Chennai: Student groups both on and off the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT-M) campus have been demanding action against continuing suicides at the institute.
The death by suicide of Stephen Sunny, a 27-year-old research scholar from Maharashtra, and attempted suicide by another student on the campus on Monday, February 13, triggered a new wave of protests on the IIT-M campus. While Sunny passed away, the student who attempted suicide was rescued.
According to students, little has been done by the institute’s administration to arrest the suicides on the campus. The premier institute in Chennai also witnessed massive protests in 2019 following the suicide of Fathima Latheef, a student who allegedly faced religious discrimination. Citing information received under Right to Information (RTI), students say IIT-M holds the dubious honour of having recorded the highest number of suicides in comparison to any other IIT in the country. In the last 10 years, IIT-M has reported 14 suicides on its campus.
Incidentally, the latest suicide at IIT-Madras comes days after IIT-Bombay witnessed the suicide of its first-year-old student.
While the local police blamed the latest suicide at IIT-Madras on “personal” reasons of the deceased, students on the campus held a night-long protest on the intervening night of February 13-14 demanding action from the administration against continuing suicides on the campus.
“He (Sunny) died Monday afternoon and students got to know of it much later,” says a student, who does not want to be named. “We received communication from the administration later in the day which made no mention of the suicide. It merely made a mention of an ‘unfortunate demise’.”
Following this, the student says, a spontaneous protest erupted from within the student community and continued throughout Monday night. “Several members of the administration, including the registrar, spoke to us but we insisted on having the director speak to us. The demands were varied. The students also spoke about the need for a wellness centre on campus for stress-related issues, but nothing has happened yet. The students pointed out how they are being charged a wellness fee for a centre that was not doing enough to help the students.”
On Tuesday, at about 7 am, IIT-M director professor V. Kamakoti met the protesting students. “The students aired various grievances, and the director promised to hold an open house meeting to sort things out. He said the meeting will happen in 10 days. We are waiting for it,” the student said.
The student also says the administration cited “privacy reasons” for not disclosing enough about the suicide of the research scholar. “We are not sure if it is about privacy or about the suppression of facts. This is not the first time a suicide took place on the IIT-M campus,” the student added.
The suicide of 19-year-old Latheef in 2019 sparked major protests after she wrote in her suicide note that a humanities professor and communal discrimination were reasons for her suicide. There were widespread protests from student groups and political parties, demanding action even then.
‘Cell to address issues’
Speaking in the wake of the latest suicide, Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a student group at IIT-M, demanded an “active cell to address the issues of discrimination against SC, ST, OBC and minority communities”. ChintaBAR, another student group, demanded that the mental health of IIT-M students be studied, expand the scope of the departmental grievance redressal cell by incorporating harassment as a factor, and draft a standard operating procedure to inquire into deaths on campus.
“While the administration initially said they will fully cooperate, nothing came out of it. Even after the Fathima Latheef incident, there was effectively no step to actually look into this issue,” says a student who took part in the 2019 protests and later graduated from the institute. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) later concluded that Latheef had taken the extreme step due to homesickness and some “psychological issues”.
Students allege that the institute’s administration conveniently talks about mental health but refuses to admit discrimination faced by students as a possible reason for suicides. “Even during the recent protest, there was no discussion about discrimination,” says the student. “Merely addressing this as a mental health issue without addressing discrimination is not going to really help.”
According to Niruban Chakravarthy, Students Federation of India (SFI) leader of the Tamil Nadu chapter, “Even with Fathima Latheef, questions about her access to a rope to hang herself in a hostel room were raised.”
On Tuesday, February 14, SFI led a massive protest outside IIT-M demanding action against the continuing suicides on campus. “Even with the recent suicide, such questions are being raised. The administration is neither responding to such questions nor taking any action on these issues.”
Chakravarthy also points out how reservation in faculty recruitment is not being followed in IITs “which allegedly enables an environment against students from oppressed and marginalised communities”. “We demand that Rohith Vemula Act be enacted to put an end to this discrimination which leads to suicides.”
Prince Gajendra Babu, an activist working on the issue of educational rights in Tamil Nadu, points out that the problem of discrimination and mental health issues plagues higher education institutions across the country and not just the IITs.
“When Rohith Vemula died, there were at least six other such incidents in Hyderabad alone. Many of us wanted this to end with Rohith Vemula. But we had Muthukrishnan killing himself at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Najeeb went missing. In IITs, suicides are rampant,” Babu adds, alleging that institutions across the country are refusing to recognise the atrocities happening on the campuses.
“It could be communal, casteist, gender or even economic abuse. But there is abuse on campus. Unless we recognise it, nothing is going to happen. Institutions need to recognise and acknowledge the atrocities happening on campuses and then come up with a mechanism to address a particular type of abuse. Unfortunately, institutions refuse to do it, the media doesn’t consistently speak about it and the issue remains unresolved. If there is any conviction about putting an end to suicides in higher education institutions, it should start by acknowledging the problem on the campuses.”
If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers (www.spif.in/seek-help/) they can call to speak in confidence. You could also refer them to the nearest hospital.