“My name itself is the problem, vappichi”—Fathima Latheef.
For Fathima Latheef, joining a prestigious educational institution like the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) was a dream come true.
When the Muslim girl from Kollam in Kerala was admitted to the M.A. Humanities and Development Studies (Integrated) at IIT Madras, she was thrilled. Besides topping the entrance test in Humanities, she had obtained admission to Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. But her mother was hesitant to send her to Varanasi since the newspapers were full of reports on “mob lynchings” in northern States. It was she who insisted on her daughter taking up the offer from IIT Madras.
But the dream turned into a nightmare in just four months. Fathima joined the institute on July 23, 2019. Her parents claimed that she had found the IIT campus environment stifling. She told her father, Abdul Latheef, who was working in Saudi Arabia, over a videoconferencing call two days prior to her suicide that her name gave away her Muslim identity, which her mother was apprehensive of.
“She told us that the campus was neither conducive to higher education nor congenial for those who hailed from disadvantaged backgrounds and broke down,” Abdul Latheef told the media. She again spoke to her father and mother on November 8. “We thought she was homesick,” said her twin sister ,Aysha Latheef. From the evening that day, her mobile phone was switched off. On November 9, the 19-year-old first year student was reportedly found hanging from the ceiling of her hostel room. The police claimed that she could have committed suicide the previous night. The IIT management informed the family about her suicide around 11 a.m. on November 9. The Chennai City police (Kotturpuram) registered a case of unnatural death the same day and sent the body to the Royapettah Government Hospital for a post-mortem.
Fathima’s family members, who addressed the media frequently both in Kerala and Tamil Nadu after the suicide, claimed that her mobile phone, which was in the possession of the Chennai City police then, was switched on three days after her suicide. Aysha told the media that she saw the phone on a table at the police station and with police permission switched it on after charging it. She claimed that it did not ask for a password and a message instantly popped up on the home screen saying: “Sudarshan Padmanabhan [an associate professor] is the cause of my death. P.S. Check Samsung notes.”
Besides this, another message said: “I love you, umma and chakku. I love you, vappichi and thumbu. You are the only people in this entire world who have made me happy. I will always be with you. I have always loved you….” Both these messages were found to have been created and modified on November 8.
Fathima’s family was not satisfied with the way the Chennai City police handled the investigation. The police told the media that the girl had been depressed for two days prior to her suicide. They said that they had not obtained any suicide note from her room. The mobile phone they seized from Fathima’s room had remained untouched by the police and its battery was drained. Aysha had to recharge it to find out the suicide messages after three days.
There was talk inside the campus that the girl had committed suicide since she could not cope with the academic pressures, but Abdul Latheef refused to buy into such rumours. He wondered how his daughter, a topper in the all India entrance examinations and in the class, could commit suicide. Whenever a student committed suicide on its premises, the IIT management usually said it was a result of failure to cope with the academic pressure. “They harassed my daughter and virtually killed her,” he said.
Aysha said that Fathima was in constant touch with her, updating her with her academic travails. Although she was a class topper, she was given only 13 marks out of total 20 in the internal paper in Logic, which she strongly contested. On Fathima’s plea, Aysha said, the head of the department took up the case and assessed her internal performance. He found her claims to be true and accordingly instructed the associate professor concerned to award five more marks. Instead, the professor, Sudarshan Padmanabhan, asked her to meet him on November 11.
(Sudarshan Padmanabhan works at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences as Associate Professor in Philosophy in which Fathima was a student. The professor, according to the institute website, is a special adviser to foreign students and chairman of the committee for monitoring general facilities for students. He was active off–campus and was involved with various forums that talk about electoral and political reforms. He was a regular participant in many programmes of the Chennai-based non- governmental organisation Arappor Iyakkam.)
“Something had transpired during this period, which would have hurt her self-esteem. The police should find out,” Abdul Latheef insisted. Aysha said that Fathima was a bold girl and would never worry about petty issues such as scoring low marks.
