Was it a case of mass suicide or an induced psychotic disorder?

Burari suicides: Was it a case of mass suicide or an induced psychotic disorder?

Dr K K Aggarwal

Padma Shri Awardee

President Heart Care Foundation of India

Ever since the Burari deaths were reported, it has set us all thinking and trying to find answers about what might have happened, what were the preceding events that made the entire family commit such an act? I too have been trying to understand the reason behind these mass deaths.

Mass suicides may occur for a number of reasons. People can be brainwashed to commit mass suicides. In such cases, the mind is in an extremely parasympathetic or relaxed state of mind and so becomes a suggestive mind, one which is more receptive to accept and act on the suggestions of others. A person who is in an emotional state of mind tends to be more receptive to ideas and suggestions of others and is therefore more suggestible.

The sympathetic state is the ‘fight or flight’ response of the body which comes into action when the body perceives a threat. In a sympathetic state of mind, a person would fight off suggestions through the processes of conscious defenses and critical judgments.

Suicide bombers or suicide attacks are another category of mass suicides, where the motivation may be an ideological cause or nationalism like the kamikaze, who carried out suicide aerial missions for Japan against allied forces in World War II. Mass suicides may be a means to focus attention on a particular issue. Mass suicides by farmers may be prompted by reasons such as persistent droughts, or damage to crops due to floods or any other cause. Jauhar or the custom of mass self-immolation, which was historically practiced is well known to us all.

But none of these applied to the family in Burari. So what led to this family of 11 to carry out such an act?

When I spoke to Dr Sanjay Chugh, a well-known neuropsychiatrist in Delhi, he said this could be a case of induced psychotic disorder or shared psychotic disorder, where one psychotic person in the family can induce one or more members of the family into a psychotic behavior. Typically, this disorder is characterized by transmission of delusions from the inducer, who is the originally ill patient and suffers from a psychotic disorder, to another person who may share the inducer’s delusions in entirety or in part (J Res Med Sci. 2011 Mar; 16(Suppl1): S453–S45).

This disorder is usually common among people who live in close proximity and in close relationships. When one person is induced it is called Folie e deux; when it induces two, it is called Folie e trois; folie à quatre, when three people are induced, folie à cinq, when four are induced. Rarely, when all the family members share the same delusions, this is called folie à famille.

In such cases, dynamics of the family also play a major role. There are families that blindly worship the patriarch and would obey his commands without questioning his authority.

It appears from reports that in this case, Lalit probably had a psychotic disorder, who over a period of time induced others in a psychotic behavior, which ended in a mass suicide-like action. He thought he was conversing with his dead father and convinced his family that he was possessed by his father’s soul and hence was soon accepted as the head of the family as reported.

There are also reports that Lalit was particularly attracted to tantric beliefs. It all began with some ailment that his own son had, because of which he had lost his voice few years back. His voice was restored after Lalit is said to have performed some kind of tantric sacrifice, which may have reaffirmed his belief in such practices.

It has also emerged that the family was under influence of a self-styled tantric known as Gada Baba, who practiced some banyan tree occult. It has references saying that the dead bodies should replicate the prop roots of a banyan tree. The handwritten notes in the diaries found, call this as “badh or vat tapasya” saying that doing this would “make God happy”. This is also how ten of the 11 dead bodies were found hanging from an iron mesh in the house, in a formation resembling the hanging roots of a banyan tree.

The Banyan tree is associated with Yama, the God of death. The Banyan tree does not allow grass to grow under it indicating that it does not allow for any rebirth and renewal. A banyan tree is said to be immortal. It is stable and constant.

This family might have carried out the Banyan tree ritual harboring a false but firm belief that they too will not die. They were convinced by Lalit that their father’ soul would appear and save them after the ritual.

CCTV footages have shown five stools being carried into the house that would be used for the hanging, but 11 people died. This is indicative of one person who ‘masterminded’ or planned and directed the entire ritual. Incidentally, the postmortem report indicates that Lalit and his wife were the last to die.

This story needed to be told here to create awareness about induced psychotic disorder, which is reportedly a rare disorder. It is important to remember that one psychotic patient can influence others in their vicinity. Physical separation of the inductor and the recipient/s, who do not have a mental illness in such cases, may prevent sharing of delusions. The inductor often may be suffering from schizophrenia.