The Lede's probe into the IIT Madras student's suicide has thrown up a picture of a young woman in distress for at least a month
The father of Fathima Latheef, a student at IIT Madras who allegedly took her life on November 09, stated at a press conference in Delhi on Thursday, that Home Minister Amit Shah had promised to order a CBI probe into her death. Fathima had left behind a number of notes in her mobile phone, the last one accusing a Professor in the Humanities department, Sudarshan Padmanabhan, of having been responsible for her death.
Abdul Latheef had met the Prime Minister as well as the Home Minister earlier in the day. During his press conference, Latheef made a number of statements that contradicted his earlier ones.
He told The Lede initially that he did not doubt that his daughter’s death was a suicide. At the press conference he hinted at his daughter possibly having been murdered.
(Excerpts from his press conference in the video below)
He also stated that his daughter had named three professors and seven students in her notes at this press conference.
This is another deviation from what he told The Lede and other publications – that the second suicide note was “fake” and that only one professor, Sudarshan Padmanabhan, was responsible for her death.
Subsequently a neighbour of the Latheefs, Shameer S, contacted The Lede insisting that the note naming two professors was not fake. He also admitted that he was the one who had made “small corrections” in the note.
Another contradiction by the father was his statement that Section 174 CrPC (unnatural death) was added by the Chennai police only after his insistence.
But the FIR, which The Lede has already put out in public domain, was filed under Section 174 CrPC initially on November 09. This was a day before Fathima’s sister and other family friends had met the police and seen Fathima’s body.
When The Lede learnt that Shameer had made “small corrections” in the note naming the two professors, we set out to find out the truth. And that meant going back to Fathima’s schools in Kollam, Kerala and even as far as her school in Saudi Arabia.
Here is Fathima’s story.
“Her reputation had reached our school as well,” said Roy Sebastian who is now the principal of Krist Raj School. When Fathima studied in Krist Raj School in Kollam, Roy Sebastian was the principal of Vimala Hridaya School which is just opposite to Krist Raj and is managed by the same owners.
“I never knew her personally but her reputation had reached our school as well. So we were very familiar with her name even in our school,” he said.
“We were jealous that such a good student had opted to join here instead of my school,” said Roy.
Part of the reason for this “jealousy” was that Fathima consistently scored good marks, belonged to a financially secure background and had studied in a private school in Kollam previously.
Back in her higher secondary school in Kollam her teacher Milton was still in shock when he learned that Fathima had taken the extreme step.
“It was one of their batchmates who informed us the news of her death. We were not sure and so we visited her home and found that it was indeed true,” he told The Lede.
“Inspite of coming from a position of privilege, she adjusted to the situation here very fast,” said Milton. Milton taught Fathima English for two years in Standard 11 and 12.
“We were very surprised that she chose our school. She had good marks and she could have got admission into any private school,” he said. Fathima had, upon return from Saudi Arabia in 2015, joined Oxford School in Kollam which followed the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) syllabus.
After passing Standard 10 with good marks, Fathima wanted to pursue humanities. This was what prompted her to apply to Krist Raj School, the most renowned school in the area offering humanities stream, according to her twin sister Aysha Latheef.
Aysha meanwhile continued to study in Oxford School, a Manarul Huda Trust run institution.
The principal of Oxford School where Fathima studied upon coming from Saudi in Standard 09, Dr Sajid Ali, when contacted by The Lede, said he was not at the school when Fathima had studied.
But he told The Lede - “We are really in shock. We were expecting her to be very successful. In our perspective, this is not the loss of the family alone but it is our loss also. It is a loss for the state and the country.”
“She was a very helpful person from what I hear from the teachers who taught her. She was a topper in studies throughout her time here as well. She was very respectful towards the teachers,” he added.
Dr Sajid Ali refused The Lede a chance to interact with the other teachers who might have had taught her in her two years there.
Back in Krist Raj Higher Secondary School Fathima was well received.
“They had the financial capability as well,” said Milton. “While her classmates here came from very humble backgrounds, Fathima was educated abroad and had studied in a private CBSE school. But she had no airs about her,” according to Milton.
“While here, she was a very normal student. She never made any fuss about anything. She will do what she was supposed to do. She was good at studies and topped the class comfortably,” he said.
“She was not an introvert. She showed the maturity of reading. She was well read. But she wasn’t outspoken either. She will say what she wants to when she gets a chance. I would say she was secure in her own way.”
Asked if he thought she could commit suicide, he said, “Here education is emotional. In a school especially in 11th and 12th, children are neither here nor there. It is a very tricky age. So their age demands an emotional approach. But in bigger places it is much more mechanical. So we can’t really say. In a college, teachers are used to treating everyone as adults. If you ask her if she is a girl or a woman, she will say girl. It is a tricky age. One can never say. It is an age when one gains maturity,” said Milton.
