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Politics of life and death

Tuesday, 22 July 2014 - 8:11pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Strange are the ways of the State. It has vested itself with the right to take away a life but refuses its citizens the autonomy to die. Call it what you will — irony or hypocrisy. Friedrich Nietzsche sums up the sentiment well in these evocative words: “There is a certain right by which we many deprive a man of life, but none by which we may deprive him of death; this is mere cruelty.”

Death, people are fond of saying, (particularly those seeped in class consciousness all their lives), is a great leveller. But is that really so? If the overwhelming reluctance to allow people the right to die is any indicator, then like in life, the process of death too is stratified. If the right to a life of dignity has to be wrested from the powers that be, so does the right to die.

Responding to a plea on legalising passive euthanasia, the Supreme Court recently asked the states to debate the issue so that a view can be taken in the matter. In another eight weeks, the opinions of the states are supposed to be presented before the court. Can we hope to turn a page this time? Can the State, for once, behave truly compassionately? Perhaps not. 

Euthanasia or the right to die is one among the many ‘sensitive matters’ in India and elsewhere. When discussed, it is only spoken of in hushed tones and seldom aloud. It’s another matter that Indians are little known for their compassion in treating the elderly and the sick. Across the class spectrum, middle classes as well as lower middle classes, sons and daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, send off widows in their families to Vrindavan, where they breathe the last of their frugal, lonely lives. Vrindavan is the seat of the Bhakti movement where journalists, authors and photographers from across the world journey to, in order to capture the manifestations of familial and national cruelty in images and text. Neither the state nor families of the widows in exile seem overtly perturbed by the disturbingly poignant portrayal of the lives of the exiled. 

In a recent Supreme Court hearing, the State’s attorney general Mukul Rohatgi said that euthanasia is a matter that concerns the legislature, and that the judiciary should not take it up. The Centre says passive euthanasia is a form of suicide that it cannot allow. Remember attempting suicide is a crime under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. Such is the sheer perversity of the law that the Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila, fasting for last 10 years and more to demand the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), has to stand trial for her radical form of protest.

The State has no compunction in being downright cruel, in dragging the fasting activist to court. Strangely, inhumane acts are executed under the garb of compassion, ostensibly to prevent Sharmila from taking her own life. On the other hand, to ‘appease the collective conscience of the nation’, the State sent Afzal Guru to the gallows. The very same compassionate State which now denies the right to die could not, in that instance, even inform the family in time for them to bid farewell to Afzal. The State has arrogated to itself the right to kill. But is bereft of compassion to allow the terminally ill the right to die. The State ordains our life and death.

Rohatgi is correct to say that the law needs to change for euthanasia to be recognised as a right: a right on the part of an individual to decide whether or not she wants to continue to live in circumstances she finds intolerable. By its very nature, the decision falls in the realm of intimate sacredness. In a utopian world, it would be the individual’s decision alone; it would require no need to be accountable to the State.

But the world we inhabit is dystopian in its myriad ways and forms. The State presides over the creation of dystopia — much of it generated by the institutions under its thumb. The debate over the right to die may be regarded as a deeply philosophical dilemma. To make peace with the world once it confronts you denuded of its charms; or to defy the world with an ultimate/final act of radicalism. Choosing death over life is often a conscious decision, not just an act of momentary insanity as it is made out to be.

It is an odd coincidence that at the same time India is debating the right to die, the British Parliament too is debating the same contentious issue. The cross-party campaign to legalise the right to die received a boost there when the former archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, announced his support for the proposal as a way of preventing “needless suffering”. On the other hand, a section of doctors have warned that the right to assisted dying to unleash ‘death squads’ of doctors. 

Weighing in behind the bill, Cambridge scientist Stephen Hawking, in an interview has described it as “discrimination against the disabled to deny them the right to kill themselves that able bodied people have.”

In that same interview, Hawking confessed that in 1985 — he had briefly contemplated and even attempted suicide. At the age of 21, Professor Hawking was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease. Later a bout of pneumonia requiring a tracheotomy left him without the power of speech. “I admit that when I had my tracheostomy operation, I briefly tried to commit suicide by not breathing. However, the reflex to breathe was too strong,” Hawking candidly admitted.

Yes, the will to live usually dominates the will to die. And because of this general law of human nature, it becomes even more critical to allow those who wish to go against it, their will. Without that individual choice we are all condemned to being strung like puppets along the string unspooled by the State. In the ‘Afterword’ to his novel Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis writes of writer and concentration camp survivor Primo Levi’s suicide “as an act of ironic heroism, an act that asserts something like: My life is mine and mine alone to take.”

The author is Editor, dna of thought

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