A view of Sarayu hostel in IIT-M where Fathima Lateef committed suicide
A view of Sarayu hostel in IIT-M where Fathima Lateef committed suicide|Photo credit: Annie Catherena

IIT Madras: An Uneasy, Upset, Conflicted Campus

In the wake of Fathima Lateef’s suicide, students are divided as they struggle to understand discrimination

Fathima’s classmates are upset and understandably so. Conversations amid small groups of students across IIT Madras revolve around the suicide of the young student, the professors who are in the cross hairs and worry over the name of the institution taking a beating.

Small groups of students are protesting sporadically, demanding justice for Fathima.

Students have been strictly instructed by the IIT administration that they should not speak with the media or with journalists.

“I have not seen any Islamophobia at all,” said a bewildered young student in the Humanities Department. “I have not seen any other kind of discrimination either. Yes, the professors are tough on everyone and some have favourite students but IIT is not like what is being portrayed in the media – as a casteist, Islamophobic institution.”

A classmate of Fathima’s said that the suicide note naming Professor Sudarshan Padmanabhan was strange because “she was his favourite student in the class.”

The campus of one of India’s most prestigious institutions though, is deeply divided now, in the wake of Fathima’s death. There are those students who believe that there is no discrimination of any sort in IIT Madras. And then there are others who insist there is.

For instance, one group of students who want justice for Fathima refused to meet or even speak to The Lede on the phone. They did not wish to be identified either.

When asked about whether there was any kind of discrimination within the IIT Madras campus and whether they had been witness to the same, the students replied via message – “Not only Profs, Students but Staff also. Yes, we have seen and heard.”

The Lede reached out to students within the IIT campus. Again, they did not wish to be identified. “Discrimination based on where a person comes from, his background, colour and religion is present in every institution. It cannot be said that IIT-M is a healthy organisation. Forward ideas are many times suppressed and especially if a student is inclined towards the Left, he is assumed to be a trouble-maker,” said one student.

Another student recounted his experience of groupism and isolation. “I am from Kerala, and I don’t have many friends in my class, not only because of where I come from, but there is a groupism in our class, which might or not prevail in every organisation,” he told The Lede.

“But the thing is, people do become friends once they know they belong to a same caste or religion. Teachers are openly discriminative which might be subtle and some of them won’t even realise,” he added.

This sentiment is echoed by many students within the campus – especially those who belong to the Dalit community or to minorities. While the nature of discrimination is not overt, subtle comments, practices and actions have caused tension and stress within the students’ community.

“Someone who comes from an “upper” caste, “upper” class background cannot identify this subtle discrimination, simply because they have never faced it,” said a member of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a rationalist group of students within the college.

“I have heard that a professor asked one underperforming student – are you from the category? These kinds of comments are hurtful,” he said. Category implies reserved category, meaning Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe or Other Backward Classes students who enter the IITs through the quota system.

“It is a Brahminical mindset – it is not about a particular religion or a caste. It is about the general system that they create,” he said.

Another student who is also with the APSC says that the discrimination is so subtle that it could leave the person discriminated against as to whether it is indeed happening. “I remember when I entered IIT, a professor asked me with a lot of surprise – hey, you are from State Board and you have joined IIT! I still don’t know what to think of that comment,” he said.

He recounts an instance of a Bihari Dalit boy who attempted to take the initiative amongst his fellow Bihari students to send relief materials during the floods in Bihar earlier this year. “That boy was very upset. He told me that they had pushed him out. It was not overt. But they simply did not allow him to participate because he is a Dalit.”

Students also say that the atmosphere in hostels is uneasy, with random checks being conducted.

“Wardens and others simply barge into rooms and make vulgar comments about anything they find,” he said. “The administration does not see students as stakeholders. The environment and culture here needs to change,” he said.

Does Discrimination Really Exist In IITs?

These opinions from those who have faced discrimination is backed by a study published in the Economic and Political Weekly. The study, which was a survey conducted at IIT-BHU in 2015-16, details answers of 121 students who are largely from the OBC and SC/ST backgrounds.

The study shows that not only are reserved category students likely to have lower marks than their general category peers due to their disadvantaged backgrounds, but that they face “hostility” from their teachers and peers.

We find that GPA is lower for students from SC/ST caste category. The difference in GPA continues after controlling for socio-economic characteristics and family background which is not surprising.

