CHENNAI, Tamil Nadu— On November 9 this year, the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (IIT-Madras) issued a brief statement after the death of 19-year-old student Fathima Latheef. Latheef was found hanging from a ceiling fan in in her hostel room.
“It is with deep grief and sadness that we have to announce the passing away of a first year student of Masters programme, Dept of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras who decided to end her own life,” the statement said.
The two line statement follows a tragic, and all too familiar template at IIT Madras where at least nine students have committed suicide since 2016, three of which have been in 2019 alone.
Yet the IIT management’s response in each instance, several students and elected student representatives told HuffPost India, was aimed at managing the institution’s public reputation, rather than caring for the health and wellbeing of students.
IIT Madras’s most recent directive to install special ceiling fans that collapse under the weight of more than 40 kilograms, the students said, is a vivid illustration of this approach.
The special ceiling fans, the students said, showed a managerial mindset, rather than an attempt to understand why some of India’s brightest minds were taking their own lives on campus.
“In the IIT, when a suicide takes place, the deceased student is not considered a human being,” Fathima Lateef’s father, Abdul told HuffPost India. “The deceased becomes only an animal to be buried as soon as possible. They follow the steps to ensure quick burial.”
Students were also critical of what they saw as the administration’s attempts to shift the blame for these suicides on the victims, rather than attempting to understand why some of the country’s brightest minds were taking their own lives.
In the days following Fathima’s death, the institute has witnessed student protests over its handling of discrimination on the basis of caste and religion, and its alleged indifference to the mental wellbeing of students. Fathima Latheef’s father, Abdul, in the meantime has speculated that Fathima may have been “discriminated for being a Muslim”.
HuffPost India has sent two emails to IIT-M seeking its response to the allegations against it but has received no answer. This refusal to answer for its conduct is sadly part of the same pattern.
This article will be updated as and when IIT Madras responds.
Fathima’s death was discovered at noon on November 9 2019 when Lalitha Devi, the warden of Sarayu Hostel, and a security guard forced her door open, students present at the spot told HuffPost India. They said Fathima’s hostel mates had received a call from her family at around 11.30am, saying she had been unreachable on her phone since morning. The hostelers alerted Devi after they knocked on Fathima’s door and got no answer.
As students gathered, the chief of wardens and the head of the humanities department joined Devi, the warden, in dispersing students who had gathered at the hostel, the students said. Students at the spot also alleged that staff members searched Fathima’s room — which by then was a crime scene — in the absence of the police or any witnesses.
At 2 pm that afternoon, an ambulance took Fathima to the Government Royapettah Hospital for an autopsy.
By then, Devi had called Fathima’s twin Ayesha Latheef at the family’s home in Kerala’s Kollam district.
Ayesha reached Chennai at 8pm, accompanied by her relatives as well as Kollam mayor V. Rajendrababu and politician Shine Dev. They were met at the airport by a staff member of IIT-M’s hostel management committee and a driver. Dev, the politician, told HuffPost India that the IIT staffer had no information to offer the anxious family.
At the hostel, Ayesha met the warden and three female students, who told her Fathima had been upset about her performance in one paper.
“She had topped all the subjects and submitted one paper, Logic, for re-evaluation, they said. Their stories did not add up,” Ayesha said, explaining that Fathima could not have been so upset over just one paper, that too at the beginning of her first semester.
Fathima had joined the institute in July this year.
After spending the night in a campus guest house, Ayesha and her group visited the Kotturpuram police station, where a case of “death under circumstances raising reasonable suspicion” had been registered. There, she claims to have found her sister’s cellphone just “lying around” unattended.
Fathima had left what appeared to be a suicide note – several notes, in fact – on her phone. Ayesha said she “downloaded 28 notes which Fathima had written in the run-up to her death”.
The family have so far released five pages of the notes in which they say Fathima has named three professors.
The discovery of the notes makes Fathima’s phone crucial evidence, which raises questions about how Ayesha could easily access it at the police station.
Assistant Commissioner S. Prabhakaran of the Central Crime Branch, one of the investigating officers looking into Fathima’s death, refused to comment on the police’s handling of Fathima’s phone.
However, he said the phone has been sent for forensic examination. “We are exploring all possible angles. It is not possible to share the details of the investigation at this time,” the officer added.
Abdul Latheef—who was in Saudi Arabia, where he works, when he was informed of his daughter’s death—told HuffPost India he had many questions the IIT-M administration had yet to answer.
“How she got the rope which was used is not known,” he said. “She was found crying in the mess hall and a woman was found consoling her the night she died. The whereabouts of this woman are still not known. Why were sheets of paper found strewn around her room even though she always kept her room neat? What happened on the days prior to her death?”
Yet rather than address the family’s questions, Ayesha said the IIT Madras administration showed great urgency in their preparations to send them home.
“Soon after the funeral home readied the body, we were told they had booked our flight tickets and that we need to leave,” she said, adding that IIT-M even offered to reimburse the family for their travel to Chennai. “It was appalling that they paid such attention to travel details but were not keen on finding out what had happened to Fathima.
The family flew home with Fathima’s body on the night of November 10.
“None of us got to see her before she was taken home,” a research scholar, who was Fathima’s senior at IIT, said.
Condolence meetings, protests
On November 11, the institute’s first-year students called a condolence meeting after the IIT management did arrange for one.
“It was informal and was called because the institute remained mute,” said a PhD scholar from the humanities department.
The students action pushed the department to organise a formal condolence meeting the following day at which the subject of discrimination was raised. A student who attended the event recalled hearing a fellow scholar say out loud that “Muslim students and students of other marginalised communities face discrimination on campus”. The student added, “No discussion happened after this.”
