The suicide of Fathima Latheef in IIT Madras reveals the other side of India’s premier academic institutions
Fathima Latheef (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
TO 19-YEAR-OLD Aysha Latheef, suicide was an abstraction, an occasional newsflash, and then, in the space of a Friday night, it was not. The irreversibility of death struck her when she picked up her twin sister Fathima’s phone at the Kotturpuram police station in Chennai and read the succinct suicide note that blames an associate professor of philosophy in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Madras, where Fathima had been a freshman. Over a fortnight later, it is no easier to think of her in the past tense. “She enjoyed reading world literature and she was closer to her father than to anyone else,” says Shine Dev, her uncle. Her father, who runs a business in Riyadh, and her Kollam, Kerala-based family, have dubbed it an “institutional murder” and alleged discrimination and harassment by the professor, quickly pushing the case into the political arena. Their statements to the media, demanding a quick and fair probe, have elicited a public trial, with another purported suicide note, naming two other professors, surfacing on social media.
Fathima’s family later dismissed the second note as fake, but the charges of indifference against India’s top-ranked engineering college and its faculty are not going away anytime soon. “We do not think it was Islamophobia that drove her to suicide,” says Dev. “But the institute must assume responsibility for her death.”
After initial investigations, the case was transferred to the Central Crime Branch (CCB), which has since questioned faculty, students and Fathima’s family. A thorough examination of her laptop and mobile phone is expected to yield further clues. Even as the family mourns by Fathima’s grave in Randamkutty, Kollam, they are going over the copious notes she left behind, with details of her life at IIT-M and exchanges with professors she felt strongly about. Aysha, a student of law at Thiruvananthapuram, who spoke to her sister nearly every day, dismisses the narrative of homesickness and academic fatigue advanced by the police. Fathima had, over the past month-and-a-half, lapsed into an uncharacteristically sullen mood, says her father Abdul Latheef. “Forty days before her death, I spent six-to-seven hours with her at the campus and caught an early morning flight to Riyadh from Chennai,” he says. “She sat me down and discussed the mess food and her academic goals, but none of it seemed like a serious matter. She has always been a self-motivated person as far as academics goes.” The ninth day of November 2019 has become the zero point of reference for him. “She was her usual cheerful self when she came to Kollam for four days in October. She was never left alone, we had her picked up from Trivandrum airport and dropped back,” Latheef says. “But recently, she seemed off and somehow scared. Her ammi called her four-five times on November 8th in an attempt to understand what was dragging her down. The truth is, we don’t know. We just don’t know.”
Had Fathima held on a little longer—she was to visit them in Kollam in the final week of November—the family might have encouraged her to soldier on or to drop out of college. Barely three months into a five-year integrated MA programme in Development Studies, Fathima was lonely in Room 349 of Sarayu hostel. What misery could have caused an acutely self-aware adolescent to turn her phone off on her beloved family and wail alone into the night before she hanged herself in the early hours of dawn? Had she skulked in the dominant culture’s blind spots? Was she intimidated by the academic excellence around her? Was it her final rebellion against a narrow idea of success? Her performance in the short time she had been a student at IIT-M, her dream of joining the civil services, and her meticulousness, are lodged as deceptions in the story of her tumble downhill. Recently, she had scored 13 out of 20 in an internal paper but had sent it for review, arguing that she deserved 18. The head of the department had forwarded the request to Sudarsan Padmanabhan, the professor named in her note, who then replied to the email, asking her to meet him on November 11th. “It is unlikely she took this step because of a few marks. She was bright and she knew it. I would rate her among the top 10 percentile of our class,” says a classmate, requesting anonymity. “We feel vulnerable. Each of us feels responsible for not being able to help her cope with whatever it was she was going through,” he says.
