A large number of uniformed policemen stood guard behind barricades at the main entrance of Indian Institute of Technology – Madras (IIT-M) on Friday. Security has been beefed up after the death of 19-year-old Fathima Latheef on the campus that sparked debates of discrimination against minorities and marginalised sections in the institution. It also led to a series of protests by political parties and students against the administration.
Fathima, who hailed from Kollam in Kerala, allegedly committed suicide by hanging herself in her hostel room on November 9. This was the fifth student suicide on the IIT-Madras campus in the past two years. Fathima’s parents and siblings met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami on Friday pleading for a fair investigation into the incident. They also demanded the arrest of her professor Sudarshan Padmanabhan, who, they alleged, was responsible for her death.
Protests marches by political parties like Dravida Munnetra Kazahakam (DMK) and students' outfits have been continuing outside the IIT campus after Fathima committed suicide. The protesters have been demanding justice for Fathima. But an eerie and forced silence have been prevailing inside the campus. Teachers are keeping mum following the administration's diktat that they should not speak about suicide. A majority of students too have been observing self-imposed silence fearing teachers' wrath.
An increasing number of suicides on the campus has been a major topic of discussion among students' bodies for some time, though the administration turned a blind eye towards it.
A month after MTech student G Gopal Babu from Uttar Pradesh allegedly committed suicide by hanging in his hostel room in January this year, ChintaBAR, an informal student body recognised by IIT-Madras, had called an all-students' meeting. It was the fourth suicide in five months and the students' outfit wanted to put an end to this.
ChintaBAR had recorded grievances of the students and a report was later submitted to the official student body – the Student Legislative Council. The council realised the gravity of the situation and urged the IIT-Madras administration to conduct a survey by an external body on the mental well-being of the students and evaluate the effectiveness of the existing mechanism to tackle the problem.
The students now allege that the administration ignored their demand to set up an external committee. IIT-Madras director Bhaskar Ramamurthi has not responded to Onmanorama's request for a reaction. This story will be updated as and when he responds.
‘A Gloomy Space’
According to unofficial reports, 14 suicides have been registered at IIT-Madras in the past 10 years, the highest among IITs. During this period, IIT-Kharagpur registered 13 suicides, Guwahati eight, Roorkee five, Delhi four, Kanpur four, Hyderabad two and Mumbai two. The recurrent suicides have raised concerns about the nature of space that IIT-Madras provides to the students.
“I am afraid that students, staff and administration have begun to accept and internalise the recurring student suicides as a natural phenomenon,” said a research scholar on condition of anonymity. “The series of suicides indicates that the problem cannot be confined to the mental illness of an individual alone. It has to do with space as well. The reasons can be academic, socio-economic, career pressures, personal or relationship issues or loneliness.”
Sources of stress
A survey on mental health conducted by T5E - The Fifth Estate, the official students’ media body at IIT-Madras - in March 2017 found several factors that caused stress among the students. While academic pressure was a major stress factor among undergraduate students (72.29%), it was relatively less among post-graduate students (48.26%). Anxiety about professional future made 68.56% of undergraduate students stressful, while only 54.57% of post-graduates found it as a reason for stress. Loneliness caused stress among 54.53% of the undergraduate students while it created stress for 48.9% post-graduate students. Financial troubles affected 18.65% of undergraduates and 23.66% of the post-graduate students.
The institution strictly adheres to the 85% mandatory attendance of students to appear for the examination. Students are expected to attend 12 classes of 40 hours. They will lose 25% of attendance if they skip three classes. In addition to this, the Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) – a relative grading method that is based on the performance in the class – creates a huge divide between the students who perform exceptionally well and average students. “This means if there are three or four students who score more than 90 per cent marks, then those who score 60 per cent marks will get low grades.”
“The system itself is stressful, especially for those who study without social or family support,” said a second-year graduate student. “The pressure that engineering or science graduates used to face is now spilling onto the humanities department. The students are focussing on only scoring high grades instead of exploring the subject. Many are unable to cope with the highly competitive space.”
In a semester lasting three to four months, students are expected to have 85% attendance, participate in at least 15 quizzes, prepare paper presentations and assignments in all the six subjects, study 30 to 40 readings, including papers and books, and write the end semester examination.
“We do not have time for anything except studies,” noted a second-year undergraduate student. “We interact little with our fellow students, and this creates a gloomy environment.”
Composition of students
The changing composition of students after 2006 too was cited as a reason for the increasing number of suicides.
Considered to be a bastion of upper class and caste, IIT-Madras opened its doors for a considerable number of students from the poor, marginalised and minority communities. The administration, however, has remained its conservative self and not prepared for this change.
A research scholar said that the institution did not develop a mechanism to address the complexities of the students coming from different backgrounds.
The ChintaBAR report, a copy of which is with Onmanorama, pointed to the survey that looked into the social background of the students.
It noted that “95% of Scheduled Tribe (ST) students cited academics as a source of stress compared to 68% of Scheduled Caste (SC) students and 62% of both general category and Other Backward Caste (OBC) students. At least 71% of ST students cited professional future as a source of stress compared to 60-64% of SC, OBC and general category students”.
ChintaBAR has urged the administration to identify the background of the suicide victims based on caste or tribe, past schooling, gender and sexuality, economic status and language skills to frame suicide prevention programme. The administration has not acted on the recommendations yet.
“IIT-Madras has excellent facilities for sports and games, workout and cultural programmes. There are even prayer halls for all religions,” said a research scholar on condition of anonymity. But he said the institution needs an attitudinal change. “Only it will create a safe space for the students,” he said.
(S Senthalir is an independent journalist based in Chennai)