The suicide note of an integrated MA student at IIT Madras named a professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Science as the cause of her death. The aggrieved family, friends, and society of the student, Fathima Latheef, have been probing the cause behind the harassment faced by her.
Across social media, this message has been widely discussed, as she stated previously to her father that her (Muslim) name itself was problematic in that space of IIT, especially to the philosophy professor she had named in her note. Suicides in IITs are not new, many have committed suicide due to the academic pressures, and depression.
However, Fathima’s suicide stands out from the rest, as she was a meritorious student who stood first in the entrance exam as well as in the internal exams. Still, there was something that constantly distracted her in her short stay on the IIT campus. The police are investigating the details into the case, and it’s the right time to discuss the phobic spaces created by academic professionals in the higher education system in India, and the need to prevent institutional murders like this.
In the light of Fathima’s death, another IIT student, Alfiya Jose, in her Facebook post dated November 14, expressed her dismay over the discussion turning out for the need to address mental health issues of young adults among peer pressures in academic spaces. She says that such discussions actually turn a blind eye towards the elitism, classism, and Islamophobia.
Alfiya writes, “This campus, particularly the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences is ridden of anti- Muslim and anti-caste sentiments. Every academic discussion in our classrooms ends up with reference to Pakistan and questioning of Muslim women’s agency. ‘Why are Muslims and Christians called minority when their population is large in number while Brahmins are just two percent of the entire Indian population?’ this was a statement made by one of our staff to a Muslim women scholar. Brahmins being a minority is the stellar example of the Brahmanical mindset that follows Manu’s law which prescribes education is exclusive to the Brahmins. The entry of any other persons not belonging to this generates caste anxiety here.”
As Alfiya herself suggested, seeing the suicide as a mere mental health issue fails to identify the root cause for it, as it is not just personal, but rather structural and functional. A student activist from Mumbai is reported to have stated that, Fathima’s case is a clear proof of discrimination on the grounds of religion.
The daily interactions of Muslims become problematic in a majoritarian atmosphere as it is often seen that the Muslim community lacks two things: ideals and aspirations. It is also important to note that the rhetoric surrounding this incident will be held as a precedent for women who want to enter higher education in India.
Caste-based and religion-based discrimination have been prevailing in the higher education system in India for long. Rohith Vemula’s death at the HCU campus in January 2016 was due to the distress caused by the university’s discrimination of him based on his caste identity. This added to the existing victimisation he faced in the family by witnessing his father abuse his mother on the basis of her caste identity.
This case is an example of the age-old discrimination based on the caste hierarchy. Though the Constitution of India safeguards all kinds of discrimination on the basis of caste, gender, race, and religion under Article 15, it persists as a sensitive and politicised issue in the country. Issues like slavery, discrimination in the educational system, untouchability, and exclusion from social spaces occur as a result of the deep-rooted stigma formed in the minds of every Indian since their birth. Our society remains highly divisive on the said grounds.
Discrimination in educational institutions on the basis of caste and religion remain unresolved, not just in schools, but in higher education sectors as well. In schools, drop-out rates are higher due to this.
However, it works in a different way in higher educational institutions. For instance, recently in Calicut University, a few research scholars lodged a complaint against their guide for discriminating against them on the grounds of their social background. Since elitism and casteism work so deeply in the minds of academics, it comes out in various forms through abusive remarks as well as exclusion.
As in the case of Fathima, though there is the lack of clear evidence about her facing harassment due to Islamophobia, the grounds for the same also cannot be simply dismissed while reading her case with the analysis of the cold attitude and phobic space on campus pointed out by another student of the same institute.
Then, how does one address various forms of structural discrimination against students from marginalised communities?
We have a number of legal measures as well as regulations against discrimination. Higher education bodies like the UGC and AICTE have taken measures to curb caste-based discrimination in higher education as they have granted the power to colleges to take administrative decisions to prevent all kinds of harassment and discrimination.
Universities and colleges are empowered to handle the cases under their respective Acts. The MHRD has recently issued a press note regarding the measure UGC and AICTE have taken to curb all kinds of discrimination against students from marginal communities like the SC/ST/OBC communities. They are:
Looking at these measures, we may note that Islamophobia remains silent. Though it is widely accepted that Dalit communities are victimised socially and economically and are deprived of higher education opportunities, other socially backward communities also face the stigma irrespective of their social groups.
In the instant issue that Fathima’s death became, students have called for action from the Ministry of Minority Affairs to take immediate cognizance of any discrimination on the ground of religion and to set up Minority Cells in higher education institutions. They have also called for the enactment of the Rohith Act to punish caste, religion, and gender-based discrimination in HEIs in India.
All these issues remain structural and less discussed while considering them in a practical sense. These regulatory steps alone will not work out efficiently, unless and until there is a change in the mindset of people. Everywhere, the cause and effects of discrimination are pointed out.
However, how to fight it remains inconclusive. The legal measures themselves are not the right solution, because it makes us talk a lot about the problem rather than altering our mindsets.
One may call it philosophical if this writer calls for change in mindsets when the cause of the problem is structural. One should end the practice of caste names, caste, and religious-based marriages to fight the stigma.
Moreover, there needs to be friendly and co-operative spaces in HEIs where students can converse with faculties on the discrimination they face. All these won’t happen all of a sudden, I know.
The noble ideals of our constitution have to be instilled through education. It is not just be preached, but to be practiced, and the spaces to be made free from any kind of discrimination. We have traveled a lot, yet still, we have to travel further.