IIT-Madras student Fathima Latheef’s death is indeed a tragedy.
But when an entire universe of outrage peddlers, some commissioned for the purpose, come out in rampage without bothering to enquire into the ground reality, it is by definition, a farce.
When a prodigious girl with an enviable command over English, a command that unfortunately transpired to the world through what appears to be a suicide note, chose to give up her life, we call it a tragedy.
When an entire universe of outrage peddlers, some employed to do this job and others out of habit or interest, come out in rampage without bothering to enquire into the ground reality, we call it a farce.
And for once, I have to agree with that bearded, old German buried in England, the one of Judeo-Christian legacy, atheistic conviction and fantastic world view, that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
It is more painful to watch the unravelling of a farce piggybacking on a tragedy as it happens in Fathima Latheef’s suicide.
There should be no doubt that if a bright girl with a stellar academic record, Fathima Latheef, committed suicide on 8 November 2019 after just four months of class, it begs several questions.
At the same time, however harsh or unlikely they appear to be, we should pay attention and be sensitive to the concerns raised by her bereaving parents. The suspicious circumstances surrounding the death, the alleged presence of two suicide notes with different styles of writing, the manner of revealing this key evidence, possible procedural lapses from the police etc. — all make this case mired in mystery.
Hopefully, these will be cleared after the investigation by the special team constituted by the Central Crime Branch, as was announced on 14 November 2019.
The Malayalam television and social media in general were instantly populated with allegations and conspiracy theories involving harassment and Islamophobia.
Rumours like ‘Fathima was mocked at IIT Madras for practising her religion’ went like wildfire.
A statement of tremendous emotional appeal allegedly made by Fathima to her father, was floated by these groups as the proof.
A Facebook group frequented by proponents of political Islam called Right Thinkers even put it up as their profile picture.
The Indian Twitterati celebrated a death by awarding #3 in trends.
Campus Front of India and Indian National Congress conducted protest marches in front of the IIT Madras gate.
Three professors belonging to her department — Dr. Sudarshan Padmanabhan, Dr. Milind Brahme and Dr. Hemachandran Karah — were named through the alleged suicide notes.
Interestingly, they share no common ground other than having taught her for the last four months.
We do not intend to save or punish these “accused”. However, the picture that emerges through social media about the character and conduct of these people through past students of the same department is almost unanimously sober.
For instance, Pritam Majumdar, an alumnus of the department, casts doubt on the Islamophobia theory through his post. He writes:
The other professor named in the note (Hemachandran Karah) postponed his usual classes on the day after Rohith Vemula’s suicide and discussed Vemula’s suicide-note in the class because that is more apt for his class on twentieth century fiction.
Facil James, another alumnus, describes Sudarshan Padmanabhan as “one of the most coolest n supporting Profs” and Milind Brahme as a “pro left Prof and a really good teacher”.
In fact, it is noteworthy that no student or alumnus has made a statement or comment to the effect that any of these professors are likely to harass or discriminate against a student.
Some have positively denied the possibility too. We do not claim this as proof of their innocence and we should keep an open mind.
Several Muslim students and alumni of IIT Madras have come forward and rejected the Islamophobia theory put up by the social media warriors.
Biyas Muhammed, an alumnus of the department, made a post paraphrasing Fathima’s parent’s statements, which were misconstrued to generate a communal campaign and opined that,
We totally understand that the aspect of Islamophobia needs to be discussed in light of this incident, as the Family has expressed doubts in that direction. But, narrowing down the totality of the matter only to this aspect (which is not based on any account of communication from Fathima) is a dangerous mistake and has the potential to mislead us from the most pressing dimensions.
A few others like Mohammed Ajmal C (2010-2015 batch) have taken a cautious approach by admitting that while they cannot say if Islamophobia could be a reason, their personal experience suggest otherwise .
While the puerile communalisation of this tragedy went unabated with each interest group listing out their bête noire as the villain and IIT Madras as the proverbial haunted house where death awaits the noble people, the parents of the girl clarified that she did not make any statement to the effect of being discriminated, through an interview.
The father has categorically said that they are not an orthodox family and Fathima did not wear head scarf, as against a vicious campaign floated by Islamists that she was afraid of wearing hijab because of Islamophobia at IIT Madras.
If one thought that this should put an end to this manufactured social media drama, I can only say that more disappointment awaits you.
