ON Friday, a man named Faisal doused himself with petrol and self-immolated in front of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat. He was rushed to the hospital by police officials, and soon succumbed to the critical burns he had sustained. The incident brought back memories of an unemployed father of two, Raja Khan, who set himself on fire outside parliament in 2011. The following year, a 12-year-old boy in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also set himself on fire as his father could not afford to buy him a uniform. Then, in 2014, a woman in Punjab committed a similar act outside a police station, after she was allegedly subjected to gang rape. And more recently, unable to make ends meet, Mir Hasan set himself alight in the winter of this year in Karachi. On the surface, these may seem like disparate events, but a common thread is desperate poverty — and perhaps more significantly, a feeling of not being heard. While no one can say with certainty what was going through the minds of these individuals in their last moments, throughout history, whether it was the Tibetan monks in China, or the Tunisian fruit-seller who sparked the Arab Spring, self-immolation is often a desperate, final act of protest against oppressive structures. Indeed, a letter addressed to the government was also retrieved from Faisal, just as one had been found from Mir Hasan and Raja Khan earlier.
Of course, there are underlying and unaddressed mental health issues that are exacerbated by systems one appears to have no control over, or no escape from. While little is known about the details of Faisal’s life, the police mentioned that he was suffering from a history of mental health issues. Unfortunately, Pakistan is far from understanding the impact of mental health on citizens, which takes a back seat to more ‘pressing’ issues. To make matters worse, both state and society are quick to condemn and ostracise, rather than trying to understand one another, leading to a culture of suffering in silence.
Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2020