Published: 03rd April 2019
The suicide of Kanishk Bharti: What's actually ailing NLSIU's law students?
A media gag? Plenty of stress? Members of the student community at NLSIU and the administration talk about the recent suicide and clear the air
On March 16, a Saturday, some students from the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru went up to hostel room number three, where third year student, Kanishk Bharti stayed. Not many people usually walked these corridors, but that day Kanishk's parents had called the students, worried. They had not heard from their son since Thursday. As the students neared the room, there was a strong stench. They broke the door open and found Kanishk hanging from the fan. His body was already quite decomposed.
As his parents buried him, so did the newspapers. But on the condition of complete anonymity, some students were willing to speak to us about Kanishk's suicide. According to some, the University had imposed a media gag on campus but the authorities completely deny this. "We got a mail saying that we should not speak to any media or journalists.The mail came from the Students Bar Association," Priyan*, one of the students said. However, a spokesperson for the prestigious law varsity has said that "they have not banned students from speaking to media or any outsider".
So what happened to Kanishk?
According to his peers, Kanishk, a Dalit student hailing from Uttar Pradesh was a bright student, at least initially. In his second year, Kanishk began to have some trouble. He began to develop a lot of mental stress (and was even diagnosed with schizophrenia later) and became a bit of a recluse. "He went home for a while and so was held back a year. His parents got him the help he needed and so he returned. But a couple of months later his parents took him home again," Santhosh* said. The second time he went home, his classmates were told that he might not come back.
But he did return, after a six month break.
Gone too soon: Kanishk Bharti faired well in his studies in the first few semester after he joined the University
After falling back by nearly two years, Kanishk returned to the campus and this time, he was apparently much healthier. "He began to do quite well at his studies. He seemed to be doing much better generally too," the student added. He managed to pass his papers as well, but he had failed in one. He failed by just two marks. Upset over failing by such a small margin, Kanishk allegedly wrote to the exam department requesting grace marks. "He apparently took his medical records and visited the professor whose paper he had failed. He also approached the exam department but they refused to give him the marks," Priyan said.
His colleagues said that Kanishk suffered from schizophrenia and depression. "I believe that for a little while after you take the medication for schizophrenia, your vision can be quite blurred. But despite all this, he wrote his exam and he did quite well," Priyan recalled. "Why it is so hard to believe that he committed suicide is because he was doing so well. He had been in a much worse phase in the past and he got through all that. So this was very sudden," Santhosh chipped in.
Let's call that Strike One. Disgrace
NLSIU has a residential programme which means that 500-odd students stay on campus. The students have the opportunity to choose their roommates, but Kanishk had only one or two friends on campus. So he lived with one of them for a while. When his return to campus was not confirmed, his friends had to choose other people as their roommates. Upon his return, Kanishk had no one to share his room with.
One of the students said that Kanishk was allotted a room situated on top of their mess hall, "There are only two rooms there and one of those rooms was given to Kanishk, while the other was empty. Since it was quite isolated and he was alone in his room, he requested the hostel authorities for a roommate," Santhosh said. He went on to say that the warden refused to give him any other accommodation because nobody wanted to stay with him — possibly because word about his mental illness had gotten around. "It is quite irresponsible on the part of the administration to have not responded to his requests. For someone who was already fighting against a mental illness, it was very careless of them to isolate him to that extent," Santhosh said.
It is important to mention here that Kanishk's body was recovered on Saturday evening and the medical staff reportedly believed that he had killed himself on Thursday. "At least 30-36 hours had passed before his body was discovered," the student said.
That's Strike 2, for sure. Disinterest
Cut-off: Could the location of his hostel room be one of the reasons he felt isolated? |Representative Image
The University has a trimester system. In the 90-day schedule, students have to submit four research papers and eight exams. The students also get five marks extra depending on their attendance. Bobby Kunhu, an alumni, who is also working with some of the current students in this matter said that this semester system can be quite strenuous. "Three months are not enough to do justice to any of the subjects they learn and it becomes quite a burden for these students," he said. If students do fail a paper, there is no coping mechanism, he added. "The students get overwhelmed and are swamped with work, so they withdraw. The fact that Kanishk came from a marginalised community and also suffered from mental ailments further pushed him to the corner."
One of the students told us that some of them had tried to petition the administration to do something about the grueling trimester system. "We are ranked among the top law schools in the country. Changing the semester system would mean risking the ranking and our performance as a school, we were told. These is obviously not a well founded reason for not changing the system," the student said.
