The tragic death of Fathima Lathief, only 19 years old, on the IIT (Madras) campus ought to be seen as a comment on the sad state of affairs in what is touted as institutions of repute in our midst. I am not going into such disputes as to who among her teachers in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) in the huge campus where deers roam around and young boys and girls pedal their bi-cycles almost 24 hours a day led Fathima to end her life. Let me leave it to the forces to whom the investigation has been handed over.
The issue here is the way events have unfolded after the tragedy. Fathima’s father is on record that none of his late daughter’s teachers nor her classmates were there to hold his hands when he visited the campus after hearing the news. Meanwhile, the administration seems to be bothered more about its ‘image’ being tarnished with the media conducting a public trial. These, indeed, ought to be the concern for those who practise the noble calling as teachers and being one of those is what makes me write this.
The olderst department in IIT Madras
The department where Fathima had spent three months and a few more days since August 1, 2019, happened to be one of the oldest in IIT Madras. The department came into existence in 1959, the same year when IIT Madras came into being. The philosophy behind a department of humanities and social sciences in an institute of technology was unambiguous: To ensure that technological education imparted was integrated to aspects of critical thinking and thus save the nation and the society of the perils of unbraided celebration of machines.
Humayun Kabir, then Union Minister for Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs, belonged to a school that held science and technology as mere tools to build a nation that was primarily a comity of people and whose welfare ought to be its objective. Kabit happened to inaugurate the IIT Madras and aid to this came from the then West Germany. The Germans, more than any other national community then were aware of the perils that a thinking that held technology as the panacea for all ills that face the people.
They had known, by then, as much as humanity elsewhere of what the technology of unleashing poisonous gases in a closed chamber (held by the lot of inhuman men as science and technology) could do to people. And the end of the World War II after Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945 taught its lessons on the horror of such unbridled knowledge in technology.
It was, hence, not a mere fancy or a penchant for novelty that the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences came into existence alongside the various departments of technology in the sprawling campus in Madras, now Chennai.
It was not until 2006 that the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences set itself with a Master’s programme. Rather than a landmark, it was the culmination of a certain regression that overtook higher education in India and more particularly technology education. An obsession for technology and a false consciousness that technology education alone will help the nation build itself seemed to raise questions over the department’s existence in the institute.
Critical thinking and research
Thus came in the department, ‘essentially inter-disciplinary (in) nature’ and laying claims to allow students to develop an appreciation for a very diverse set of fields, including Development Studies, Economics, English Studies, Environmental Studies, History, International Relations, Philosophy, Political Science, and Sociology; the Department of HSS, then laid out that it shall offer both Master’s and Doctoral programmes from then; and offering electives for B.Tech and M.Tech students, which hitherto was its mainstay from the time of its inception in 1959 now became its adjunct.
The Master’s programme, as is claimed, ‘encourages students to engage in critical thinking and research on ideas, people, society, environment and the human condition.’ And as anything in the world of markets demands, the department sought to reinvent itself and declare that ‘
coupled with its multi-disciplinary background, the Department boasts of a highly qualified and experienced faculty. It has an excellent student-teacher ratio, providing opportunities for academically intense learning
This, if true, ought not to have led Fathima to kill herself after being there in the institute for a little over three months. With a faculty strength of 37 (as it emerges from the institute’s website) and where the institute admits only 52 students in all every year for the MA programme in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, the teachers did not have to be rocket scientists (if that holds the ultimate in the field of knowledge!) to fathom the mind of 19-year-old Fathima. That they failed to is mere understatement.
They too contributed to the trauma by following and plunging into the gutter where the technology educators had drowned pedagogy into: The Department of Humanities and Social Sciences too put in place a system of frequent quizzes where learning by rote and a scramble for marks became the order. If reports about the immediate context when Fathima ended her life are correct, she had disputed the marks secured in a quiz on logic (13 as given and 18 she deserved in her judgment) and the teacher concerned having been asked by the department’s head to consider her case.
Well. This, by itself, militates against critical thinking and caters to the wretched practice of learning by rote. And that too in a course on logic. Ask anyone with even a faint knowledge of pedagogy and she/he will call it idiotic and stupid and to set this regressive idea moving in the first few months of the 19 year olds who opted to join the institute to pursue higher education in Humanities and Social Sciences rather than go to another institution that does not boast any such greatness in its website as does the IIT Madras.
Fathima, then, was a victim of the rather stupid and idiotic ideas that have guided the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in IIT Madras (and let me be fair and say most such public-funded institutions have taken this path in our times) and ended up killing herself. The cause for her tragic end, then, ought to be seen from many sides and the criminal dimension to it as to whether one of her teachers or a few of her teachers were responsible is only one of it; and that will have to be left to the police to find out.
Fathima, however, was killed by a system and individuals that make the system that she was brought to live in, compete and contest such mundane things as the marks she was given by a teacher. She was killed by the insensitive members of the faculty who failed, as a collective, in their responsibility to live up to the claims they had boasted of: Of being the teachers in a department that ‘encourages students to engage in critical thinking and research on ideas, people, society, environment and the human condition.’
And the 37 ‘highly qualified and experienced faculty’ that the department boasts of and whose morale that the IIT authorities have now charged the social media with denting, a majority, cannot be absolved by a conscientious society (even if they are found innocent by police) from guilt. They ought to be pronounced guilty of not having behaved as human beings and held Abdul Latheif’s hands when he came to their campus after his daughter was killed. They were guilty even earlier than then when they failed in their duty to employ their cognitive skills to see the turmoil in the 19 years young girl’s mind. They were guilty even before that for having reduced education to quizzes, performance and for having pushed children far away from learning and into the morass of securing marks and competing with one another.
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V Krishna Ananth teaches History at Sikkim University, Gangtok. .