BIAS IN THE REPORTING OF SUICIDE AND GENOCIDE
Summary. – Reports of suicide during two genocides (in Armenia in 1915 and in India and Pakistan in 1947) are primarily of women committing suicide, often in mass, to avoid abduction and rape. It is suggested that this may be biased reporting of suicidal behavior during these genocides.
Previous studies have reported high rates of suicide during the Holocaust, both in the ghettos and in the concentration camps (Lester, 2005) This raises the question of whether suicide was common during other genocides. Two genocides have some (albeit limited) data available: that of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and during the partition of India in 1947.
Miller and Miller (1982) interviewed 35 survivors of the Armenian genocide, now living in California. Their informants reported that many of those deported died of thirst, hunger, disease and murder. Children were stolen, young women abducted, and women raped and mutilated. Mothers abandoned their children or gave them away to Turks, Kurds or Arabs and “not a few mothers and families committed suicide together” (Miller & Miller, 1982, p. 55).
There are reports of hundreds of young women committing suicide by drowning (Miller & Miller, 1993, p. 96). One informant tried to drown herself in a river, but a relative pulled her out. There are reports of girls linking arms or holding hands and jumping off bridges or cliffs into the rivers. Miller and Miller hypothesized that the girls were physically and emotionally exhausted, had witnessed incredible violence, and had lost hope of survival.
Miller and Miller documented three types of suicide. Altruistic suicide was evident in mothers who starved to give their children the limited food available or who died with their children rather than abandoning them. Despair-motivated suicides had given up hope and either drowned themselves or simply sat down on the road to die. In defiant suicide, the goal was to cheat the aggressors of the sadistic pleasure of murder. One survivor reported an incident where those escorting the Armenians were stripping the deportees of their clothes and throwing them off a cliff into the river, whereupon one woman picked up her four-year-old son and jumped with him into the river.
India and Pakistan
The plan to partition India (into India and a regionally divided Pakistan) was announced on June 3, 1947. The movement of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to other territories began in earnest in the August and September of 1947. There followed a massive disruption as more than ten million people moved from one country to the other across the western border alone. Villages were abandoned, crops left to rot, and families separated by the new borders. The governments of India and Pakistan were completely unprepared for this.
More than this disruption, there was a genocide as members of one religion raped and slaughtered those of the other religions. Estimates of the dead range from 200,000 to two million and about 75,000 women were abducted and raped by men of other religions and sometimes by men of their own religion. The torture of the women included raping and disfiguring women in front of their relatives, tattooing and branding them with ‘Pakistan, Zindabad” or ‘Hindustan, Zindabad,’ marking a half-moon on their breasts or genitalia, and amputating their breasts.
To prevent capture, torture and death at the hands of others or forced religious conversions, people murdered their own children, spouses, parents and other significant others. Some also committed suicide. Pennebaker (2000) mentions women who jumped into wells or set themselves on fire, sometimes individually but occasionally all the women in a family together.
Butalia (2000) talked to and recorded the experiences of those in one region during this crisis, the Punjab. She heard tales of hundreds of women jumping into wells (and sometimes being forced to jump) to avoid capture, rape, abduction and forced conversions. One informant reported watching more than ninety Sikh women jump into a well in her village in Rawalpindi on March 15th 1947 when it was under attack from Muslims. The informant jumped in too with her children, but survived because the water was no longer deep enough for her to drown. When the well filled up, villages dragged the women who were still alive out of the well (p. 35). The incident was reported in the April 15th, 1947, edition of The Statesman, an English daily newspaper. The informant’s brother-in-law had already killed his mother, sister, wife, daughter and uncle, and her daughter was killed. Before they jumped, the women were given some opium mixed in water. The brother-in-law poured kerosene on himself and jumped into a fire and later perhaps his son also committed suicide. Another survivor interviewed by Butalia reported seeing a girl, who was being dragged away, jump into a canal to escape and another who jumped off a roof to avoid rape and abduction (p. 271). Later, India’s Prime Minister, Nehru, visited the well, and the English closed it up.
This incident has acquired iconic significance, illustrating the bravery and manliness of the Sikhs, although Butalia points out that it was women who died. The Statesman compared the “sacrifice” of such women to the mass immolations of Rajput women when their husbands were killed in wars. Those women who survived are typically seen as “inferior” to those who died. The deaths of those who died are seen as “saving” those who survived these times. It is likely that the villagers would have been killed, abducted and raped had the attackers not backed off. Butalia, however, noted the failure of the men in such incidents to defend their village and retaliate, but instead their acquiescence in the murder and suicide of their family members. Butalia also questions the extent to which the suicides of these women were “voluntary.”
Menon and Bhasin (1998) also noted that women jumped into wells or set themselves on fire either singly or in groups. The Fact Finding Team set up by the Indian government recorded that in Bewal Village (in the Rawalpindi district), many women committed suicide by self-immolation on March 10, 1947. They put their bedding and cots in a pile, set fire to it and jumped onto it. A school teacher, whose family was in a camp that was attacked on August 26, 1947, reported that his daughter had a man try to strangle her three times, but she survived despite losing consciousness (Menon & Bhasin, 1998, p. 42). Many women carried vials of poison around their neck so as to have the means for suicide easily available should it become necessary (p. 46).
