai and Chikmagalur. His mounting debts and alleged tax terrorism probably pushed him to suicide. One would not go into what Mohandas Pai, a former director of Infosys or others said on alleged tax terrorism, as this piece is about the problem of suicides.
It is only when people like Siddhartha commit suicide that such deaths affect the collective consciousness of the country and a matter of public discourse, often for short span of time. When farmers by thousands entrapped by the formal and informal banking systems, commit suicide they are often considered just as numbers. Once in a while a committed journalist may do a story on the victim and his family and only political parties highlight the statistics on such suicides by hapless farmers. There have been plenty of suicides by prominent personalities. As a student of literature one learnt that two favourite English authors Ernest Hemmingway and Virginia Woolf committed suicide at the age of 61 and 59 respectively. One of the greatest post impressionist painters of the nineteenth century Vincent van Gogh took his life when he was just 37. One of India’s most talented filmmakers Guru Dutt died of an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol on 10th October, 1964 when he was hardly 40 years old. Adolf Hitler after dreaming of a 1000 years of the Reich realized that the Allied Forces had defeated him, is believed to have committed suicide on 30 April 1945 by consuming a cyanide capsule and shooting himself in the head in his underground bunker along with his wife for one day and trusted aides like Paul Joseph Goebbels.
According to studies at least one person commits suicide every forty seconds or 800,000 in the world and out of this India accounts for 135,000. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
There probably is no single or simple answer to the question, why do people commit suicide? There are innumerable reasons why people end their lives. One would however confine to few reasons. The socio economic and existential reasons themselves are far too many. When crops or business fail, incomes shrink, debts mount or unemployment stares, or poor examination results, lovers jilt, people tend to resort to suicide in utter desperation or helplessness; sometimes they also force their immediate family members to be part of a mass suicide. Our social systems are not equipped to identify such people to be of help to prevent such suicides.
Depression is considered to be one of the main reasons for suicides. WHO points out that ”depression is a common illness worldwide with more than 300 million people affected. Depression is different from usual mood fluctuations and short lived emotional responses to challenges in everyday life. …..Depression may become a serious health condition … At the worst depression can lead to suicide.” One would quote Chicago based physician and internist Dr. Alex Lickerman [ ] who affirms that the first reason for suicide is depression. The term depression is widely used and a lot of celebrities from Bollywood have publicly confessed that they had experienced the problem of depression. Timely treatment and counseling can help patients of depression to overcome suicidal tendencies.
Among other major reasons is substance abuse or addiction. “Suicide, addiction and depression have a very close and interconnected relationship. More than 90% of people who fall victim to suicide suffer from depression, have a substance abuse disorder or both. Depression and substance abuse combine to form a vicious cycle that all too often leads to suicide.”[www.addictioncenter.com]. According to data provided by the National Crime Records bureau tabled in the Rajya Sabha in July 2016 everyday in India records about ten suicides due to drug or alcohol addiction. Of the 3647 such suicides in 2014, Maharashtra topped the list with 1372 followed by Tamil Naduand Kerala with 475 cases.
It is worth mentioning that attempt to commit suicide according to Section 309 0f the Indian Penal Code [IPC] is an offence. In 1996 a five judge bench of the Supreme Court of India had ruled that the section 309 was not violative of Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Article 21 of our Constitution, incidentally, deals with Right to life and personal liberty. The Law Commission of India had also recommended the removal of the section from the IPC. A Bill was introduced later in the Parliament which did not become an Act. In 2011 the Supreme Court had recommended to Parliament to consider the feasibility of deleting the section. It is in fact the Mental Health Care Act,2017 and the rules under the Act which eventually decriminalized attempted suicide with effect from July 2018.
Suicide is not acceptable to any religion and is considered an unforgivable sin. Hinduism considers suicide as an act of “himsa” or violence and killing oneself therefore is not Ahimsa. Man is the creation of God and so has no right to kill that creation. “The Bhagavad Gita condemns suicides for selfish reasons and posit that such a death cannot have “Shraddha”, the all important last rights. Brahmanical view had held that those who attempt suicide should fast for a stipulated period. Upanishads, the Holy Scriptures condemn suicide and state that, ’he who takes his own life will enter the sunless areas covered by impenetrable darkness after death. However the Vedas permit suicides for religious reasons and consider that the best sacrifice was that of one’s own life.”[www,ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc]
Though the Ten Commandments followed by all Abrahamic religions say, ‘’Thou shall not kill” there are no explicit edicts rejecting suicides in the Holy Bible but plenty of interpretations. Traditionally Christians believed that suicide is sinful. In old days the mortal remains of a person who committed suicide was not buried in the consecrated grounds in main line churches. That has changed now in most of the churches.
The worst affected when someone commits suicide are the immediate family members. Other than the pangs of bereavement and loss generally of the main breadwinner of the family, is the way the society looks at them. Instead of receiving empathy and support they often face prejudices, public scorn and ridicule. Their own religious institutions sometimes treat the mortal remains of a person who committed suicide casually and consider him like a sinner or an outcaste. There is need to treat family members of people who commit suicide in a non judgmental manner with humaneness and empathy.
The facts and views given in the article are those of the writer.