IIT Madras’ underbelly of professional jealousy, harassment, a roiling caste & religion-riven campus is showing
“Sudarshan Padmanabhan is the cause of my death. P.S. Check Samsung notes.”
This was on the home screen of Fathima Lateef’s phone, the IIT student who was found hanging in her hostel room on November 09.
Lying on a table in Kotturpuram police station, her twin sister Aysha Lateef had found the phone when she went there along with her aunty and the mayor of Kollam, a close family friend.
“It doesn’t have charge,” she was told by the police.
“I have the same phone as her so I put it up for charging thinking I will try some patterns to unlock. Upon charging when I swiped it, it opened without a lock and on the home screen, the wallpaper read - Sudarshan Padmanabhan is the cause of my death. P.S. Check Samsung notes.”
“We have all her notes,” she says.
Her father, Abdul Lateef, an NRI in Saudi Arabia, had still not been informed and was on his way back home, having been told that his wife was unwell.
His daughter Fathima had last contacted him on November 08 through a video call. “During the call, she had cried inconsolably. A lady wearing a nose ring had come and wiped her tears,” he told The Lede.
“I don’t know who she was. We should find her, she might know more,” he says.
The same night she had called home five times and spoken with her mother but revealed little.
“Till ninth standard we had studied in Saudi Arabia. Then we shifted to Kerala and joined Oxford School here in Kollam,” says her twin sister Aysha who is pursuing a law degree in Trivandrum.
“We studied together till 10th after which since Fathima wanted to pursue humanities and then prepare for civil services, so she joined a state syllabus school while I continued to study in the same school.”
“Even though this was the first time Fathima had stayed alone, she was happy to be there. It was a dream she had held for long,” says Aysha. “She had herself found out about the Integrated MA course and applied. She had joined IIT Madras on 23rd July and her classes started on 1st of August.”
Fathima had been in the campus for just three months when she became so distressed as to write a note and end her life.
“We don’t know when it started or what happened exactly. But she was happy in the beginning. I guess the issue started one or two months back,” Aysha told The Lede.
“She had begun to appear gloomy. She would cover up the reasons. We thought it was homesickness. Maybe she was scared. Anyway it is clear to us that she faced harassment,” says Aysha.
Fathima had been staying in Sarayu hostel within the campus.
“On 8th November around 5 pm, my mother spoke with her. Mom had asked her as to why her phone had been switched off earlier that day and Fathima told her that she was studying for her semester exams which were to start on 15th November,” recalls Aysha.
“We believed that maybe she didn’t want to be disturbed but now we feel maybe there was something more which led her to switching off the phone.”
“There is nothing. There is nothing she told us when we spoke to her. But she appeared about to cry many times through the call,” says her father Abdul Lateef.
The morning after they had last spoken, on 09 November, upon finding her phone switched off, the family tried reaching her through her batch mates’ phone.
They promised to check on her.
But they never attended their calls thereafter.
“At around 11 am, the warden of the hostel, Lalitha Madam called my mother’s phone which I attended and told us that Fathima had committed suicide. The warden told us that she was sorry for our loss,” says Aysha.
The family was heartbroken by the news. Her father was still in Saudi and her aunt was the only other person around to help Aysha and her mother.
They took the evening flight which was the next possible one and along with the Mayor of Kollam, who was a family friend, went to Chennai to bring her body home.
“Fathima was an innocent girl. We don’t know what happened is what both the wardens told us when we met them.
Her room-mate was inconsolable when we met her, crying that she couldn’t prevent Fathima’s death. I think what she meant was that had she not gone home that weekend, maybe this wouldn’t have happened,” says Aysha.
What made Fathima different from the many others who had committed suicide in IIT Madras was that Fathima was the topper and had scored good marks.
But the Institute appears determined to paint her suicide a result of her being unable to keep up with the academic pressures and to home sickness.
The initial news reports, which came out three days after her suicide, all carried this version - that a young girl had committed suicide because she had got less marks.