The role of peers and professors is especially important at premier Indian institutes like the IITs, where students often experience living autonomously for the first time
To be a student of IIT-M is both an elevation and a grind, and like all new inductees, Fathima, too, must have been assigned an MiTR mentor under the institute’s programme to offer proximal, peer-to-peer psychological and academic guidance to students. If Fathima did talk to someone, could they have deciphered her state of mind? Research suggests that students are more likely to speak to their family and friends about mental health issues, and that peers are the primary source of referrals to counselling in minority students, as Amanda Megan Nadler points out in her thesis, ‘A Review of Predicting Factors, Buffers, and Proposed Interventions’, submitted to Middle Tennessee State University last year. ‘The fact that most students who die by suicide have had no contact with campus mental health professionals… implies that peers, parents, and campus faculty need to be utilized for identifying students at risk,’ she writes. The role of peers and professors is especially important at premier Indian institutes like the IITs, where students often experience living autonomously for the first time. Many of them are newly liberated from the strictures of cram schools and socially dysfunctional.
“Top institutes of technology admit a very different cohort of students who are trained for success for most of their lives. Failure is not an option for them,” says Thaddeus Alfonso, a mental health professional and Associate Director of Niraivagam, Don Bosco Institute of Psychological Services, Chennai. In 2004, Alfonso and a team of psychologists undertook a first-of-its-kind longitudinal study of mental health encompassing a batch of 536 students at a top engineering institute. “When we screened them at the time of admission, 43-44 per cent was found to have clinical manifestations of anxiety, depression, insomnia and social dysfunction. We screened the same set of students again in three years’ time and found 23 per cent of students to be positive for clinical depression—meaning they needed immediate medical intervention. A few had full-blown psychotic episodes and wanted to quit. Others isolated themselves in their rooms and played games. Some took to drugs. In mental health, productivity is a key parameter and as expected, we found a strong correlation between depression and academic performance,” says Alfonso, whose research is yet to be published. A mandatory preventive mental health screening at the time of admission, he says, can not only help identify risk factors but also serve to take the taboo out of counselling.
“There is a huge trust deficit on campus that stands in the way of fostering a culture of sharing,” says Arjun Jeyakumar, a PhD scholar pursuing research in desalination at IIT-M. “The administration is not approachable. There is a lot of power vested in wardens and professors, and the instances of apathy and insensitivity to students’ welfare are a big deterrent. Last year, for instance, a student was shamed and fined for possession of condoms although the institute doesn’t ban them. Peers and mental health apps like Yourdost are your best bet, and hopefully, they can lead you towards seeking professional help.”
Students who are unable to forge meaningful relationships on campus are the most likely to contemplate self-harm. “Counselling aside, a depressive student unnerves people. Nobody wants to subject themselves to the vulnerability that comes from witnessing a nervous breakdown. You begin to feel that it is better for everyone, including yourself, if you quietly went away,” says a former student of electrical engineering at IIT-M who graduated in 2015. “My music kept me going through two years of consistently bad academic performance. I wasn’t motivated to study, I cupped (IIT-M speak for failing) several papers, but going home wasn’t an option for a boy who had came from humble means and made it to an IIT,” says the co-founder of a services startup in Bengaluru who moonlights as a guitarist. “When you are depressed, you tend to wonder, would the people around me notice if I am gone? Perhaps that’s what Fathima thought in her final moments.”
According to Nadler, the first and the most important intervention ‘is the collection and publication of statistics pertaining to suicide deaths in the student body’. The IITs, however, do little to acknowledge student suicides, let alone learn from them. Between 2008 and 2011, 26 suicides were reported across IITs, IIMs and NITs. Of these, 16 were at the IITs. At IIT-M, there have been five suicides this year alone. Amid the shock, some students at IIT-M have started to refer to them as ‘The Vanished’. “They are systematically erased from memory so that students can quickly turn their focus back to academics. If at all a condolence meeting is held, there won’t be a picture of the deceased. The lack of a sense of solidarity in such times is unique to IIT campuses,” says Jeyakumar. He is a member of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a small, independent student body with about 15 members that has come under fire for attempting to politicise an otherwise indifferent campus. In Fathima’s case, the APSC, whose professor-advisor was one of the two named in the second, unverified suicide note, is reluctant to overtly allege discrimination.