Islamists construct narratives to abet their communal politics. The fanning of the fire from within is being done by certain leftist students.
One might even wonder whether there is some industrial scale cultivation of marijuana inside IIT while reading through certain concocted academic sounding gibberish.
It looks like, rather than being interested in the truth of the matter, most of these interest groups desperately wanted the poor girl to have been discriminated against.
A research scholar at the humanities department of IIT Madras begins her note with :
... my campus is a violent space that stinks of elitism, casteism, classism and most importantly Islamophobia.
Since most of the regular sociology jargon except trans-phobia, homophobia, cis-normativism and ableism are present in a single sentence, the declaration should automatically get the status of truth as per post-modern edicts.
I’m sure that she left out sexism by oversight. She is also upset that the discussion inside the campus is moving towards mental health issues (as it should be).
I am of the opinion that scholars like these are a good substitute to the postmodernism generator bot.
As an IITian myself, I am unable to decode the nature of the weed that she was smoking though it is certain that it is some strong stuff.
In the impervious bubble of this Facebook post with 1.7K likes, she was surprisingly challenged by an alumnus of the same department, only to find herself ganged up against.
Another classic post made me question the very existence of life. Among the long list of deficiencies that the “feudal institution” of IIT Madras has, it certainly did not occur to me that “smoking zones” was an absolute requirement.
It is high time that a demand to construct smoking zones and quality brand cigarettes be made available inside all IITs, be made in front of the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The institute should send a proposal to Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) and get funds available.
The social media atmosphere surrounding this incident should give deja vu to those who had seen through the 90s era.
There was a time after the fall of the Soviet empire and the beginning of the liberalisation of the economy when the implosion of the intellectual left of Kerala was generating wave after wave.
The leftist demi-god, the then septuagenarian Noam Chomsky, was famously called as ‘an advertisement for the American imperial establishment’ by the late Marxist theoretician of the local brew, M. N. Vijayan.
Column wars in Malayalam weeklies between the mainstream, the anti-revisionists and many nondescript varieties were as much a part of the entertainment as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge.
Today, the in-fights of the so-called public intellectuals has given way to outrage activists in social media.
The cannibalism of the Left is out and open. The Leftist students or activists who have taken a relatively mature approach of not concluding the -phobias or -isms for this one time, are hunted down by their aggressive cousin sisters and brothers.
It is fun to watch members of Islamist student organisations and other identity politics groups branding more mainstream left-liberal students as ‘Sanghies’ for not shouting out Islamophobia and Brahminism as loud as they are expected to. As a hardcore Pythonian, I am reminded of this classic from Monty Python's Life of Brian.
When external parties and activists hijack issues that should be addressed internally and solutions sought, the toxicity of social media takes a toll on every one. It should also be noted that students are also slowly understanding this.
In the midst of these, another charade happens right within IIT Madras. The controversial APSC makes a post demanding, among other things, that the faculty whose name appeared as “responsible” for Fathima’s death be told to go on long leave.
The name of that faculty happened to be Dr. Sudarshan Padmanabhan, whom they associate with Hindutva, though he is more accurately a classical liberal at the centre-right.
Only hours later, when their faculty advisor, Dr. Milind’s name comes out, they tone down their demands and drop the long leave part.
How radical was that move, comrades? Apparently, one group of students conducted a protest march which involved gherao of the director, as this video proudly claims. And one wonders, when did civility become a bad virtue in my institute?
IIT Madras has already come up with a statement. Fathima’s suicide should provoke a discussion on mental health issues prevalent in IIT Madras and similar campuses.
Let it also be noted that this author does not take a stand that there have not been cases of harassment of students by faculty or their colleagues for any number of reasons including caste, religion, region, language or gender.
However, to paint a picture that all of those are the result of institutionalised discriminatory practices is not only wrong but also dishonest.
The worst kind of narrative building is the one done by insulating the creator from the burden of proof.
The kind that proclaims you guilty without trial for the mere act of expressing doubt. Throughout this social media circus, a certain kind of deliberate and shallow argumentation, for which proof cannot be asked, lest one be tagged as some horrible being, was seen as ubiquitous.
It is a political charade and in the final analysis, complete nonsense. Why do we see the same pattern being repeated time and again?
Being a realist, this author believes that nonsense is inevitable.
But as a nation, we should have a public debate to ensure that even nonsenses have an expiry date, lest our public institutions be taken on ransom by such vested interests.