As the shock of the alleged suicide of research student J Muthukrishnan permeated through the Jawaharlal Nehru University community on Tuesday, the conversation on campus shifted to the stresses faced by students, especially those from socially or economically marginalised backgrounds.
Dalit research scholar Muthukrishnan, 27, also known as Rajini Krish, was found hanging in a friend’s home in Munirka Vihar in South Delhi on March 13. Although no note was evident, the police believe that he committed suicide. Muthukrishnan’s friends said that he had been stressed, and alleged that discrimination was the reason.
Muthukrishnan was a student at the university’s Centre for Historical Studies Department, which is now facing allegations of discriminatory practices from his friends and classmates.
Discrimination at JNU?
Vijaya Ramaswamy, the centre’s chairperson, and faculty member Rajat Dutta, both addressed the allegations of discrimination at a condolence meeting for Muthukrishnan on Tuesday that was attended by students and members of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association.
“There was absolutely no discrimination of any kind,” said Ramaswamy, in response to a student who asked why “all of Krish’s [Muthukrishnan’s] classmates had supervisors but not him”.
Ramaswamy and Dutta separately went over the process for assigning advisors and supervisors at the Centre for Historical Studies Department.
“In the initial stage, no one has a supervisor,” said Ramaswamy. “They are all assigned advisors for the course-work [that students complete before working on their dissertations]. If a student is comfortable with their advisor, they continue working with them, now as supervisor for their dissertation.”
The decision to transfer to another advisor is left to the student, she said.
Unconvinced, the student, who did not share his name, countered her reply saying, “The matter [regarding a supervisor] was in limbo and he [Muthukrishnan] had even written to the Centre about this.”
Referring to the process of appointing a supervisor for research students, Dutta said that the entire faculty at the Centre decided on the matter, adding that as per protocol the exercise takes place in April. “Muthukrishnan’s application for a supervisor was in the pipeline,” said Dutta.
Ramaswamy recalled how she loved talking to Muthukrishnan in Tamil and said that she thought that he was comfortable with her. “He could have come to any of us, he could have communicated,” she said. “We do not know what went wrong.”
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According to his friends and classmates, one of the stressors Muthukrishnan faced was the fact that his fellowship took months to arrive, leaving him in penury.
Several teachers at the university are aware that like Muthukrishnan, some of their students are in precarious financial situations.
“I know of students who have been living on samosas,” said Susan Visvanathan of the Centre for the Study of Social Systems. “No one takes responsibility for these kids. Endowments should be made possible for such situations.”
Ayesha Kidwai, president of the teachers’ association, suggested that each Centre could maintain a rolling fund that students in financial difficulties could borrow from when in need. She suggested that teachers and students could put money into this fund, which they would later recover once the beneficiary was able to repay the loan. “Many of our students are running their families,” she said. “When a fellowship is not renewed for three months, that is not a small thing.”
Jawaharlal Nehru University has admission policies, put in place in the 1970s, that benefit applicants from marginalised backgrounds. However, once such students get admission, there is little support.
“We have students from very different backgrounds in the same class,” said Ajay Patnaik from the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies. “We have very progressive admission policies but at the end of a programme, we need them to make a certain grade to be allowed to stay on and join the next one. In between, we do not discuss how we will take care of them.”
One stumbling block is proficiency in English, which is the main language of instruction in all non-language courses. Research scholar Shreya Ghosh said that she has friends who were not allowed to continue to do a PhD despite being in integrated courses [five-year Master’s programmes] and doing good work on the ground “because their English was not good”.
Muthukrishnan worried about his English too, said his friends.
The teachers and students discussed the functions of the Linguistic Empowerment Cell as well as the difficulty of structuring remedial courses and the feasibility of translating all course readers at least into Hindi.
But students from marginalised backgrounds do not face barriers only in the academic space. They feel excluded from cultural spaces on campus as well, pointed out another student, who did not share his name. This student suggested that their experiences should be documented, and that teachers should make more efforts to encourage them to participate in class.
The issue of mental health also came up.
As teachers discussed the merits of screening students for mental health issues for early intervention, Mohan Rao of the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, observed that the university’s present capacity to handle students with such issues is far short of what is required.
One student pointed out that counsellors at the campus health centre share space with the dentist.
“Many students here lack family support and the faculty can only do so much,” said Rao. “We need professional support.” The teachers said that their association would discuss what it could do to help later and added that it expected no help from the university’s administration.
Some students also believe that the atmosphere on campus following the arrest of students linked to the controversial February 9 Afzal Guru event last year has added to stress among students.
There was also concern that there may be others in need of support at Jawaharlal Nehru University who are not speaking up. The condolence meeting ended with the teachers’ association secretary, Pradeep Shinde telling students to encourage friends and classmates who may be facing difficulties and “isolating themselves” to seek help from teachers.