On November 9, Fathima Latheef, a student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, was found hanging in her hostel room. Latheef was in her first year of the integrated Masters programme in humanities and development studies.
Her death sparked off a series of protests and conversations on mental health issues in IIT campuses. High academic pressure is a given in institutions like the IITs, or “India’s Ivy Leagues”, where candidates are admitted after passing one of the arguably toughest entrance examinations in the world.
There has been a stark rise in the number of students dying by suicide at IIT Madras, though the other IITs don’t have a squeaky-clean record either. Out of 18 reported cases of suicide over the past decade in the IIT Madras campus, four are from 2019 alone. One of the cases was of a faculty member.
Image: List of suicides in IIT Madras from the year 2006.
While academic pressure is considered a leading factor for the suicides, it’s not the only reason. Latheef’s father, Abdul Latheef, claimed his daughter had left a suicide note on a phone that clearly held one of her professors responsible for her death. He also alleged that his daughter was discriminated against on the basis of her religion.
Newslaundry spoke to several students studying in IITs across India, who claim to have experienced caste and religion-based discrimination on campus. Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect the students’ identities.
Amaan is a student in the humanities department of IIT Madras. He says vigilance raids in hostels and disciplinary committee meetings are instruments to harass students. He’s targeted in particular, he says, because of his hostel room’s nameplate carries his Muslim name and he has a long beard.
“During a vigilance raid conducted by the college administration in my hostel room, some cigarette butts had been found,” Amaan says. “They started ransacking the room. They asked, ‘Have you done anything wrong?’. Immediately after, another one of them asked me, ‘Are you Al-Qaeda?’. I didn’t know what to say.”
Amaan says he complained to the hostel warden, but no action was taken.
Raj*, a PhD scholar at IIT Bombay, says he’s a “category student”. He says there is “institutional discrimination” on campus, among faculty and non-faculty members. He recounts an incident that took place in the canteen of the chemistry department: “A Brahmin guy runs the canteen where I once went to have tea. The owner was doing puja. I told him to hurry up with the tea as I had to rush to class. He immediately said to me, ‘Ye tumlog ki jagah nahin hai, tum log yahan aakar saala hum ko pooja bhi nahin karne dete ho (This is not your place to be, you people come here and don’t even let us pray in peace)’.”
Raj adds, “When we come to IIT, it becomes apparent how people think of us as lower creatures. The faculty talks to us in Hindi as if we don’t understand English. If there is another student along with me who is not a category student, they will speak in English with them. They constantly tell us, ‘You must have worked very hard to come here’, invoking sympathy unnecessarily. We don’t need sympathy; we need to be treated as equals.”
Akash*, a student of IIT Bombay says there’s no recognition of the “root cause” of the problem, which he describes as the “ongoing discrimination” on campus. “There are many besides Fathima Latheef who committed suicide, but nobody bothers. No gathering to mourn the dead happens. Only mails are sent. There is no sense of remorse.”
In 2018, Jaideep Swain, a first-year M.Tech student at IIT Bombay, died by suicide. He left behind a suicide note, one section of which said: “After clearing JEE, I entered IIT Bombay with big dreams…I wanted to be successful, famous rich. Classes started…it was tough for me to focus and understand what was going on in class. To compensate for it, I tried to study all the time, I was in my room. I didn’t take part in any cultural activities to save more time for studies but it didn’t work out.”
In response to these issues, various groups have been formed in IIT Bombay to discuss menta health issues, discrimination on campus and other social issues. These include the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, the North East Collective, the Ambedkar Students’ Collective, Charchavadi and Saathi.
According to students, many faculty members are directly involved in casteism and discrimination against students. Vastu*, a student of IIT Kharagpur, says, “There was this professor…She used to ask people of the reserved category to sit on one side of the class and the general students on another.”
In the past five years, there have been three reported cases of suicides in IIT Kharagpur. According to Vastu, all three of them were category students. According to him, a “Centre of Happiness” was recently founded on campus to help students deal with mental health issues — but it didn’t go well.
“It was a credit class called ‘Happiness At Work’,” Vastu explains. “The professor would talk about SWOT analyses — Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats — in class. He would openly place reservations in IITs under the Threat category. This kind of aversion towards reservation and category students is quite common among not just students but also the faculty members.”
The students Newslaundry spoke to said despite the IITs having a reservation policy for OBC and SC/ST students, there is no inclusion of these students on campus.
Ambuj*, a student of IIT Delhi, says, “IIT has always been a Savarna-Brahmanical institution, whose historically upper class background of students have dominated it for long. After reservations were introduced, it opened up to others too, but the superiority culture remained, which is apparent.”
This discrimination is not restricted to students. Subrahmanyam Sadrela completed his M.Tech and PhD from IIT Kanpur. In January 2018, he joined IIT Kanpur as an associate professor in the aerospace engineering department. Sadrela was proud — a category student became a faculty member of a premier institute, against all odds. His teachers were now his colleagues.
But his happiness was short-lived. Soon after Sadrela’s appointment, he says some of his colleagues said his appointment was “wrong”, that he didn’t deserve to be a faculty member at the institute, that he could not speak English perfectly and was mentally unfit. In April this year, Sadrela was slapped with charges of plagiarism in his thesis and threatened with the revocation of his PhD degree, almost a year after he alleged caste-based discrimination in the campus.
He tells Newslaundry: “It had affected my mental health rather badly. I suffered one thing after another every 2-3 days for almost a year.”
As things stand, a demonstration was held on November 19 in Chennai, demanding a “conducive and safe atmosphere” for students like Latheef to study in campuses. No action has been taken yet by IIT Madras against the professor reportedly named in Latheef’s suicide note.