“Top institutes of technology admit a very different cohort of students who are trained for success for most of their lives,” says Thaddeus Alfonso mental health professional
“Students are not claiming it is a case of discrimination. We have demanded a fair probe into the case, besides the adoption of our resolution from last year about commissioning a study into the growing incidence of suicides and mental health concerns on campus,” says Priya (name changed), a member of the Student Legislative Council. The Dean and other members of the IIT administration had failed to present the proposal to the Board of Governors, she says. In fact, days before Fathima’s death, the SLC met and discussed making the resolution a priority this year. Last week, Chinta Bar, a students’ collective, launched a hunger strike, once again demanding that the resolution be taken up.
Fathima’s case has become a flashpoint that cannot be filed away under the occupational hazard of being young and competitive. “The current media coverage on IIT-M suicides is based on simplistic assumptions about life on campus. Such reductionist approaches and ‘media trials’ rarely present a complete picture, and can take us away from what could be a true and holistic understanding of the situation,” says Tiju Thomas, Assistant Professor at the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, IIT-M. Depression and suicidality are statistically more common in highly competitive spaces across the world, he notes. “Research is clear on this: suicide is an extremely complex problem. It’s a cry for help that goes unreciprocated. The focus should be on increasing the possibility of the student seeking out help. When she reaches out, help should be available that is simultaneously scientifically grounded, and compassion-based.” Name-calling and a campus in panic mode are less than ideal for dealing with the issue, he says. “Lessons from international intervention and prevention programmes, including one in Hong Kong, could enable us. Use of peer-to-peer counselling, college mental health apps and journalism aimed at awareness creation and suicide prevention are all likely to help.”
WHILE STUDENTS OF IIT-M have formed a Joint Action Committee (JAC) demanding justice for Fathima, the distant sadness of suicides past continues to linger. In September this year, S Shahal Kormath, a student of ocean engineering, killed himself, reportedly due to a dip in his grades. Earlier this year, Gopal Babu, an MTech student from Uttar Pradesh, and Ranjana Kumari, a PhD scholar from Jharkhand, committed suicide. The reasons remain unknown but a professor of Mathematics at the institute ventures that small-towners find it nearly impossible to fit into IIT-Madras. “Besides academic pressure, students at top colleges have to interact with faculty who come with cultural baggage. There is no discourse on diversity, nor are there redressal fora,” says Alfonso.
A report on the death of Aniket Ambhore at IIT-Bombay in 2014, based on his parents’ allegation that it resulted from an atmosphere of discrimination against SC/ST students at the institute, stopped short of finding an “overt environment of discrimination or anti-reservation” while admitting that “it is possible, given the general atmosphere of elitism in the student community, that a stigma attaches to those who are seen to be unable to perform.” Even without a demanding professor or guide, students are all too aware of the incontestability of a high Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) for prize placements. Well before placement season kicks off in December, several IITs are already mobbed with offers that have surpassed last year’s corresponding numbers by 19-24 per cent.
“The curriculum is the caste system of the IITs. It relies on exams alone to grade students. I had 20 arrears at IIT-M, and it took me seven years to clear a five-year course, but I was in the top of a class of 120 at IIM,” says an alumnus who is now in a leadership position at a software company in Bengaluru. “Most IIT professors assume the current way of teaching is excellent because it served them well personally. They rarely understand that students don’t fail because they don’t follow what is taught in class. They fail because we have lost interest and are no longer motivated to get out of our self-induced misery,” he says.
“She was a simple girl who wanted neither gold nor expensive things. She only asked for books. It is heartbreaking that she died prematurely without being able to read much,” says Abdul Latheef, Fathima’s father
Sridhar Vembu, founder and CEO of Zoho, a cloud-based business software company, graduated with a BTech degree in Electrical Engineering from IIT-M in 1989 and holds a PhD from Princeton University. He refuses to hire from the IITs. “I am philosophically opposed to these institutions. They are experiments against human nature,” he says. “My class of 30 students had about 24 of us who were at the top of our schools, and it also included CBSE All India No 2, the Karnataka State No 1 and so on. Here is the problem: Among that 30, you are going to have a ‘bottom half’ and you are going to have a ‘bottom 10 per cent’. Students who are not at the top of this 30 cope in two ways: the well-adjusted friends realise this problem, and decide not to take academic performance too seriously; some get depressed, but fortunately, most of that depression is not suicidal. This problem is structural, and any institution that attracts ‘the best of the best’ has that problem.” However, it is not fair to hold faculty directly responsible for these suicides, he says. Last year, in a contentious legal battle closely watched by academia, a court ruled that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could not be held responsible for the 2009 suicide of Han Nguyen, a 25-year-old student who had jumped to his death after a professor confronted him about an offensive email.