It is quite stressful, "Everyone goes through stress. The point is the student remains stressed. It becomes a cycle, once the students enter this cycle of stress, there's no way to get out of it. There's no scope to deal with this sort of social atmosphere. The pressure only keeps increasing," says Priyan. Kanishk's colleagues believe that this stress got to him too.
The fact that Kanishk was held back for two years meant that his classmates changed. "He sailed through the initial semesters and then his mental health issues began to show. Our system here is quite exclusionary. Losing a year is seen as a huge academic failure. The atmosphere is such that the student feels cut off," Santhosh explained. It's very difficult to sit among juniors, it can be socially and emotionally taxing, he added.
"The college doesn't provide a cushion for students who have to battle failure. There is no proper mental health policy in place. It is quite abysmal the way things are," he said. He also mentioned that they do have a counsellor on campus but it was "clearly not enough". In response, the administration told Edex that they have a nurse on campus all the time. Besides that, they have three counselors, a psychologist and a doctor. "Besides this, we have faculty who are also there to help," they added. While stating that they are still unsure as to why Kanishk committed suicide, the administration said that they are coming up with a comprehensive support system to help the students in a systemic way.
But will it come in time?
Finding solutions: Students on campus are coming together to device a mental health programme for students in distress|Representative Image
This cycle of stress on campus is so grave, according to students, that many choose to move out of their hostels, just to escape the pressure. "Our course mandates campus residency but many students choose to move out. In some cases, the parents of the students actually move to Bengaluru just so they can stay with their children till they complete the course," he explained.
The students on campus are also striving to bring together a proper mental health programme, "We have no concrete plan yet, it is still in the very preliminary stage but we hope to put together anonymous stories of the different problems students face. We also want to organise more workshops and programmes. We want to fight mental illness on all fronts," a student said. Another student are also reaching out to the administration, "We have scheduled meetings with the administration. Hopefully we will be able to brainstorm and come up with methods to fix the problem," they said.
So this was Strike 3. Disregard
In a Facebook post, Bobby Kunhu, alumni and advocate, criticised the alleged media gag on campus, "If my daughter were to study at the institution, I would like to be informed about such suicides. Pushing this under the carpet is akin to lying to the parents about the atmosphere on campus," he said.
One of the students said that this gag had been imposed the last time there was a suicide on campus, "The student who committed suicide suffered from some sort of gastrointestinal disease. But this still goes to show that there isn't any proper help available on campus for those in distress. But I've heard that her father came and yelled at the administration for trying to hush things up by imposing the media gag," the student added.
Yes, Kanishk suffered from mental illness. But we cannot overlook the fact that he was from a marginalised community. Especially with the increasing number of suicides among Dalit students, it is important to question whether it played a role in his suicide. "In some ways, students have directly been impacted by situations that arise because of their caste. But in many cases, the impact is indirect. However, what we can say is that the students who suffer from the system in place are usually the ones who come from marginalised communities. There is a definite correlation," a student pointed out.
Finding Answers:The NLSIU administration have said that the last two suicides have not had anything to do with academics| Representative Image
NLSIU understands that these factors can have a massive impact on students' lives, "It is possible that students who come from smaller towns. marginalised communities feel overwhelmed by law school the social pressure, academic culture etc. It could be a culture shock. Law is not like a regular BA, BSc course. It's a 5-year professional course and students who join here here 17-18 years old. Since they are away from home for the first time may thus feel the stress. So maybe the academics and co-curricular activities could seem overwhelming for them," explained an NLSIU spokesperson speaking to Edex.
Much of the pressure is self-imposed, based on seniors' perception: NLSIU
Speaking to Edex, the NLSIU authorities said that the stories of stress they are hearing are only from the recent batches. "In the last 31 years of law school's existence, we've had about four suicides. Two of them were fifth year students, good academically," a representative of the administration said. "Much of the pressure is self-imposed, based on the perception of senior students," they said.
We're so used to reading about student suicides these days that we casually scroll past it — even numbers don't scare us anymore. For all we know, Kanishk's death will become just another suicide case, another number. Psychologists and experts say that suicide victims always reach out for help, they only take the extreme step when no help reaches them. Kanishk definitely reached out for help.
The question is, did any sort of help exist?
If it did, then why did it not help him.
And if it didn't, then is this law school following the law?