Another day, another controversy

Print edition : December 20, 2019


IIT Madras has been courting controversy time and again. Controversy erupted when student members of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC), founded in 2014, staged a protest in 2015 against the perceived bias on the campus and for the institute’s overt pro-Hindutva rhetoric. The functionaries of the APSC were hounded and an attempt was made to derecognise the circle, following which there was uproar across the country (‘Derecognising dissent,’ June 26, 2015).

A student member who ate beef was beaten on the IIT campus (‘Resistance on the ground’, June 23, 2017). “The socially disadvantaged could not survive here. It is perceived to be a strongly knit casteist fortress, highly influential and well-connected,” said a PhD student who did not wish to be named.

A final-year student of Ocean Engineering from Palakkad in Kerala committed suicide in September 2019. In January this year, a first-year M.Tech student from Uttar Pradesh and a PhD scholar from Jharkhand committed suicide. In December 2018, an assistant professor, Aditi Simha, took her life in the staff quarters.

Social activists claimed that many students had left the campus mid-way through their courses because they could not tolerate the harassment. Media reports claimed that between 2008 and 2011, 16 cases of suicides had been reported in IITs across the country.

 The Fathima suicide issue had its echo in Parliament too. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam member K. Kanimozhi criticised the “slipshod’ police investigation into the suicide.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) Tamil Nadu secretary K. Balakrishnan condemned the police inaction and said that instead of arresting the accused the police had intimidated the girl’s parents. “No inquiry is known to have been initiated by the IIT management against these serious issues,” he said.

Many students’ forums, including the South Asian University Researchers Association, the JNU Students’ Union and the Students’ Union of the English and Foreign Language University, Hyderabad, dubbed Fathima’s death as an “institutional murder”.

The Students’ Union of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai Campus, called for the sensitisation of academic and administrative community of the institution. They demanded that the Rohith Act be implemented to prevent student suicides on campuses.

Manithaneya Makkal Katchi president M.H. Jawahirullah said that Fathima faced discrimination on the campus because she was a Muslim. “That a Muslim girl was persistently emerging top in class and general examinations and tests had irked many on the campus,” he claimed.

Stating that IIT Madras was known for discrimination and student suicides, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader Thol. Thirumavalavan urged Union Minister for Human Resources Development Ramesh Pokhrival to form an SC/ST/OBC/Minorities Students’ Grievances and Welfare Cell in every IIT and demanded an independent inquiry into academic harassment and religion-based discrimination in them.

A student of the Department of Humanities claimed in a Facebook post that the IIT Madras campus was “a violent space that stinks of elitism, casteism, classism and most importantly Islamophobia”.

In her long post, she claimed that the root cause of such maladies was “structural and functional”.

“This campus, particularly the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences is ridden of [sic] anti-Muslim and anti-caste sentiments. Every academic discussion in our class rooms end up with reference to Pakistan….,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Union Higher Education Secretary R. Subrahmanyam visited the IIT campus on November 17 and held discussions with the faculty and its Director on the death of Fathima. He told the media that it was sad to lose a precious and bright student. He was confident that the truth in this issue would prevail.

But Fathima’s family was apprehensive. “I am not happy with the way the Tamil Nadu police investigation is progressing. Those inside the campus have strong networking,” Abdul Latheef said. He has sent petitions to the Prime Minister seeking justice. The family has demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry. “IIT Madras remains cold and creepy. And it needs to be humanised,” said a former professor.