Another humanities student who is muslim, said, “At a research scholars’ meeting [on November 13], the question of Islamophobia, which some of us faced on campus, came up even though it was not widely discussed. In a statement we issued later, we asked the administration to look into discrimination faced by students on the basis of caste and religion.”
In the following days, the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, an independent student body at IIT-M, issued a statement criticising IIT-M’s “brahminical hegemony”. The group has sought a “fair investigation” into Fathima’s death.
Many of the students who spoke with HuffPost India accused IIT-M of having an “anti-Muslim”, “anti-minority” attitude and of discriminatory practices against students from marginalised communities such as Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Classes. They recalled the IITs’ resistance to reserving 27% of seats for OBC students more than a decade ago, and how some faculty members of IIT-M have in the past raised objections to the institute allegedly not following the reservation policy in recruitments and promotions.
On November 18, Azhar Moideen and Justin Joseph, students affiliated with Chintabar, another independent student body at IIT-M, launched a protest hunger strike.
They called it off a day later after IIT-M director Bhaskar Ramamurthi agreed to their demands for an external committee to “study the overall mental wellbeing of students” and for grievance redressal cells to be set up in each department.
Days before this breakthrough, student representatives at IIT-M had told HuffPost India that the demand for such a study was not new but had been long ignored by the administration.
However, the director rejected a third demand made by the fasting students — an internal investigation into Fathima’s death.
“He said an internal probe is not standard procedure when a Crime Branch investigation is underway,” said a student who was present when the director met the protesting students days after they ended their fast. The students reportedly told Ramamurthi there have been instances of an internal investigation and a police inquiry happening simultaneously at other IITs, but the director was not swayed.
Speaking to the students, the administration also promised to spread awareness of its existing grievance redressal mechanism.
Currently, students are assigned faculty advisors and student mentors each semester. The institute also arranges for counsellors thrice a week.
Students, however, say such facilities mean little as the institute does not provide “an inclusive and conducive environment”. As one final-year humanities student put it, “The system isolates students and leaves us without a support system. When the system does not nurture interaction, it becomes difficult to approach counsellors because they seem unapproachable.”
Another humanities student said that following Fathima’s death, the department had postponed the end-of-semester exams for MA students after being told “they were in no mental condition to appear for tests”. But even then, “the administration never reassured students”, the scholar added.
Having refrained from making any public statement even in the face of protests, IIT-M finally issued a second statement on November 15 after it was revealed that Fathima had named three professors in her notes. In a first, the statement named Fathima.
It went on to defend the institute: “The social media trolling of the institute, faculty members and students and trial by the media, even before the conclusion of the police investigation, is gravely demoralising the students, faculty members and staff as well as their families, and tarnishing the reputation of one of the finest institutes in the country. Our faculty is known for its high quality, integrity and fairness.”
The statement coincided with Abdul Latheef meeting leaders of the ruling and opposition parties to seek an investigation into his daughter’s death.
The student community wasn’t impressed with the statement. “Except in Fathima Latheef’s case, IIT-Madras [has] never issued a second condolence note naming the suicide victim, even though the institute has been expressing grief over deaths by natural causes with a mention of the deceased’s name,” said Moideen. “This shows the IIT administration stigmatises suicides even though attempt to suicide is no longer a punishable offence in the country.”
They were even less impressed when IIT-M decided to install “fan bush protection devices” as a suicide prevention measure. “What IIT-Madras administration came up with instead of listening to existing demands of students: a device on all hostel fans so that they fall down if over 40 kg weight is [placed] on them. Shameless!” tweeted Moideen.
The devices will be installed during the winter vacations between November 23 and December 20. A circular issued by IIT-M to hostel administrators in the third week of November, which was leaked to the media, says students who plan to stay back during the holidays can only use their rooms after the devices have been fixed.
Pointing to a common pattern in IIT-M’s handling of suicides, students said the institute is in the habit of blaming the deaths on “academic pressure” and shows a reluctance to understand the “real cause of each death”.
“The administration attributes the suicide to poor performance, shortage of attendance or vague personal problems,” said a student who has been at IIT-M for five years.
In a meeting with students after Fathima’s death, a friend of Fathima said, the administration “fed the rumour that she always wanted to top the class and was disheartened when she could not score well in one subject”.
Similarly, when 23-year-old K. Shahal died by suicide at IIT-M in 2018, the administration told his parents about his “attendance shortage” and “poor academic performance”, his friend told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity.
The friend said it was unlikely Shahal killed himself over an attendance shortage when he was in the ninth semester of his dual degree course and had already earned one degree. “In this course, you get a degree after you complete eight semesters,” the friend explained. “Shahal, the son of a mechanic, had to complete just two more semesters to get his second degree.”
‘A student has no rights’
Several students summed up the current atmosphere at IIT-M as one that is disadvantageous to its scholars.
Accusing the institute of having “feudal values”, the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle said in its statement, “The professors enjoy unrestrained power, especially when it comes to guide-scholar relationships. The system rewards subservient scholars.”
It went on to say, “That the institute does not treat a student as a respectable individual with dignity is evident from the ridiculous vigilance that exists at IIT Madras. With scant regard to the fact that privacy is a basic right guaranteed to an Indian citizen, vigilance officers barge into the hostel rooms of students. They audaciously, unabashedly go through his/her personal belongings.”
A member of the study circle added, “The student is not considered an individual who has rights, including privacy and the right to protest. For a lot of students, all that matters is grades and good placements, because of this system.”
PTI also quoted Premachandran as saying that the government is thinking of ordering a CBI probe into the “mysterious deaths and torturing” happening in higher educational institutions in the country.
If you or someone you know needs help, the International Association for Suicide Prevention has a list of resources here. You can also find a list of state-specific helplines on the Aasra website.