Five suicides in a year at IIT Madras put the spotlight on India’s premier institutes—again

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The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, one of India’s most haloed institutions of higher learning, is grappling a serious suicide crisis.

Five cases have been reported over the past year alone, the latest dating Nov. 9, when Fathima Lathif, a first-year master’s student of humanities and development studies (integrated), was found hanging in her hostel room.

While no suicide note was found, the 19-year-old’s father, Abdul Lathif, has said that she left one on her cellphone, The Indian Express newspaper reported today (Nov. 13). In this note, she has reportedly blamed one of her professors for her taking the extreme step.

“There is a mystery behind this death. She told us about this professor earlier, too—that he makes some students cry. We also have information that she used to sit and cry regularly at the mess hall around 9 every night. So we demand that the police check CCTV footage,” Abdul Lathif told the daily.

A native of the southern India state of Kerala, Lathif’s family has urged the state chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, and prime minister Narendra Modi to intervene and order a thorough probe.

In the meantime, officials at IIT Madras have said they had no idea why the student took her own life. “Umakant Dash, head of humanities department at IIT Madras, said the entire department, including students and professors, were clueless how and why she died,” the newspaper reported. A topper of the IIT entrance exam held nationwide, Lathif was also reportedly a high scorer in most subjects.

In September this year, S Shahal Kormath, a student of ocean engineering, killed himself, according to NDTV. In January, two students—Gopal Babu, an MTech student and native of Uttar Pradesh, and PhD scholar Ranjana Kumari, a resident of Jharkhand—committed suicide. In December 2018, Aditi Simha, an assistant professor, took her life inside the staff quarters on campus.

A questionnaire sent to officials at IIT Madras went unanswered till the time of publishing this article.

The premier engineering institute ranked No.1 by the National Institutional Rankings Framework of the Indian government has often been called out for its toxic environment for students, especially those belonging to minority religious groups and lower castes in India.

No unity in diversity

Students battle all odds to clear the patently competitive IIT joint entrance exam, one of the toughest in the world, only to enter a campus where the academic pressure never relents. Though they are highly coveted technology schools, India’s IITs also offer humanities courses that are much in demand.

However, IIT Madras has often been viewed as a bastion of India’s traditionally privileged upper castes. “IIT Madras is an educational agraharam of Brahmins,” A Narayanan, director of Change India, a Chennai-based centre for advocacy and research, had told Quartz earlier. An agraharam is a traditional and exclusive housing colony of Brahmins found in southern India.

This has often spurred student bodies such as the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC), founded in 2014, into protesting against the perceived bias. APSC sympathisers often mock IIT Madras as “Iyer Iyengar Technology”—Iyer and Iyengar being the Brahmin castes of Tamil Nadu.

Yet, student suicides—or allegations of caste bias—aren’t restricted to IIT-Madras.

Other Indian campuses

In May this year, Payal Tadvi, a medical student at BYL Nair General Hospital in Mumbai, committed suicide, alleging vicious casteist slurs cast by her peers.

The 2016 suicide of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula at the Hyderabad Central University sparked a nationwide fury. His suicide note had alleged bias against scheduled castes (a group deemed untouchable till the practice was banned in India) students and blamed top university officials and politicians for perpetuating the bias. “Please give us poison at the time of admission itself instead of humiliating us like this,” he wrote in his suicide note.

A high-stakes entrance exam, a rigorous academic regime, and a troubling job market scenario, too, add to the pressure-cooker environment that students face at India’s centres of higher learning. In July, an IIT Hyderabad student took his life and left a warning note for his friends that a dream job in the IT sector wasn’t all there was to life.

Between 2008 and 2011, up to 26 suicides were reported across IITs, the many Indian Institutes of Management, and the National Institutes of Technology. Of these, 16 were at the IITs alone, reported The Tribune newspaper.