Her twin sister Aysha objects to this.
“She had appeared gloomy for a month and half. The issue about the marks came up in the last week. But that wasn’t the only issue she had faced. She was scared or maybe she feared something. That if she opens up, something might happen. She was a bold enough person.
I don’t know what happened but I know that there is something solid which has forced her to take such a drastic step. IIT has said that poor academic performance and home sickness had led her to suicide. These are not reasons which can push her to suicide.
Her exams were supposed to end by November 25th. Fathima was supposed to come home on 27th morning. It had only been three months since the classes had started and she had already visited us once. Father had visited her there too.
Had she been homesick, she would have been growing happier by the day as the semester break was nearing. As far as Fathima is concerned, her marks are not low, her academic performance is not below par and she is not the kind of person who will feel academic pressure. Fathima was above marks, for her marks were not even a matter of concern,” says Aysha.
Unfortunately for IIT Madras, Fathima was a prolific note-taker and kept detailed notes of everyday happenings – especially about the last 28 days of her life.
Circles close to and within IIT Madras suggest that Fathima gave in to impulse and took her life when she “came second” in an internal exam on logic.
Fathima had scored 13 out of 20 marks. She deserved 18 marks. She sent in her paper for a review to the Head of the Department. This professor, having reviewed it, then sent the paper back to Professor Sudarshan Padmanabhan, who had evaluated it, asking him to award her the additional marks that Fathima deserved.
But even though she scored 13 marks, Fathima had still topped the class. The second rank had scored 11 marks. The third, 9 marks.
Her father calls it a lie to suggest that she had come second. “She was first in the class but she was unhappy over the low marks she was unfairly given in a paper. So she wrote to the Head of the Department who, after reviewing, saw her answers fit to award her 18 marks. Padmanabhan was asked to change her marks and he mailed Fathima to come meet him on Monday, the 11th of November.”
The meeting never happened. Fathima ended her life by November 09.
Between the HoD’s instruction, Padmanabhan’s mail and Fathima’s suicide, the family suspects something had happened which broke Fathima. Added to this is the treatment the family got when they reached IIT Madras after learning of her death.
“The faculty and everyone else over there were much uncooperative. Even though they knew that her family had reached there, no one came to meet us.
No faculty, none of her teachers, not even a student took the initiative to come and meet us,” says Aysha about the strangely cold response they had received when in campus after her sister’s death. Not even Fathima's closest friend would speak to the family.
“There is obviously a cover up from IIT’s side. This is not the first case in IIT. Every year five or six cases are being reported. What is different is that in the history of IIT Madras, not even one case has taken up more than a small side column of newspaper space. This is the first time that someone is raising their voice against this,” she says.
“Suicide is not a simple matter. It is a matter of someone’s life but they had seemed as if they were used to this. They didn’t seem to find anything new in this matter. Even the students over there act as if there is nothing shocking or surprising over a suicide. It was like a regular, routine affair for them,” she says.
This is the first time that IIT is being put under the scanner and students are protesting at the callousness of the faculty of IIT Madras which has forced many to commit suicide. But the reasons for her suicide are not limited to one professor according to the family.
“Sudarshan Padmanabhan is the main culprit here but he alone is not behind my daughter’s death. There are six to seven more, including a few of her own classmates. We haven’t given out that information as the investigation has only started. Let them bring things out. We will wait for two days and then reveal more,” says her father.
“She didn’t even go to get the answer sheets from Padmanabhan as she was afraid of him. It was someone else who gave her papers to her. What was it that had made her scared of him is unknown still.
She had told us multiple times that her name itself is the issue. This was why Fathima had told me that Sudarshan Padmanabhan was not good. My daughter was an extraordinary intellectual. She is born once in a crore - it was her that these demons have killed,” said Lateef.
Many students allege that IIT Madras provides preferential treatment to “upper caste” students.