One male informant told Menon and Bhasin that his town of Muzaffarabad was raided in October 17, 1947. The Hindus were overpowered and surrendered. Their money was taken, and they were marched away. His three sisters swallowed poison, and then several women jumped off a bridge to drown in the river. A female informant who survived this incident recalled women committed suicide using opium first and then taking a faster-acting poison. Another informant told of a woman who tried to throw her 10-month old baby on a burning pile, but someone else saved the baby. Later the mother and this baby escaped and hid in a cave. When the mother heard that her husband had been killed (falsely), she swallowed poison and died. Three women in this village refused to take the poison or kill their children, and later they were accused of cowardice, their “lack of courage in facing death” (p. 54).
Menon and Bhasin (1998), like many others, reject the term “suicide” for these deaths. In their opinion, the women did not voluntarily endorse the honor code and choose death. If they had not committed suicide, they would have been killed by their own kin and neighbors to “protect their honor.” Menon and Bhasin note that acquiescence does not imply consent, and submitting is not the same as agreeing. Pandey (2001) prefers the term “martyrdom” to describe the suicides of the Hindus and Sikhs.
On the other hand, these women were caught in a horrendous bind. They faced rape, mutilation and torture. Some individuals might choose suicide over this. However, the role of the men in murdering their kin and forcing suicide upon them took away the women’s freedom of choice. It is unknown what these women might have done if the men had not exerted pressure. These women grew up in a culture that held these values, and they may have been sufficiently enculturated so that they would have chosen suicide “freely.”
In contrast to the myth that has grown up around the suicides of Hindu and Sikh women during this time, Pandey (2001) pointed out that some women did flee. He reports that some boys were disguised as girls for these escapes in order to avoid death if they were captured. Some have argued that it made sense to convert to Islam in order to have their lives spared and, although some of those who advocated this were murdered by their kin, some Sikh families did convert. Pandey also noted that a few families, on both sides of the border, were willing to sacrifice young women to the abductors in order to buy security for the family (p. 195).
The most noteworthy aspect of these, admittedly brief accounts, is that the vast majority of the suicides reported were of women. The women were, of course, subjected to horrendous violence, but their suicides, especially in case of India, are cast as heroic acts that denied the murderers satisfaction. In India, emphasis is placed on the suicides as ways of avoiding defilement by the murderers, thereby preserving the women’s purity. In India, too, many women and men were murdered by their own group for the same purpose.
I located one report of the suicide of a man. Butalia recounted one story from information obtained from newspapers and memoirs. Zainab, a young Muslim girl, was abducted as her family tried to move from India to Pakistan, and sold to a Hindu, Buta Singh, who married her. They came to love each other and had children, but a program was set up by the two governments to “rescue” abducted women and return them to their new countries. Zainab was found and forced to leave Buta Singh. Buta Singh tried to change the decision and then to go to Pakistan. He converted to Islam and applied for a Pakistani passport. He was refused. He applied for a short-term visa which was granted. When he arrived, he found that Zainab had already been married to a cousin. Zainab, almost certainly under pressure from her family, rejected Singh in front of a magistrate, and the next day Singh threw himself under a train and died (Butalia, 2000, p. 103). His suicide note asked to be buried in Zainab’s village, but the villagers refused this request, and Singh was buried back in Lahore in India. This tale has not become a legend, with books and a movie based on it.
The way in which these accounts are written permits several speculations. First, there is guilt on the part of the men that they could not protect their wives, sisters, mothers and children. By raising the suicides of the women to heroic proportions, they lessen the chance of being blamed for the tragedy.
Second, there is the possibility that suicide is seen as weak and inappropriate behavior and, by reporting only the suicides of women, the men themselves avoid the stigma of suicide. Even in the present era, there is stigma attached to suicides (and, by association, to their significant others), and this stigma was stronger in previous centuries. To have reported the suicides of men during these genocides would make the men seem weak too.
In other situations, such as the Jewish ghettos and the concentration camps in the Second World War, suicide by men was common (Lester, 2005). It is likely that men did commit suicide too during the genocides in Armenia and India but, if so, they have received less attention and documentation.
Butalia, U. (2000). The other side of silence. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Lester, D. (2005). Suicide and the Holocaust. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.
Menon, R., & Bhasin, K. (1998). Borders and boundaries. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Miller, D. E., & Miller, L. T. (1982). Armenian survivors. Oral History Review, 10, 47-72.
Miller, D. E., & Miller, L. T. (1993). Survivors: An oral history of the Armenian genocide. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Pandey, G. (2001). Remembering partition. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Pennebaker, M. K. (2000). “The will of men”: Victimization of women during India’s partition. Agora, 1(1, Summer), unpaged.
Talbot, I. (1998). Pakistan. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
 Only reports of suicides among Hindus were found. No accounts of suicide among Muslims could be located. This does not mean that no suicides occurred in Muslims, only that reports of such cases are absent or difficult to locate.
 The newspaper account reported that three women were saved.
 Most of the accounts of this incident mention only women, but Butalia’s informant said that boys jumped in also.
 Butalia noted that women were sometimes traded to the attackers in return for freedom for the rest of the community.
 Pandey (2001) noted that the village had been under attack for three days, and the Hindus and Sikhs had fought the attackers, but could no longer hold out.