Recalling the last few times Fathima had come to the school Milton said, “She had come here before joining classes in IIT Madras to tell us that she was going to join there.”
“We had arranged a meeting in which we honoured students who got all A+ grades in 12th. We had given her a memento as she had scored 1188 marks out of 1200 without grace marks and she had also got into IIT Madras.”
Grace marks are given to students who undertook extra-curricular activities. Fathima’s only extra-curricular activity was her quizzing, said Milton.
“She had won the inter-school quizzing competition which is held in our school in memory of a student who had passed away. It was the fifth year and 120 schools had participated,” he said, showing the trophy which Fathima had won with another team mate, kept in the principal’s room.
Fathima was also good at extempore and elocution.
“In the speech she gave during her felicitation ceremony she recalled what each teacher had taught her. Though I hadn’t heard what she spoke about me as I was busy elsewhere, she had said that I had guided her in how to adjust with the system here. I was very touched that she had remembered even the nudges I had given her. She also came to the school after joining there. She had brought cakes for everyone here,” recalled Milton.
Asked if he thought she was overly competitive or marks could be so important to her as to stress her out, he said, “She had once come to me in 11th asking me about a few marks I had reduced in her paper. I explained to her that she had not understood the question correctly and her answer wasn’t hence complete. She went away once I explained her mistake.
She had come second in Kollam district in the 2-day Pathfinder career guidance camp that was organised by the government of Kerala. She was going for coaching in Trivandrum on Saturdays and Sundays. I am not sure if she was attending coaching in her 11th but in 12th she was going regularly. She wanted to become a civil servant,” he said.
Asked if he could review the second, more detailed suicide note, naming two professors, he read through it and said, “This looks like something she would write. This is her language.”
Asked about the unusual phrases used he said, “Delicious inertia was a phrase I had taught her. It was in the story “The Trip of Le Horla” by Guy de Maupassant.
I had specifically explained in the class the usage of delicious inertia. It is definitely written by her. There is no way someone else will use that phrase. She had an inclination towards flowery language."
"I used to check her answer sheets separately for she used such phrases and words which only someone who reads outside of academics would possess,” said Milton.
Asked if he could explain why her other note, the one to her family, had a drastically different language, he said, “See the last one is for the family to read. She is directly speaking to them in a language which she converses in. It is a language which everyone in her family including her youngest sister can understand. That is the only difference. But the second note is exactly how she writes otherwise.”
But her father had said The Lede that the second note, naming two professors, was fake.
The Lede was eventually able to view a copy of the original note. While the text of the note was identical to what was circulating online, the note had an additional piece of information which offered a new perspective.
At the bottom of the note were two pieces of information.
Last Modified: 29 Oct 2019
Created: 10 Oct 2019
The note, if in fact written by Fathima, suggests that she may have already been harbouring suicidal thoughts at least for a month before she eventually died on November 09.
That in a way also brings into question the notes she had maintained for the next 28 days.
In a different note, also in possession of The Lede, Fathima had written, “I just want to die in some way. I have thought about ways. I want to kill myself.”
Below this, she listed the name of eight people along with the name of two professors as the “people responsible for my death.”
Below the names, she wrote, “They ostracised and portrayed me as mentally ill.”
The time stamp read:
Last Modified: 5 Nov 2019
Created: 5 Nov 2019
Four days later, Fathima was found dead in her room.
On the home screen of her phone her suicide note, saved as the wallpaper read, “Sudharshan Padmanabhan is the cause of my death. p.s. check Samsung notes.”
Apart from these notes, a photograph viewed by The Lede shows a couple in their early twenties smiling into the camera.
On a copy of this photograph, Fathima had scribbled – “I hate XX” (we are withholding the name of the student she named, in order to protect identity).
On another copy was a similar message – “I hate YY” – another student named. There were multiple copies of the same photograph with different messages scribbled on them by Fathima.
“Nobody spoke about her as mentally ill. We were just concerned about her. She was an extreme introvert and there were signs of mental health problems. We did have some discussions about her, but that was out of concern. We did not portray her as mentally ill,” said classmate 1 (names withheld to protect identity).
Classmate 2 said Fathima was “socially awkward.” “She would not come to any events or go out with us though we kept calling her. When we invited her, she would smile and say yes. But she would never turn up.”
“She did not socialise with any of us. She would just go to class and back to the hostel. She never went out anywhere else,” said classmate 2.
Senior 1 spoke to The Lede about an incident when one of Fathima’s classmates had informed her that the young girl appeared depressed.
