ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Student Deaths a National Loss

Suicides of young students from marginalised and minority sections point to a national failure.

 

The roll call of dead students, those who have been forced to take their own lives, only seems to be growing. The individual cases of suicide may be different in terms of details, but two crucial factors remain largely similar. First, a majority of these students admitted in institutions of higher learning are from marginalised castes and religious minorities. Second, their complaints and distress were neglected by institutional authorities. Some of them have become familiar names after their suicides: Anil Meena, Rohith Vemula, Senthil Kumar, Payal Tadvi, and now Fathima Latheef on 9 November. But, the list runs into thousands. According to government statements, between 2014 and 2016, a total of 26,500 students died of suicide in the country. Each left behind traumatised family members and friends. Many would have struggled desperately to deal with the stress of inhuman competitive demands for higher percentages in examination results. That as a nation we are still unable to set up mechanisms and measures to deal with complaints and cries for help is shameful.

One of the institutions that must be pointed at for its failure to play a meaningful role in the prevention of such needless loss of lives is the media. Take, for example, the suicide by three Dalit female students of a homeopathy course in January 2016 in Tamil Nadu. All three had written many complaints not only to the college chairperson, but also state authorities about being “tortured” for excess fees and abysmal living and studying facilities. In the end, the three teenagers from poor homes decided that committing suicide was the only way that their and their fellow students’ voices would be heard.

The irony is that while the media does publish eloquent and despairing suicide notes, these students are betrayed even in death. For a few days or weeks, these notes are “shared” on social media and commented upon. Then, it is business as usual. There are no efforts (except for a few honourable exceptions) to persistently follow up on the police investigation or even inquire into these suicides on their own and pressure the authorities to bring the guilty to task. In many of the cases, except for the first sensational reporting, there is no information on the status of the case.

But, even more accountable than the media are the authorities of the higher educational institutions—many of them proud of their national and international rankings—which simply ignore their own students’ plights. Most Dalit and tribal students and students from other minorities, who at great social and economic costs enter these institutions, struggle to get their bearings in unfamiliar surroundings. Usually, they, by and large, hail from non-English medium institutions, and find it difficult to follow the medium of teaching and modes of conversation with fellow students. How effective are the support structures for them, and, even if they exist structurally, how sensitive are these? There are reports on the differential treatment accorded to students from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and other marginalised sections in top medical and other institutions. It remains a mystery as to what is done with these reports and what is the mechanism to ensure that their suggestions are implemented. These include measures about external and internal assessment and evaluation, the attitude and behaviour of faculty members towards these students, election of class representatives, etc. It hardly needs to be repeated here that these students need special attention due to the overall discrimination they face in the hostels, the canteens/messes, and classrooms. There is hardly any focus on this area.

In the case of Fathima Latheef, studying in the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (IIT-M) “humanities” department, her parents have alleged that a few members of the faculty were harassing their daughter, and this had forced her to take the extreme step. The media has reported that there were five cases of suicide by students in the last one year in this institution.

The institution’s authorities have been quoted as saying that it has a counselling mechanism and a wellness centre, faculty mentors, and other measures to help those who might need it. The media has also reported that the central government is proposing to ask institutions of higher learning to set up counselling and wellness, centres. There is obviously an urgent need to go beyond such routine measures. Clearly, it is not enough to ensure either a reservation system or the hiring of counsellors. The focus has to be on finding out why institutions that are meant to foster advanced learning, rational and scientific thinking, and encourage scholarship fail students from specific backgrounds repeatedly. Why do these young students, who could be role models for others in their communities, feel that it is preferable to end it all after they have battled so many odds and difficult circumstances?

Instead of public discourses looking into dealing with such sensitive issues, the subject of interest often is that of “merit” and “quota.” Political parties representing the marginalised section and minorities are also not seen leading discussions and demanding action in terms of long-term measures, and not just knee-jerk responses.

The loss of these bright young minds and lives is a national loss. When will this form of loss be considered serious enough to take immediate measures?

 

Ed: We regret the inadvertent mention of Najeeb Ahmad's name in the first paragraph of this editorial. 

Updated On : 26th Nov, 2019

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