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Farmers’ Suicides as Public Death: Politics, Agency and Statistics in a Suicide-Prone District (South India)*


This paper argues that Indian farmers’ suicides may fruitfully be described as public deaths. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in the South Indian district of Wayanad (Kerala), it shows that farmers’ suicides become ‘public deaths’ only via the enumerative and statistical practices of the Indian state and their scandalization in the media. The political nature of suicide as public death thus depends entirely on suicide rates and their production by the state itself. But the power of representations complicates the ethnographic critique of statistical knowledge about suicide. In a context like Wayanad, which had been declared a suicide-prone district by the Indian state, public representations of suicides have taken on a life of their own; statistical categories and the media interpretations of these statistics have had a curious feedback—mediated by development encounters—onto the situated meanings of individual suicides. Local interpretations of individual suicides mostly commented on personal failures of the suicide and on the perils of speculative smallholder agriculture. Ethnography of farmers’ suicide based on case studies alone, however, would soon encounter limitations equally grave as the limitations of statistical analysis. Not only is the meaning of suicide (intentions, causes, motives) at the actor level off limits for ethnography, but in addition to that the (public) meaning of suicide is co-determined by state practice including statistical accounting.

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I would like to thank the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram for affiliating me during fieldwork. My special gratitude goes to Joby Clement for assisting me in the field and to the farmers of Wayanad who have received me with great hospitality and curious minds. I thank Ludek Broz, Ursula Münster and the anonymous reviewers for Modern Asian Studies for their constructive comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
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