Students belonging to SC/ST group report facing hostile attitudes from teachers and fellow students. A majority of general caste, OBC and SC/ST caste students believe that general caste students have higher academic ability and reserved caste students have lower ability.

Despite constitutional remedies like caste-based reservation in higher education and jobs, the effects of caste continue to persist. The reservation policy has not succeeded in levelling the playing field in higher education. Further, income gaps exist after students’ from lower caste categories graduate and find a job (Chakravarty and Somanathan 2008). Policy intervention in education has to begin sooner, in pre and early-school years, to attempt to level the playing field.

Negative attitudes, perceptions and stereotypes about the ability of SC/ST caste category are a major hurdle too. Our survey indicates those from SC/ST caste category face several reminders of their caste identity in day to day life on a campus of higher learning. In an experiment involving students in sixth and seventh grades in rural Uttar Pradesh, Hoff and Pandey (2012) find no caste gap in performance of students when caste identity is anonymous. But when students are reminded of their caste identity, a significant caste gap in performance emerges favouring general caste students,” finds the study by Priyanka Pandey and Sandeep Pandey.

Another study published in November 2011 by Veronica Frisancho Robles and Kala Krishna by The Institute for Studies in Industrial Development, a Government of India institute, shows similar trends even in terms of jobs bagged after college.

In other words, general students earn more and choose more selective majors because they are better in terms of unobservables. Even more interesting, minority students in more selective majors end up earning significantly less than their same-race counterparts in less selective majors, which supports the mismatch hypothesis.

We also identify some evidence in favor of social mismatch: even after controlling for selection, being enrolled in a more selective major increases stress levels and feelings of not belonging among SC/ST students but the effect goes in the other direction among general students,” finds the study which analysed the class of 2008 at IIT Delhi.

C Lakshmanan, Associate Professor with the Madras Institute of Development Studies told The Lede about an instance of a young student from his native village who got admission into IIT Madras for the MSc Maths course. The student had graduated in BSc Maths with a gold medal from St Joseph's college in Trichy, after studying in a government school.

“The boy was an Arunthathiyar (sub-caste among Tamil Dalits),” said Lakshmanan. “He came to me a couple of weeks after joining IIT Madras and said he did not wish to continue, that he could not bear it. He was facing alienation.

A lot of people think that since physical abuse is not there, the IITs have no discrimination. But the discrimination is silent and pervasive. I convinced this boy to somehow finish the course because it was a prestigious institution. He really struggled but finished first class. When they invited him to study further, he literally ran away from IIT Madras,” he recalled.

Name calling, poking fun at food or dress habits, groupism, ostracisation – all of these add to the terrible weight of academic pressure that disadvantaged students face from students as well as professors.

The Reservation Conundrum

While reservations in the IITs for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have been in place since 1973, not many students entered the institutes through the reserved categories.

In June 2008, the Centre implemented 15% reservation in teaching positions for Scheduled Castes, 7.5% for Scheduled Tribes and 27% for OBCs (excluding creamy layer). In addition, the IITs have included an 18% quota since 2018 for women over and above the existing seats to encourage gender diversity. Within the OBC sub-quota, minorities have been reserved 4.5% of seats since 2012.

This means that after the first few years of initial hiccups, with few students from the reserved category joining the prestigious institutions, today, the composition of the IITs have drastically changed. The fruits of reservation are now being seen. And with it, problems have arrived.

“The IITs have a one-year Preparatory Course for SC/ST students,” explained Lakshmanan. “Earlier most were sent back because they were not able to clear the course.

IIT or any other institution should adhere to the law of the land. Students from other socio-economic backgrounds other than the elite backgrounds, after admission, experience culture shock. Most of their peers are elitist or middle class, which rural and oppressed students may not be able to handle. The institute needs to ensure that these students are taken care of.

Rule of law is for holistic development, it must not be viewed as detrimental to a certain set of people. If in a country of one billion people, only 10% or so are rich and well educated, then it is not a good indicator of development. All people should be able to benefit from the rule of law,” he said.

The law may be available but justice is a far cry. Take for instance, the fact that while the students’ composition has become diverse, the faculty and staff composition has resolutely remained almost the same.

Reports based on RTI responses show that despite the laws of reservation in faculty and staff, 87% were from the general category. The reservation process, is quite simply, not being followed in letter or spirit.

