Amid Protests, Central Crime Branch Takes Over IIT-M Suicide Case

Fathima Latheef’s father has alleged harassment by professors as the reason behind her killing herself. 

Updated24 Nov 2019, 09:56 AM IST
India
6 min read

The case of the alleged suicide of IIT Madras student, Fathima Latheef, has been handed over to the Central Crime Branch and will now be investigated by a special committee, said the Chennai Commissioner on Thursday, 14 November.

The 19-year-old Kollam native, who is a first-year student at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Madras, was found hanging from the ceiling fan in her hostel room in IIT Madras, on 9 November.

On Thursday, 14 November, the students submitted a petition to the institute’s director, demanding that the college set up a body of experts to look after the mental well-being of the students.

The committee will be headed by Additional Commissioner Eshwaramoothy and a few senior officers as it is quite sensitive. Megalina, Additional Deputy Commissioner of Crime against Women and Children, will be the investigating officer. “We will try our best to ensure to uncover the truth soon,” he added.

Three days after the incident, her father demanded a fair probe into the incident. He alleged that harassment and caste discrimination by the professors forced his daughter to take the extreme step. He also stated that they had retrieved a suicide note from Fathima’s phone where she allegedly blamed three professors from her department for her death.

The students of Delhi University issued a statement demanding justice for Latif and condemned the alleged casteist and religious discrimination.

Opposition Demands Time-Bound Probe

Fatima Latheef's mother spoke to local mediapersons on Wednesday night, saying she had sent her daughter to study at IIT-Madras, hoping that Tamil Nadu would be a safe place for her.

“That Sudarshan Padmanabhan only made my child no more (sic),” she added. He is one of the three professors allegedly mentioned in the suicide note.

Opposition leader MK Stalin demanded a time-bound fair, transparent and independent probe into the matter. In a statement, he stated that it was a shame to hear the victim’s mother say her daughter was belittled and subjected to stress.

“Allegations by Fathima’s mother has cast a cloud on the secular credentials of Tamil Nadu. This is a worrying trend.”
Statement from MK Stalin, DMK President

“It's time we avoid saffronisation of educational institutions,” the statement read.

AMMK Leader TTV Dhinakaran tweeted that he was saddened by the student’s alleged suicide.

“An appropriate mechanism is required to deal with such incidents at IIT and places of higher education. Counselling must be provided to students and teachers,” he tweeted.

Students Demand Swift Police Action

Students of the Tamil Nadu Youth Congress and Student Federation of India (SFI) protested outside the gates of IIT-Madras on Thursday noon, demanding justice for Fathima Latheef.

Students from the Campus Front of India (CFI) took to the streets on Wednesday evening, demanding swift action by the police.

CFI raised slogans calling for the arrest of these professors and demanded swift action by the police. Several other student organisations are also expected to hold protests outside the college campus later today.

Speaking to The Quint, her father Abdul Latheef alleged that,

“I have all the proof. A lot of professors have harassed her. We still don’t know what kind of harassment she has faced. If these teachers are arrested, we will know.”

On 9 November, Fathima’s friends noticed that she had not stepped out of her hostel room until noon and hadn’t been answering her door. Upon informing the warden, her room was broken into, to find her hanging from the ceiling fan.

The Quint reached out to Fathima’s friends and family as well as to college authorities to better understand the situation.

‘She Had Been Gloomy the Past Month’

On 9 November, Fathima’s sister Aysha and Kollam Mayor Rajendra Babu, a friend of Abdul Latheef, reached Chennai to receive her body. Abdul Latheef, at the time, was rushing to reach Kerala from Saudi Arabia.

Latheef said when Aysha switched on Fathima’s mobile phone, she found two notes mentioning the names of three professors whom she blamed for her taking the extreme step. Latheef, in a press release, said Aysha had seen the text “Sudarshan Padmanabhan is the cause of my death p.s:- check my samsung note”. Her mobile phone is in custody of Kotturpuram police.