“We used to treat Padmanabhan as an ill-tempered child who rides on his ego. He is foolish in a way. For instance once he and a fellow professor went on a Europe tour and upon return Padmanabhan came and showed us in class pictures of him standing outside the Auschwitz camp with a proud victory sign.
These are the kind of professors who teach in our universities. If those images come out, the damages will be interesting to see,” says a former student of Padmanabhan who has now passed out but chose to remain anonymous.
Meanwhile, in campus related groups, fake messages, which lay the blame on two professors, Hemachandran Karah and Milind Brahme have been doing the rounds.
One such is being passed off as a “suicide note” written by Fathima. It is written in an uncharacteristically flowery language and gives a hint at the political sensibilities of the campus. Milind Brahme is the advisor of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a pro-Dalit group.
“It is a fake image,” said Fathima’s father, when The Lede showed him the note. “Fathima has named Professor Brahme in her notes but she stated that she had held debates with him at various times.
She has not held him or any other professor except Sudarshan Padmanabhan responsible for her death. That particular image is a fake one,” he reiterated.
“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 Lateef, and the events that unfolded thereafter,” read the statement issued by IIT Madras almost a week later, on November 15, making it clear that the events therafter was as much a concern as the death.
“It is like that. There will be an internal condolence mail,” says Azhar CB, a student of IIT Madras. “Everything goes on as normal after that. The Institute doesn’t comment generally.”
But in Fathima’s case there were events thereafter - the family raised concerns.
They found Fathima’s notes and raised their voices. This has resulted in widespread protests and condemnation.
Now hurriedly a special team has been formed by the Tamil Nadu police.
None of it likely to be welcome news for an Institute which has been, in the past, quick to brush away student suicides without conducting enquiries.
The second paragraph of the three paragraph statement by IIT Madras revealed what the Institute perhaps truly cared about.
“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 demoralizing the students, faculty members and tarnishing the reputation of one of the finest institutes in the country.
Our faculty is known for its high quality, integrity and fairness” - the Institute did not forget to put in a word in favour of the accused, even giving themselves a good character certificate in the process.
That they chose not to mention whether there has been or would be any probe into the professor named in the suicide note - Sudharshan Padmanabhan – is alarming.
“This is not the first suicide in IIT Madras. Suicides are an issue in the campus. Last semester itself there were four suicides here,” says Azhar.
“I had seen a student hanging in his room before the police had been called during my time there”, recalls a former student. “The staff and faculty are unaffected by all these,” he adds. “Everything goes on as normal.”
As recently as four months back, a spate of suicides had initiated a discussion around suicides on campus.
“Open discussions had been held and a report submitted to the student body which unanimously passed the need for an independent external study to find out the reasons as to why many students are pushed towards suicide here,” says Azhar.
“No action has been taken yet. Internal studies are useless as we are blind to our own problems.”
“We want the administration to ensure a proper enquiry,” demands Justin Joseph, another student at IIT Madras. “This is the sixth suicide in a year including that of a faculty member. Something has to be done.”
“The news that broke after Fathima’s death, initially held that she had scored less marks which upset her and had led her to suicide. This was much like what had happened on many previous occasions when the Institute blamed student suicides on their inability to handle academic pressure, or their low performance or something like that,” says a former student. “It is always like that.”
Only that in Fathima’s case, there were glaring inconsistencies and her daily notes and a family who has chosen to fight for her.
Back home in their native Kollam, Fathima’s mother, sedated and listless has only a few words to say - “No one else should have to face this again.”
Her twin Aysha told The Lede - “No other Aysha should lose her Fathima. This fate shouldn’t happen to anyone else.”
And her father, who has only begun eating since November 16, Friday, says that he is determined. “I will not leave Chennai until those who tormented my ponnumol (golden girl) are arrested and behind bars.”
(Suicide is not a solution to any problems. If you are feeling lonely, depressed or suicidal, help is at hand. Contact SNEHA helpline at 044-2464 0050.)