Worse, many faculty members hold highly biased views towards reservations.

Take for instance this article by M Balakrishnan, Professor of Computer Science & Engineering at IIT Delhi. The article is published in the IIT Bombay website and in it, he lambasts the reservation policy.

It is the hypocrisy of the highest order that on one hand the reservation for SC/STs is considered a success and quoted for extension to OBCs, and on the other hand, no hard data on the performance of these students is available in the public domain. Some administrators I talked to consider this data as sensitive!

Analysis of where the reserved category students go after graduation would be enlightening. I do not have the sensitive data but my experience shows that most of them either go to services like IAS/IES or to the public sector companies. Normally this choice of careers by IIT graduates should be a matter of satisfaction except that both these entries are again using the reservation quota. Is it empowerment or crutches for life?” asks the Professor.

With attitudes like this amongst the faculty, it is little wonder that discrimination against reserved category students is quite active.

And this is exactly what Lakshmanan feels is the problem. “They need to realise the justification of reservation and that justification should be taught to others. Reservation is being seen as a cakewalk, an easy thing, a backdoor entry for undeserving students.

That attitude has to be changed. The teaching community should realise it first. Only then can they teach it to the students. I don’t think the teaching community is doing justice to this issue,” he said.

Professor PK Abdul Rahiman who heads the Centre for Islamic Studies at the University of Madras feels that the shift in the composition of students has had its own effect.

“The IITs have always been a space dominated by the socially privileged caste groups,” he told The Lede. “The affirmative action through the second Mandal changed the composition of students and provided increasing access and visibility to students from the marginalised sections. This phenomenon is recent.

It is possible that the increasing visibility of the students from the marginalised sections, including Muslims, is upsetting the dominant caste categories. This fear was openly demonstrated during the anti-reservation protests at IITs. The debates about merit and quality are manifestations of such prejudices.

In contrast, the absence of affirmative action in faculty recruitments, in the name of maintaining quality and academic standards has prevented the expansion of social diversity among the faculty. This mismatch is a serious problem,” he argued.

There are defenders of the IIT system too. “The IIT administration is well aware that they are dealing with some of the best minds in the country,” K Srinivasan, founder and chairman of Prime Point Foundation, a non-profit.

“They are careful with the students. We must remember that it takes a second to destroy a reputation but years to build one. The media and the system must be sensitive and mindful of that,” he added. Srinivasan works closely with the IITs and has been instrumental in taking their Student Parliament to Delhi.

Srinivasan says that the IITs are no ordinary college or institution because they are institutes focused on excellence. “Pressure is definitely applied on students to get the best out of them,” he said.

“Why else are IIT students so much in demand in companies abroad? It is rigorous and tough and some students may not be able to handle it.”

Debate Rages Over Professors

While Fathima’s classmates maintain that she was Professor Sudarshan Padmanabhan’s favourite student, former students of the professor say that they had faced discrimination from him.

The academia too is conflicted and divided over the allegations over the two “suicide notes” – the one naming Professor Padmanabhan and the other naming Professors Milind Brahme and Hemachandran Karah.

K Srinivasan, who has worked closely with Professor Sudarshan Padmanabhan, vouches for his academic brilliance as well as his close and warm relationship with his students.

“He has published two PhDs, he is an excellent professor, one of the most brilliant professors in the country as far as logic is concerned and he has great care for his students. Any allegation of Islamophobia is absolute rubbish. What is happening is more politics than academics,” he said.

Other professors who have shared a long relationship with Professor Brahme and Professor Karah say that they are liberal, compassionate and encourage debate in class. Professor Brahme, in fact, is an advisor for the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle.

Professor Rahiman who has known Professor Brahme for years vouches for his integrity. “Dr Milind is a very nice person, a very student friendly person. He is sensitive and committed to social issues. He has always stood for the defence of democratic rights,” he said.

The Lede repeatedly attempted to but could not reach any of the professors. Accounts from their friends show that all three academics are in a state of gloom, maybe even depression.

Back in IIT Madras, most students simply want closure. “Those whose names have been mentioned, should be interrogated and if proven guilty the institution should make sure they are supportive with whatever needs to be done,” said one student.

"It is now time to openly speak about discrimination and how to end it," says a member of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle. "Let something good come out of this terrible tragedy. Let there be no Fathimas ever again."

The Lede