When asked if they’d noticed any behavioural changes in Fathima, her father said, “For the last one month, she was very gloomy. Usually, she shared everything with us... but she was just really gloomy.”

Fathima’s friends and professors said that she was a brilliant student who always topped her class. “She is not just a topper in college but even in all seminars, quiz competitions... No one has excelled like her in her batch,” her father recalled.

However, he alleges it was the harassment that got to her.

“The teachers have tortured her so much. She is such a brilliant girl and she tried to tolerate a lot but she couldn’t... after some time.”
Abdul Latheef, Fathima’s Father

A Favourite Among Teachers

Fathima’s friends and professors said that she was a brilliant student who always topped her class.
Fathima’s friends and professors said that she was a brilliant student who always topped her class.
(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

Fathima’s friends and professors remember her as a remarkable student. They said they are yet unable to wrap their heads around what pushed her to take this extreme step.

“Her classmates said that she was an introverted student, very studious, very brilliant student, very energetic in class,” said a final-year student of the same stream.

Fathima’s close friend Abhish (name changed) said, “She is an absolute bright person. She was always known for her academia, she didn’t share much more than that. She was always particular about her schedule. She was very dedicated to her course, her pursuit to do very well.”

Many said they hadn’t observed any symptoms indicative of suicidal ideation or any mental-health issues.

Brushing aside allegations that professors played a role in her killing herself, the students said there was no possibility of caste-based harassment as a liberal arts department has no room for such discrimination.

“Students would often argue with Professor Sudharshan and he will invariably correct us but if Fathima said something, he would accept it at face-value. She was his favourite student and that’s why this (allegation) shocked me.”
Abhish, Fathima’s Friend

A final-year student who works closely with the counselling team said, “I understand her family’s stand, where they come from, how they could perceive this... but studying her for five years now, I can say this can’t be a case of harassment. It could be something personal.”

Once, during Logic class where they were discussing American politics, Abhish recollected how the professor had used her point to elucidate a particular topic.

“He said, ‘Like Fathima said...’ So he held her in high regard... Can’t think of a possibility of this happening.”
Abhish, Fathima’s Friend

He asserts he will take this to the highest court till justice is delivered. He said he is unhappy with the way Tamil Nadu Police is dealing with the case.

“The Kollam Mayor actually went to Chennai to receive the body, but the cops were very irresponsible. I have every conversation on record. I won’t spare anyone. I will fight till my last breath.”
Abdul Latheef, Fathima’s Father

He added that he is all the more suspicious because no professor from the institution has reached out to him since the day of the incident. Only after he began speaking out did he receive calls from them.

On Tuesday, Fathima’s parents submitted a petition to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan seeking the state government’s intervention in Tamil Nadu Police’s investigation. Her father has even written to the Prime Minister.

Police Investigating Every Possible Cause of Death

When The Quint reached out to the investigating officer at Kotturpuram Police Station, he said they were questioning teachers and students of the Department regarding all the allegations that have been raised so far.

The investigation is underway and at least 11 witnesses have been questioned thus far. An FIR has been filed under Section 174 of the Criminal Procedure Code (Police to enquire and report on suicide, etc).

When questioned about caste discrimination being a factor, he said they hadn’t picked up on anything of that sort yet.

Students Request Exams Be Postponed As They Aren’t in ‘Right State of Mind’

Her father had alleged that after Fathima’s death, the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences had suspended classes for the subsequent 45 days, postponed the exams to December and asked students to go back home. He alleged that this move by the management was to derail the probe and the collection of evidence.

However, when we checked with her batchmates, they confirmed their classes were meant to conclude on Monday in either case and the exams were to be held in the following weeks. The students have appealed to the professors to postpone the exams because ‘they are not in the right state of mind’ and ‘need time to cope with the situation.’

The Department is yet to take a call on when the exams will be held but the professors have said that they understand the situation.

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Published: 13 Nov 2019, 02:05 PM IST

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