G Babu Jayakumar
On November 9, 19-year-old Fathima Lateef, a first-year student pursuing a five-year integrated MA programme at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (IIT-Madras), committed suicide inside the college campus. When Sabitha, Fathima’s mother, said that she let her daughter choose IIT-M because she thought of Tamil Nadu as a safe place without discrimination, the common retort (especially across social media) has been: ‘Who said IIT-M is part of Tamil Nadu?’
Nestled in a 620-acre urban rainforest in the heart of bustling Chennai, the IIT-M is geographically and administratively very much a part of the state. The land, which was part of the Guindy National Park, was allotted by the then Chief Minister K Kamaraj who was particular that one of the five national engineering institutes of importance should come to Tamil Nadu.
So, how did the institute, once considered a pride of the state, turn into a blight in the eyes of the public? Home to some 8,000 students and over 500 regular faculty members with proven educational track records, the campus should have been looked up as a bright spot of academic brilliance in the state.
However, if it has become a target of ridicule and is looked down upon by political parties, activists, social media trolls, etc., it is because of the public perception that the social dynamics inside the exclusive and elitist academic environment is out of sync with the politico-cultural moorings of Tamil Nadu. To put it otherwise, IIT-M is seen as a place that cocks a snook at social justice, an idea that defines the socio-political thinking of Tamil Nadu.
More than public perception, it is the interaction between those inside the campus and the people living outside that has caused the current antipathy towards the institute, so much so that they are at the forefront demanding stern action against the faculty whom they claim are responsible for Fathima’s suicide.
Suicides have been disturbingly frequent in IIT-M — 14 in the last decade and four in 2019 alone. Many of these tragedies do not hit the headlines because families bear the loss and after a few days the campus returns to its usual bustle of academics, etc. This time, however, Fathima’s father Latheef demanded justice and put the institute in a bind.
In 2012, the suicide of another girl in the campus also put the management in a spot for a different reason, but it affirmed a public perception of the unwieldy power that IIT-M exercised on areas of the administration and media. It started with an IIT professor objecting to a photo journalist covering the suicide news. Events when downhill from there with a physical altercation between the photo journalist and the professor and other staff. Cases and counter-cases were filed with the media corps of Chennai demanding justice for the photo journalist and arrest of the professor. Subsequently, allegedly because of pressure exerted by the IIT-M, the media took a step back and the incident was conveniently forgotten.
Many years earlier, a popular Tamil magazine reported the plight of Vasantha Kandasamy, a mathematics professor in IIT-M, where she accused the IIT management of depriving her of due promotions and other privileges. She said that she was being discriminated because she was not an ‘upper caste’. The feedback the magazine and its editor received ranged from ridicule to threats on how it could take on the IIT-M. Kandasamy’s story gave an insight into the caste discrimination in the IIT-M, impelling the public to form an opinion about the institution.
For her valiant fight against the IIT management, in 2006, then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi bestowed on Kandasamy the ‘Kalpana Chawla Award for Bravery’. The day after the award was announced, we sent a reporter to the IIT-M to capture the mood. To our surprise, instead of celebrating a staff member’s honour, there was an eerie chillness on campus and faculty members who chose to speak expressed anger over the honour bestowed on their colleague.
Following Fathima’s suicide, Kandasamy spoke in detail to Nakkeeran, a Tamil magazine, where she put the suicide in perspective, calling it an “institutional murder”, and said the “culprit” was “upper-caste domination”.
Meanwhile, there have been allegations that the IIT-M has left huge vacancies by failing to recruit faculty members belonging to the Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. It is also alleged that in the general category appointments are made in excess by exploiting a rule where hiring from this category can be made if eligible candidates for reserved categories are not available. A media report in February citing government figures showed that out of the 500-plus faculty members in the IIT-M there were just 16 under the OBC category, 13 under the SC category and two under ST.
Many, including Kandasamy, allege that it is these kinds of recruitments, coupled with the more number of general category (upper caste) students clearing the entrance examinations, that turns IIT-M into a “caste fortress”.
Yet another incident in 2017 reinforced the belief that the management and students from the upper caste were hand in glove in their bias against lower caste students. R Sooraj, a PhD student from the aerospace engineering department, was allegedly assaulted by nine other students for taking part in a beef fest, during the height of protests in Tamil Nadu against the Centre’s ban on consumption of beef.
Activists, who have been demanding the arrest of the professors behind Fathima’s suicide, point out that many students from the OBC and SC communities quietly quit from the course unable to put up with the discrimination and slurs, and that none of those who committed suicide was a Brahmin. All the above instances, coupled with social media chatter, create an impression that the IIT-M sticks out like a sore thumb in a state where social justice is still considered sacrosanct by many.G Babu Jayakumar is a Chennai-based senior journalist who has covered Tamil Nadu for more than three decades. Views are personal.