Universities ‘are not responsible for monitoring and controlling all aspects of their students’ lives,’ the court wrote. “At Zoho, too, we have a rising problem of youth depression and relationship failures are about 80 per cent of the cause,” says Vembu. “We have a counsellor on our staff. A lot of my experiments in rural areas are precisely so that we do not uproot people from their comfort zones, because I see the loneliness epidemic. Even as a philosophical opponent of the IITs, I do not like to see faculty members at IIT-M ready to quit because of the unfair attention they are getting on a problem they have little or no control over.”
IT WAS TOO EARLY for Fathima Latheef to contemplate placements. Other humanities students, however, do admit to placement stress, especially because some compete for jobs in business consultancy with students who have undergone quantitative training. “In an institution originally built for students of engineering, HSS students have to look out for themselves. We make up just about 3 per cent of the total strength of 9,000 students at IIT-M,” says Tryphena Duddley, who, after graduating in Development Studies in 2017, is pursuing an energy management degree in London. The withering comments directed at HSS students often leave a lasting imprint, she says. “I took it very personally, and swore off academia, although several of my classmates went on to do just fine in academics. Unfortunately, I remember the campus as an insensitive place.”
An online survey on mental health among IIT-M students published two years ago by a student team led by Isha Bhallamudi, then a student of Development Studies at IIT-M, revealed that non-engineering students reported higher rates of mental health issues than their engineering counterparts. Less than 9 per cent of the 903 respondents were HSS students. They reported a 60-61 per cent rate of prevalence of mental health issues compared to 52 per cent for engineering students. “A possible explanation is that IIT-M has systematic structures in place for students of engineering, and this includes internships, placements and research opportunities. In the MA programme, these initiatives were either non-existent or solely student-led,” says Bhallamudi, a PhD scholar in Sociology at the University of California Irvine. ‘The most common problems faced [by students at IIT-M] are depression (30 per cent), anxiety disorders (18 per cent) and suicidal thoughts (16 per cent)… 28 students (3.17 per cent) reported attempting suicide while 67 students (7.59 per cent) admitted that they have engaged in self-harm. This is cause for alarm and a call to pay closer attention to the mental and emotional stresses faced by students,’ Bhallamudi wrote in a two-part article on the results of the survey in the campus magazine The Fifth Estate.
“It was very helpful to disaggregate the findings by gender, caste, programme, department and so on, as this allowed us to get at the specific rates and stressors for different groups. What this shows is that interventions to address mental health should take into account the intersecting experiences of different groups rather than applying a one-size-fits-all policy,” says Bhallamudi. Significantly higher proportions of SC and ST students reported facing mental health issues compared to their general and OBC counterparts. The 20-25 age group showed the highest relative prevalence of mental health issues at 59 per cent while the under-18 age group showed the lowest, at 35 per cent. “These figures on suicide and self-harm should be seen in the context of India having the world’s highest rates of youth suicide… Some triggers may be campus-specific, but causes are more overarching than those confined purely to our campus and its way of living,” the report cautions.
Elite colleges, however, are often like funhouse mirrors reflecting a distorted reality back at the student. What was Fathima’s reality at IIT-M? As the family heads to Chennai and then to Delhi to demand a swift and thorough investigation, it could well stumble upon imbrications of her individual identity, academic ambition and sense of social miscibility that it was not privy to. “She was a simple girl who wanted neither gold nor expensive things. She only asked for books. It is heartbreaking that she died prematurely without being able to read much,” says her father. “If there is one reason I should continue to live on, it is to ensure that the culprits are brought to justice.”