Published: 20th November 2019
Fathima suicide: APSC members analyse what makes IIT Madras campus so toxic
The Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle has brought out a statement regarding Fathima Latheef's suicide and the atmosphere of discrimination, harassment and increased stress and pressure on campus
What is it that makes the environment at IIT Madras toxic? When they first heard the news of the death of Fathima Lathief, the community at IIT Madras unquestioningly bought into the narrative that she had ended her life due to poor academic performance It was two days later that Fathima’s family alleged that she had left a suicide note implicating certain professors of IIT Madras to be the cause of her death. The issue soon escalated to the national level and the angle of an institutional murder was raised. Instead of being considered in isolation, Fathima’s suicide was discussed alongside other 6 suicides that happened at IIT Madras since September 2018. Discussions also revolved around the causes for the general depreciation of the mental health of students at IIT Madras. What is it that makes the environment at IIT Madras this toxic?
Advocates of Meritocracy
The general notion is that it is some of the best minds of the country who crack the prestigious JEE exam who get admitted to IITM for the undergraduate course. What is forgotten is the rigorous coaching that these students undergo while preparing for the exam. Paying hefty sums as fees, students are trained from as early as 8th standard. A t-shirt worn by several first-year students, that read ‘straight out of factory’ is a shameful testimony to this fact. Also, the social and economic background of the families that can afford this kind of coaching is apparent. Yet, the proponents of meritocracy conveniently forget this fact. And make no mistake, a large proportion of IITM community subscribe to meritocracy. This includes both faculty and students.
Once in IIT, students again find themselves in an environment that promotes cut-throat competition instead of a healthy, ardent pursuit for knowledge and all-around development of the students. The CGPA system aids to this. Students struggle to get PoR positions in various clubs and organizations within campus, to build their CV to fetch ‘better’ placements. A student’s success is measured in the CTC that s/he is offered in the placement sessions that happen in the final year. The placement figures are widely publicized and celebrated. Many times, the companies offering the highest packages are data analytics companies that have nothing to do with the course that the student is graduating in. Isn’t this general trend in which a student prefers a high paying job to doing future work in his/her specialization, a failure of the IIT system? Why does a student feel alienated to the subject s/he has learnt for 4 to 5 years? Or, is IIT Madras more a place that trains professionals for corporates rather than a giver of knowledge? Some professors who teach core subjects, advise students to prioritize on improving their language skills, as apparently it is these soft skills that fetch them jobs and not the subject knowledge.
Are IITM spaces inclusive?
To add to this mindset is the explicit/implicit casteism and brahminical hegemony that exists inside campus. Several students, faculties and staff assert their so-called upper caste status through various symbols. Several offices in the administration block and other departmental offices blatantly display religious symbols. All this in the backdrop of the current political atmosphere in India, makes IIT spaces far from secular. It is to this campus that a student from a weaker socio-economical background is coming to study. From get-set-go, the student is considered as the ‘other’ and s/he herself/himself feels alienated. There is absolutely no initiative from IIT Madras administration to make the space more inclusive for students from different backgrounds. If a student finds it hard to cope up, that is considered solely the student’s own problem. When s/he approaches the administration stating the difficulty, the quick-fix solution that is being proposed is to quit the course. Over 2400 students have dropped out of all IITs in the last two years, with over 120 from IIT Madras. The IITM system is blind to the mental agony of a student who has to take this decision. To decide to quit a course that s/he joined with so much hope and to return home as a 12th pass. More often than not, the student also fails to see this as a systemic problem and considers this a personal failure.
Who does campus really belong to?
The entire power structure at IIT Madras itself is ridden with feudal values. The professors enjoy unrestrained power, especially when it comes to guide-scholar relationships. The system rewards subservient scholars. While professors/guides feel entitled to complete subordination from the student, scholars themselves believe that they ought to obey their professors unquestioningly. And the teachers are very much a part of the larger system in India that is casteist, patriarchal, brahminical and feudal. They bring along with them their own prejudices, which could, in turn, lead into explicit or implicit discrimination against the students. Sure there are student-friendly professors, but they are the exception, not the norm. Students feel helpless when they are meted out with unfair, undemocratic treatment. They try to somehow put up with it silently and rush through the course. This takes a toll not just on the mental health of the scholar, but also on his/her effective learning.
That the institute does not treat a student as a respectable individual with dignity is evident from the ridiculous vigilance that exists at IIT Madras. With scant regard to the fact that privacy is a basic right guaranteed to an Indian citizen, the vigilance officers barge into the hostel rooms of students. They audaciously, unabashedly go through his/her personal belongings. The recent incident in which hostel authorities tried to name shame and penalize a student after having found used condoms in his wastebasket clearly shows the mindset behind the vigilance system. The ridiculous rule here states that a student is allowed to visit his friend in another hostel, only for ‘academic purposes’! The general rule is that you are guilty until proven innocent, whatever ‘innocence’ means here. How then can a student feel a sense of belonging to this institute?
The solution that those who advocate vigilance propose to those who oppose it, is to move out of hostels and live outside the campus. That brings us to an important question. Who does the campus really belong to? The hierarchy that exists here gives the notion that IITM belongs to the administration alone. Even when IITM sets up grievance redressal mechanisms, how can a student take them into confidence? How can s/he be sure justice be served and that s/he is not further harassed? Though IIT Madras is primarily set up for its students, they feel powerless. The point to be remembered is that this institute is as much for the students as it is for the faculty. The reputation of an academic Institute is made or earned through its past students and researchers but the administration appropriates it and uses it to suppress the voice of the actual stakeholders of reputation.
The way ahead
There is a lot of discussion about the depreciating mental health of the students here. It is to be stressed that mental health issues are not just personal problems. It is an individual’s response to the system that he is a part of. There is no denying the fact that the current setting at IIT Madras is bound to take a toll on the mental health of the individual, by being discriminatory and oppressive. Students themselves should realize this and IIT Madras should acknowledge this. The unrestrained authority of the administration and faculties need to be questioned. The elected student representatives who merely act as the mouthpiece of the administration need to be questioned and held accountable. Suicides are institutional murders. Mental health issues and depression are systemic problems. They have to be addressed that way. The community at IIT Madras is largely complacent and does not question the status quo. This should change. Students should assert their rights. They should feel that they too have powers and support from the larger student community to deal with their problems. Students should unite. Long live student unity!
(Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, IIT Madras is a students' initiative)