It has been two years since IIT Madras lost Fathima Latheef, their brilliant and brightest first year student from the five year integrated MA program offered by the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS). Fathima had topped the All India entrance examination of 2019, for admissions into the course. Also, she had consistently topped the class assessments until November 9th 2019, when she was found hanging in her room.
Fathima’s phone is said to have had notes citing the names of faculty and others of IITM, whom she indicted for religious harassment. As per the reports then, the prime accused had been Sudarsan Padmanabhan, Associate Professor in Philosophy. Despite being probed by the CBI, the investigation into her demise hasn’t yielded much progress even after two years. Neither the alleged harassment she faced at the campus on account of her religious identity has been responsibly addressed. The internal enquiry on Fathima’s death, taken up by IITM was wound up with a report that abstained from probing into ‘religious discrimination’ within the institution. (thePrint.in, 15/01/2020).
Staying consistent with the accusation that Fathima experienced discrimination, her sister Ayesha Latheef has also expressed doubts over her death being a suicide, pointing fingers at the probability of a homicide (Maktoob, 9/11/21).
Fathima’s death flared up into debates on the exclusionary experiences faced by the students from marginalised and minority communities in Indian centres of learning par excellence.
“At campus, there were instances which I failed to comprehend fully then. For example, I have seen students making terrorist attack pranks by randomly opening doors, throwing bags (symbolic of bombs), running away shouting Allahu Akbar, making a joke out of it and hurting the religious feelings of a community. I don’t know if the ones who did this really knew the gravity of what they were doing, but what worries is how casually these phobic ‘jokes’ circulated in our campus”, said an ex-student of IITM who didn’t wish to be named, to The Compass.
Post Fathima’s death, the alleged majoritarian and upper class-caste spirited nature of India’s top institutes have increasingly come under scathing criticism. Video recordings of Prof Seema Singh, Associate Professor at IIT Kharagpur hurling abuses of filthiest standard at students and parents from most marginalised backgrounds in the online classes, recently came off as a shameless statement confirming the same. Despite being internationally recognised and qualified since his early twenties, Dr Vipin V Veettil, Assistant Professor at IITM, had resigned from the post in July 2021 citing the caste discrimination he faced at campus. On the same note, Fathima had apparently expressed to her dear ones that a Muslim name topping the score sheets was least appreciated among some of her faculties.
The said tendencies pervading the IITs, form part of the more general leanings that permeate social media platforms, public spaces, workplaces, and even sports grounds. The latest reports on an IIT graduate being arrested over rape threats posed at Virat Kohli’s baby daughter, in response to Kohli extending support to Mohammed Shami, seem to hint towards things complex than an isolated moment of criminal disgrace. Shami had faced virulent cyber bullying over India’s loss to Pakistan, on sheer account of his religious affiliation.
Statistics pertaining to the seats and vacancies remaining unfilled, dropouts, and suicides in campuses as that of IITs reveals that students from marginalised backgrounds are disproportionately disadvantaged in these spaces. As centres that intensely work with themes related to feminism, subaltern mentalities and marginalisation as a produced entity, it is utmost disappointing that the campus atmospheres fail to override such imbalances that their works seek to destabilise. The persisting reluctance of the institutes to recognise and take up measures to deal with these issues runs the danger of institutionalising the inequities.
Students harming themselves and succumbing to death at the very spaces which have been ultimately constituted to empower them is terrific. The HRD minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank stated in 2019 that the preceding five years witnessed around 60 suicides in India’s premier educational institutes, of which the IITs accounted for 50. More often than not, the subsequent discussions get hinged around academic pressure and mental health issues as individualistic problems to be dealt with. Beyond simply calling for isolated support systems, such seemingly neutral issues need to be contextualised. Inquiries that dare to look straight through the cobwebs of elitism and discrimination within the educational spaces need be set up.
It is high time that the kind of learning atmosphere offered by the premier educational spaces is reworked to be more inclusive and tolerant. Fathima’s words, ‘My name itself is a problem there, Vappacha’ resonates as a bleeding reminder of the same.