Class topper in all subjects but one, IIT-Madras student kills self

Arun Janardhanan
Fathima had joined IIT-M in August.

Three days after the death of a first year IIT-Madras student, allegedly in a case of suicide, her parents on Tuesday submitted a petition to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and sought the state government’s intervention in Tamil Nadu police’s investigation of the case.

Fathima Latif, a first year student of MA, humanities and development studies (integrated), who came from Kollam, Kerala, was found hanging in her hostel room at IIT-Madras on Saturday morning. Her teachers recalled Fathima as a brilliant student and a class topper.

While the police have registered a case of unnatural death (suicide) and said that no suicide note was found, her father Abdul Latif, who has also sent petitions to the Prime Minister seeking justice, mentioned a note purportedly written in her cellphone and naming one of the teachers. “The note names a professor and stated that he [name withheld] ‘is the cause of my death’,” Latif told The Indian Express.

The cellphone is in police custody.

The professor concerned was not available for a comment.

Umakant Dash, head of humanities department at IIT-Madras, said the entire department, including students and professors, were clueless how and why she died.

Maintaining that Fathima had never said or done anything that could have been deemed as reflecting a suicidal tendency, or exhibited any psychological problem, Latif said: “There is a mystery behind this death. She told us about this professor earlier, too —- that he makes some students cry. We also have information that she used to sit and cry regularly at the mess hall around 9 every night. So we demand that the police check CCTV footage.”

Accusing the authorities of suspected foul play, he said, “After Fathima’s death, her department has suspended classes for the next 45 days, postponed their main examination in December, and asked students to stay back at home. We suspect this is to derail the probe and collection of evidence.”

He added that Fathima had scored the highest nationally in the last IIT entrance exams.

HoD Dash denied reports that classes and exams were cancelled. “Classes are being held as usual; no class was suspended. Some students in Fathima’s class requested that the internal exams scheduled for next week in some subjects be postponed, as they are yet to recover from the tragedy. We may make necessary arrangements,” he said.

Dash said he has met teachers and students and spoken to almost everyone. “We have virtually no idea about a reason for her suicide. The incident being linked to a professor was about an answer-sheet distributed last week. She had scored the highest in other subjects and came second in only his (professor’s) paper. I am told she was expecting three more marks. But scoring two or three marks fewer (out of 20) in an internal exam...is that a reason for suicide?.... It was very unfortunate,” he said.

Dash said the internal exam concerned carries 20 per cent weightage in overall scores in the semester. “I spoke to her friends - not one of them has an idea (about Fathima’s death). Police investigation is in progress. The institute will follow due procedures; we will cooperate,” the HoD said.

Dash said Fathima had joined IIT-M in August. “She had a long way to go,” he added.

Two of Fathima’s teachers said they still cannot reconcile to the fact that the student is no more. “She was the best student.... In class, she would surprise me with some books or names of authors. It’s unbelievable that she committed suicide,” a faculty member who had taught Fathima said.

Pointing out that there have been multiple cases of suicides at IIT-Madras, a senior professor said, “Students are mere victims here. They are being prepared in such a way (at the level of schools and coaching classes) that they cannot accept ‘defeat’ - they see it (exams) as war.”

A teacher who works for a prominent IIT entrance coaching centre in Chennai said, “The change should take place at the level of schools. I have a student who of Class IX, who recently broke down and told me that he hates going to school. And he is the school topper. I had to meet the parents and alert them about his severe symptoms of depression,” he said.