“One of the students told me that she had been crying just before the first level exams. I had not spent much time with her so I called her so she could become more familiar with me. I asked her to come to Cool Biz (a joint near IIT Madras). I wanted her to know that I was there for her if she wanted to talk. She did not say anything, she just listened to me the whole time,” said the senior.
Classmate 3 told The Lede that Fathima kept to herself throughout her time there and that none of the students had taunted her about mental health issues.
“I can assure you that Fathima was never called names and especially nothing to do with mental health. We are Humanities students and we know the importance of mental health. So there was never such an instance. She was socially awkward. She was a very quiet kid from day one and I did not notice a considerable change in her behaviour. To quote her as being depressed and being mentally unstable is just overstepping, if you ask me,” said classmate 3.
Classmate 4 told The Lede – “This is completely untrue, from my experience and interactions with her and the class.” This was in response to a query on whether Fathima had faced taunts and ostracism on account of perceived mental illness.
Classmate 4 went on to add – “Even if some had these opinions, they did not directly communicate them to her (Fathima). She was not cornered. Even if people talked about it, it was out of concern and not negative. I do not know about everyone. There was just a general observation, as any other student would have about them.”
Student 1 who was not her classmate too did not notice anything amiss, except for a good deal of homesickness.
“In the hostel, she was perfectly fine. I know she was homesick. She herself told me many times that she is homesick. She used to cry every time she talked to her parents over phone,” said student 1. “She was a loner.”
A senior psychiatrist in Chennai who reviewed the notes accessed by The Lede said that in the absence of a romantic relationship, the signs and symptoms could indeed point to a mental health issue.
“If there had been a romantic relationship, that would have been the cause,” said the psychiatrist. “In just three months of being in an institution, it is difficult to face academic pressure of the kind that would lead a student to commit suicide.
For mental health issues, we generally look at three factors – family history, age and the symptoms. We do not know about the family’s history. But Fathima was at the right age for the onset of any mental health issues. The age of onset is usually between 18 and 23 years.
The third thing we need to look at is the number of people she has pointed to in her notes. If it were one or two people who were persecuting her, it is understandable. But to point to around 10-12 people and that too a variety of people, it points to a feeling of paranoia of some sort.
The people she seems to have written about are all very different people by nature, according to reports. So it is likely that she had a feeling of being persecuted.
The fact that she chose to scribble on a photograph of a couple she was related to or was fond of – this too shows some paranoia. We cannot rule out mental health issues entirely,” said the psychiatrist.
A day before, on November 08, one of the last persons she had chatted with, Faisal had contacted her over WhatsApp at 3:31 pm Saudi time.
Faisal is said to be the husband of one of Fathima’s teachers Beena and is a teacher himself.
“Because of bifurcation of children of opposite sexes, I myself never taught Fathima,” he said, speaking to The Lede from Saudi Arabia.
“I first noticed her during a quiz competition which I had happened to conduct in the school. Then we got close to her family. When we went to their home here in Saudi, I was fascinated by the kind of books she was reading.
On 8th (November) I had tried to reach her but since I didn’t have her number I called her mother who gave me her number in Madras. We hadn’t been in touch for 3 years. We had spoken after a long time on July 3rd after coming to know that she had got admitted to IIT Madras.
On November 8th, I wanted to find out details about coaching for my younger son. I messaged her on WhatsApp asking her about the coaching she had attended and she replied very promptly.
If she had been depressed, it didn’t show. We chatted for half an hour. She asked about my wife who she was very close to,” said Faisal.
Asked if he thought she could have committed suicide, he said, “Human beings do the most unexpected things. It is impossible to say with a psychoanalysis.”
Sources in the police who had studied her call records said that there was nothing amiss there. Her last call was to a classmate of hers and she had only been in touch with two or three numbers belonging to her family. All other calls were to classmates in IIT Madras.
On the day Fathima died on November 09, her phone internet was active at 7:41 am for an hour. It was also active at 4:41 am for 3 hours and at 3:39 am for an hour and on November 08 at 11:39 pm for an hour. There were no calls that seemed suspicious nor had she moved out of IIT Madras, according to the source.
“She was a very studious girl. She never got involved in romantic relationships. She would always read at home. She used to keep finding things on the internet. She did not socialise much,” said a source close to Fathima’s family.
“They had moved out of Saudi three years ago. She was happy here in Kollam. She did not have friends in Krist Raj School. But in the other school, Oxford School, she did have a few friends,” he said.
Notwithstanding a likely CBI probe into Fathima’s death, her parents, classmates and their parents are all living a nightmare that is seemingly unending.
Closure for all of these people involved, knowingly or unknowingly, in this tragedy, will come only once the police probe is completed.