“She had been telling us that her name annoyed many on the IIT campus. But she was scared of something or somebody. It was eerie when we came to the IIT after hearing about her death. Everyone, even her classmates, preferred to keep away and avoided us. None came forward to share our grief. They are hiding something. It looked all weird,” she said.
When Frontline spoke to a few students on the issue, they refused to be named, fearing repercussions. Many who have left the campus too are unwilling to share their experiences on the campus.
Not satisfied with the Chennai City police’s probe, and believing that they will not get justice, the family met Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and urged him to ensure a fair probe into the death. Abdul Latheef told Pinarayi Vijayan that his daughter had alleged that a senior professor had “harassed” her. On instructions from Pinarayi Vijayan, the family flew to Chennai and met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and asked him to order a fair investigation.
After the meeting, the case was transferred to the State’s Central Crime Branch (CCB) police, which began its investigation in right earnest. It held an inquiry with the professor concerned and others on the campus.
The family also claimed that Fathima had been subjected to “constant harassment” by the professor who was the “cause of her death”. They also met the Tamil Nadu Director General of Police and the Chennai City Police Commissioner.
In a media conference, Abdul Latheef said that he came to know that several brilliant students had committed suicide following harassment by professors and others in IIT, adding that all such incidents had been covered up by the IIT authorities using their political clout.
“We seriously feel that there will not be any fair investigation in this regard and the mobile phone of my daughter [he mentioned the mobile number] will be definitely tampered with under pressure from the IIT authorities to destroy evidence,” he said.
The IIT administration reacted after six days of the girl’s death with a short note of grief. In its statement, it said:
“The students, faculty, staff, and residents of IIT Madras are deeply saddened and extremely perturbed by the unfortunate and untimely demise of our student Ms. Fathima Latheef, and the events that unfolded thereafter. As soon as the incident came to the knowledge of the authorities, the police was informed immediately and are being extended full cooperation by the Institute. IIT Madras is committed to do whatever is required as per law and ensure fair play.
“However, the social media trolling of the Institute, faculty members and students and trial by the media, even before the conclusion of the police investigation, is gravely demoralising the students, faculty members and staff as well as their families, and tarnishing the reputation of one of the finest institutes in the country. Our faculty is known for its high quality, integrity and fairness.
“We continue to mourn the loss of such a promising young student and continue to take all efforts to ensure the physical and mental well-being of our students, faculty and staff. We reiterate that we are fully cooperating with the police investigation. Our humble appeal to all concerned is not to initiate or spread any rumours about the Institute and those involved and let the enquiry be completed.”
The statement was dated November 15. More than its expression of grief over the death, the letter laid stress on its deep concern over the trolling of the institute on social media.
There was no mention of any internal inquiry, nor was there any reference to any internal mechanism such as student counselling.
A highly competitive academic milieu exerts tremendous stress on students and faculty. Many institutions of higher education, both in India and overseas, have developed mechanisms to address this issue, but IIT Madras does not have one, according to students. They said there was a forum called Saathi, but it was ineffective in such extraordinary situations.
“They are more worried about their brand image and its marketing. They brushed aside suicides in the past too, putting the blame on the students, saying that they were not able to cope with the academic rigour. But the Fathima case is different. She was a class topper too. Not a single internal inquiry has been conducted on any suicide so far,” said an alumnus of IIT Madras who did not wish to be named.
Two students named Azhar Moideen and Justin Joseph and a few others held a brief hunger strike under the banner of ChintaBar, a recognised students’ body in the institute, near the campus’ main entrance on November 18 and urged the IIT management to conduct a survey on the issues faced by the students. ChintaBar demanded an internal probe against the faculty as sought by Fathima’s family.
It called for “no more deaths in IIT”. The management held talks with the students and convinced them to withdraw the strike.
The students told The Hindu that they never faced discrimination on the basis of religion on campus nor were the professors mentioned by Fathima prejudiced, in their experience.