On Thursday morning, India woke up to the disturbing image of a human body hanging by its neck from a tree. Given the minimal blurring, the image was perhaps a tad too graphic for news channels to beam it on loop, even if it was only for a few hours. Perhaps, mediapersons were shaken and stirred by the fact that a man had evidently killed himself in the heart of Lutyens’s Delhi – within a stone’s throw of Parliament.
According to the police, the deceased was Ram Dayal Verma, a 39-year-old maker of earthen utensils from Sheopur district in Madhya Pradesh’s Chambal Division. While preliminary evidence suggested suicide, a police probe has been initiated. As per local media reports, Verma’s family members suspect foul play, with nephew Shankar Dayal saying the deceased could not possibly have climbed a tree since he had a metallic rod in one of his legs. However, what points strongly to this being a suicide case is Verma’s bag, which Delhi Police found near his body. It contained a crucial piece of evidence: a 23-page suicide note.
In it, Verma explained why he is taking the extreme step and why he chose to commit his final act in the heart of the national capital. According to officers of the Parliament Street Police Station, under whose jurisdiction the body was discovered at about 7.15am on Thursday, Verma wrote he was under a mountain of debt due to his betting habit. He had placed and lost huge sums of money on Indian Premier League and other cricket matches, a lot of which had been borrowed against his house.
Our sources in the police station said the note seemed to have been written while Verma was on his way to Delhi. “While handwriting analysis is awaited, it bears the hallmark of someone contemplating an extreme step,” said one of them. “Entire paragraphs have been scratched out, there are big blank spaces between lines, and only one side of each page has been used.” There is one reference to a specific amount (Rs 13 crore), but elsewhere, Verma wrote vaguely about “crores of debt”.
Perhaps most intriguing and pathetic part of Verma’s suicide letter is the reason he puts down for travelling from his village in Madhya Pradesh to New Delhi: he did not want to die in obscurity. By killing himself outside Parliament, he hoped to draw the attention of the Delhi-based national media to his situation. He wanted to highlight the menace of illegal betting in the hope that the government would take steps to curb it and most importantly, as the father of four – two sons and two daughters – Verma had hoped that someone would come to the aid of his family after reading the media reports about his death.
The measure of hope that Verma places in the national media covering his death is heartbreaking, especially when you consider how few stories are chosen as leads because of their human interest value. Our headlines more often than not feed the nation’s interest in politics and political scandal. Yet here was Verma, reposing his faith upon the media to protect the family that his betting had made vulnerable. In his eyes, the media was a protector; a faceless, electronic entity that would take note of the struggles of the little people, and take care of his family in his absence. Did he get the idea from seeing the reports of Gajendra Singh Chauhan’s suicide at an Aam Aadmi Party rally a year ago?
Officers at the police station are openly sceptical about Verma’s debt being in crores. However, they too agreed that Verma had probably chosen to commit suicide in Delhi because it would mean his death would be noticed and this may scare his creditors away, which in turn would mean his family would not be harassed after his death. To make sure the police knew who he was, he’d kept his Aadhar card in the bag that was found next to him. The police said that the deceased was probably hoping that the government would intervene with help, especially after the story got highlighted in the media.
Verma’s suicide shows something that we tend to take for granted: the national media is a platform. It can provide a voice for the voiceless and for many who struggle against hierarchies and privilege. A Subrata Roy can hire a Kapil Sibal to fight on his behalf. But not everyone can afford to hire lawyers who charge anywhere between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 15 lakh per hearing. If you are poor and marginalised, good luck getting any sort of legal representation. It is worse if you have been accused of killing someone, as highlighted in the recently released Death Penalty India Report, or terrorism-related activities, in which case you will have to depend on someexceptional, Good Samaritans who practice law.
Whatever his debts, Verma thought that the only way for his voice to be heard, the only chance his family had to be secure, was in his death. And not just any death, one that would have to be spectacular enough to pique the interest of national media.
Verma’s death didn’t get the widespread coverage he may have hoped for because there wasanother suicide to which most of the capital’s news media took more of a shine. The story of a young woman who thought of organ donation and living on in this fragmentary way even as she ended her life has caught most media organisations’ imagination. Perhaps the coverage that Verma’s death received, limited as it may have been, offers his family the protection he asked for in his suicide note?