15/11/2019 12:49 PM IST | Updated 15/11/2019 5:54 PM IST

IIT Madras Administration Ignored Plea For Probe Into Suicides, Say Students

Fathima Latheef is the fifth IIT Madras student to die by suicide this year.

Nikhila Henry/Huffpost India
Student bodies sent a petition to the director of IIT-Madras, demanding implementation of SLC resolution and staged protests on campus.

Hyderabad, TELANGANA — Days after a 19-year-old humanities student at IIT Madrasdied by suicide, student representatives said the institute’s administration had ignored a long-standing demand to institute a study into the growing number of suicides and mental health concerns on campus.

The parents of Fathima Latheef, who was a first-year student, have alleged that the student was pushed to take the extreme step due to harassment and religious discrimination by faculty members.

The students said the recommendations had been proposed by an independent student body called Chintabar, and later approved by IIT Madras’s Students Legislative Council (SLC). Chintabar calls themselves a “collective of students who engage in discussions on socially, economically and political relevant topics”. 

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On 5 February, 2019, Chintabar put forth the recommendations to the SLC, which later took up the matter to the Board of Students and passed a resolution in the same month: “The reasons for committing suicide or undergoing mental health problems can be many for a student. It is at the culmination of many reasons that the student ends up in a state of clinical depression or even takes the drastic step of committing suicide. These reasons can include academic pressures, personal/relationship issues, familial pressures, loneliness…”

The resolution, which addresses the marginalisation of students in the institute, also asked the administration to understand the “underlying patterns” of suicides and mental health problems, instead of probing each case “at an individual level”. 

“Social backgrounds like caste/tribe status, rural schooling and upbringing, being women, LGBTQI, poor or lower middle-class households, weaker grasp of English etc can individually or together have detrimental effects on the psychology of students in campuses like ours,” it added, asking authorities to identify the backgrounds of earlier suicide victims. 

HuffPost India has written to IIT Madras asking about the students’ claim that the administration did not take up their demand, and will update this story if they respond. Communication officers from the institute, however, shared a media statement from the administration that read, “IIT Madras faculty, staff and students extend their deepest condolences to the family, friends and other near and dear ones of the deceased student. This is indeed an irreparable loss to the institute and the family. May her soul rest in peace. The police has been informed and the institute is cooperating with the authorities”. 

Later on Friday, the institute issued a statement which said that its reputation was being tarnished and students, faculty and staff were being demoralized by the “trolling” on social media. 

Four student suicides were reported on the campus in the semester in which the students’ resolution was passed. The total count for the year has reached five with the death of Latheef. 

Latheef’s case was referred to the Tamil Nadu police’s crime branch division on Thursday. 

A student representative from the humanities department, who was part of passing the resolution in February 2019, told HuffPost India that student protesters have petitioned the administration to conduct an immediate probe into Latheef’s death. 

“We have also asked the administration to conduct a study into the cases of suicides and mental health problems faced by students of IIT-Madras,” the person said on condition of anonymity.

Nikhila Henry/Huffpost India
Student representatives said the institute’s administration had ignored a long-standing demand to institute a study into the growing number of suicides and mental health concerns on campus.

The resolution had also pointed out that “it is essential for a professional study to make sense of the complicated problems…it is important for the administration to understand the reasons for the academic pressures faced by the students”. 

On Thursday, a collective of student protesters sent a petition to the director of IIT-Madras, demanding that the administration implement the SLC resolution in full.

“(The resolution had asked) to set up a body of outside experts to study the overall mental wellbeing of the students in the institute and on the effectiveness of the existing platforms and mechanisms to tackle all the issues faced by the students,” the petition said. 

This committee should include sociologists, psychologists, mental health experts, educationists, faculty of IIT-M and other professional stakeholders, the petition read, adding that they should also look into the “pressures faced by students, especially those from marginalised backgrounds”. 

The students have also asked for a complaints and grievance redressal committee in all departments, and that friends of the students who died by suicide, especially those of Latheef, friends should be counselled to cope with trauma. 

Apart from petitioning the administration, student bodies staged protests on campus even as the hashtag #JusticeForFathima trended on Twitter through Thursday. As per the notes which Fathima had allegedly typed out on her phone, she has accused three faculty members of the humanities department of the institute of harassing her for being a Muslim. 

Her parents, who arrived in Chennai to petition the police, told reporters that Latheef stopped wearing a hijab because she didn’t want to be identified as a Muslim.

Latheef’s phone notes, copies of which are with HuffPost India, also seemed to express a sense of alienation on campus. “I want to go back (home) please,” a note read. Another, which named a faculty member, accused him of being “the cause of her death”. 

Latheef’s parents have also alleged that the student, who was a topper in all subjects bar one, was given low marks because of the alleged bias.     

If you or someone you know needs help, mail or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS)