Why did Sammal Dhurve hang himself?

BY Vijay Nambisan| IN Media Practice | 12/10/2007
This is a particularly juicy story, and I can just imagine how it would have been covered.

Vijay Nambisan

On June 12, The Indian Express (Pune) carried a report headed ?Fearing incest charge, youth kills self? at the bottom of page 4. It was filed by Milind Ghatwai in Bhopal, and began:

An incestuous relationship ended in tragedy when a 21-year-old boy committed suicide within hours of his sister giving birth? in Betul district on Sunday evening [June 10].

Sammal Dhurve and his 20-year-old sister (unnamed) had been ?involved in a physical relationship for nearly a year?. When they announced that they wanted to live together as a married couple, the panchayat had passed a decree that they were to be boycotted. No case was filed as the couple were both over age. The local police SHO said there was no trouble in the village. In fact the panchayat itself did nothing to enforce the boycott, and ?most villagers seemed to have reconciled [sic] to the duo¿s unusual decision.?

As the report makes clear, the headline given by the Desk is misleading. There was no ?incest charge?; neither panchayat nor police was harassing the couple. But

[t]he police said what could have led the boy to end his life was the fear of ignominy due to coverage in the media. It was only when outsiders started pouring in that the couple realised the consequences of their relationship?.

I have been waiting for nearly a week to see some follow-up. It is hard to analyse a situation on the basis of one report, filed far away from where the incident occurred. But I have to write about this now, hoping I am wrong, that there has been some follow-up somewhere and some reader of this website is better informed than I am.

What is most striking, first, is how very accepting our society can be when left to itself. When self-styled political and religious leaders do not try to exploit them, Indian communities can truly deserve the epithet ?tolerant? which is so often and so loosely applied to the Hindu religion. I have always felt this about homosexuality: If two people can make each other happy without hurting anyone else, why should we stop them? Love is hard enough to come by nowadays.

The same should apply to incest, though our conditioned minds tend to recoil at it. After all, the laws of morality are not written in the sky in letters of fire. They have been developed by societies, and vary according to the society and the times. The Egyptian pharaohs married their own sisters - there was no one else of equal rank - and many other dynasties used this custom. Victorian prudery is misplaced here. Solomon in the Bible addresses his lover, ?My sister, my spouse?. It may be a metaphor; but a metaphor of what?

The really disturbing thing in this report is the fear of the media. It is well founded, certainly. The truth behind the infamous paper chase of Princess Diana and her swain, which caused their deaths, may never be known. Surely, however, the paparazzi are incriminated. But the Beautiful People have their own armour against the intrusive media, and several court cases in the last 75 years have established that a public figure is liable to public scrutiny. What defence do Sammal Dhurve and his sister have?

I have seen and heard outraged reactions to the Government¿s proposal to categorise, or certify, or censor news bulletins according to adult-rated content. These reactions are all from the media, and that may be expected. Ask the consumer, too, please. I think there would be far more mixed reactions. The consumer now knows pretty well that the media are not necessarily (i) truthful; (ii) unbiased; (iii) fair; or (iv) altruistic. Why should they be allowed to do what they want to, simply because they have louder voices?

Besides, the average half-hour news bulletin these days is very far from being grounded in any kind of reality we comprehend. In the last three months, it has typically comprised six minutes of film news, six minutes of cricket, six of ¿newsmakers¿ and twelve of advertising. ?Breaking news? stories are apparently what channels are cutting each other¿s throats for. But is that any reason why they should cut the throats of people far outside their illusory and inhuman world?

The Dhurves and their fellow-villagers may very likely be beautiful people, but they are not Beautiful People. I do not want to romanticise them. According to the report, the family consisted of

four brothers and six sisters. The father died long ago. The family owned little land. The duo lived in the family home with their 60-year-old mother Imarti and their youngest brother.

What is clear from this is that they had no armour against the outside world. They were not a powerful family. This makes the villagers¿ toleration of their behaviour even more remarkable.

Presumably it was the local media that were attracted by the story. But the national channels could not have been far behind. This is a particularly juicy story, and I can just imagine how it would have been covered, running the entire gamut from interviews with neighbours to analyses by sociologists and historical parallels.

Sammal Dhurve was, it appears, forced to hang himself not by his family or his village community. He was driven to it by fear of the prurient media, and the mores and motivations they represent. Is this sufficient reason, is it just cause for the death of a 21-year-old with more than his share of courage.

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