IIT suicides reveal toxic mix of academic pressure, official apathy and discrimination

Six students, three each from IITs and the NIT, died by suicide in 2023. Eight IIT students died by suicide in 2022, four in 2021 and three in 2020. Why has this been happening?
IIT-Madras  (Photo | Sunish P Surendran, EPS)
IIT-Madras (Photo | Sunish P Surendran, EPS)

V Vaipu Pushpak Sree Sai, 20, a third-year B Tech student from IIT Madras, died by suicide on March 14 in his hostel room. This was the second such incident on the campus in one month. Stephen Sunny, an MS Research Scholar, had died by suicide on February 13. A day earlier, a first-year student Darshan Solanki had died by suicide on the IIT Mumbai campus. 

In December 2021, Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan had informed the Lok Sabha that 122 students of such institutes (including IITs, IIMs, NITs, NITIEs and Central Universities) had died by suicide during 2014-21. Six students, three each from IITs and the National Institute of Technology, died by suicide in 2023. Eight IIT students died by suicide in 2022, four in 2021 and three in 2020.

Why has this been happening?

“One of the main reasons students take this extreme decision is academic pressure. Some of it is self-inflicted but a good part of it comes from professors and the administration collectively turning a blind eye to a lot of things,” says Vikram*, a student at IIT. 

“For example, we have an 85% attendance rule. If you fail to meet this requirement, you have to repeat the course. It is challenging even for people with really good mental health. And professors are arbitrary in applying the rule. Some professors care, some don't and some calculate it to the decimal level. Some classes have QR codes that you have to scan to get your attendance marked, while in other classes at least you can put in proxy (ask someone to mark it for you),” Vikram tells The New Indian Express.  

Throwing light on academic life at IIT, Mritunjay Shukla, a fourth-year student in engineering design and data sciences, tells TNIE, “You come to IIT and after a seven-day orientation, your classes start and you have to get back to quizzes, midterms and exams.”

IIT Madras has an 'intense, high-pressure environment' where students are unhealthily competitive, says Vikram, adding, “If you take all the over-achievers from various schools and put them in one place, there are bound to be conflicts.” 

“IITs have a relative-grading system. There is no absolute grading, rather the professors decide the students’ ranks based on how the class has performed. One student’s CGPA is dependent on how the rest of the class performs. This leads to students competing with each other in unhealthy ways, like withholding notes. Some of my friends are in the Electrical Engineering (EE) Department and some of them are in Engineering Physics (EP). They had a common subject in EE and the students, collectively, did not tell the EP students where the class was. We don’t have the space to say we don't care because, at a certain level, we do have to care. I am glad I am not in any of these classes and I am in humanities. It is comparatively better than engineering,” Vikram says. 
IIT administrations across India have set up counselling cells to help students deal with their mental health problems. However, these cells have not been functioning at their full capacity, say different sources. 

“The administration sets up counselling centres but it does not become accessible to students. Since there is a stigma about mental health problems among students, they have inhibitions in reaching out for help. Students get mocked by their peers if they talk about being depressed,” Shukla says. 

Criticising the IIT Madras administration’s negligence towards students’ mental health issues, Vikram says, “The counselling cell is a joke. We have three full-time counsellors for ten thousand students and people who have gone to them say that they don’t have caste and gender sensitization. Mental health support is non-existent inside the campus and expensive outside. I can survive and get the help I need because I have the privilege to do so. Not everyone in IIT Madras has that privilege.” 

Students, who don’t get the mental health assistance they need, often turn towards substance abuse, says IIT Guwahati alumnus Logesh. “Students reach out to the counsellors during the initial stage and when they find it to be fruitless, they turn towards substance abuse. There was rampant drug abuse on the Guwahati IIT campus,” he says. 

“Due to the combination of academic pressure and the administration’s indifference towards their issues, students resort to substance abuse. I know friends who have crippling anxiety issues and cannot afford to go outside to get it treated. They aren’t using it recreationally, but to self-medicate. Drug abuse is out of control at IIT Madras,” says Vikram. 

A statement issued by IIT Madras after the death of Vaipu Pushpak Sree Sai notes, “Post Covid has been a challenging environment and the Institute has been endeavouring to improve and sustain the well-being of the students/scholars, faculty and staff on campus while constantly evaluating the various support systems in place. A standing Institute Internal Inquiry Committee, including elected student representatives, which has been recently constituted will look into such incidents.”

Talking to TNIE about student suicides, C Lakshmanan, Associate Professor, MIDS, says, “Post-Covid, suicides are a phenomenon but they are a continuation of pre-Covid structural problems. Indian society has multiple structural problems, which might have been exaggerated by Covid but educational institutions neither in the past nor in the present realise their structural problems.” 

“An IIT campus can isolate you very easily. The culture inside the campus itself is very exclusive. Academia has its own problems and students with a strong social and economic background can cope with them easily, while others can’t. I come from a relatively secure background and I have had difficulties with the curriculum. I can only imagine what my peers from Tamil medium education had to go through,” says Logesh. 

Elaborating on the sociocultural environment on the campus, he says, “The college predominantly has an upper caste culture. The way students dress, the songs they listen to, the places they hang out at, how they greet each other, and what they joke about would be exclusive, making those from lower-middle-class economic backgrounds feel very alienated. Students who feel alienated would go join their linguistic groups. If they are from a Telugu-speaking background, they would find Telugu students. They go join Tamil students if they are Tamil.” 

Regionalism is prevalent among IIT students, especially when they vote during student elections, adds Shukla.

“IITs sell merchandise including T-shirts that say ‘born to be an IITian’, which I don’t understand. Doesn’t that imply people born in privileged castes have special rights to join IITs? Shouldn’t it be ‘studied to be an IITian?’ Becoming an IITian must be dependent on one’s education and not birth,” Logesh says.  

Expressing anguish over the isolation and discrimination that caused Solanki’s death, Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC), IIT Bombay, tweeted in February this year, “How many more Darshans and Anikets need to die? Our statement on the institutional murder of Darshan Solanki. We owe a collective responsibility towards the family of the deceased. As a society, as an institution, what do we celebrate and what do we marginalize?”

According to the data presented by the Education Minister, of the 122 students who died by suicide from 2014-21, 58% were from OBC, SC, ST and minority communities. Elaborating on caste discrimination on the IIT Madras campus, Vikram says, “Hypothetically, you have spheres like cultural programmes that are supposed to relieve stress. But, it does not exist in reality. For example, Saarang, our annual cultural fest, has sponsorship and public relations teams. These teams are considered to be very coveted and if you looked at the members of these teams you would see all of them having the same upper-caste, extremely wealthy, tier-one city and urban background.” 

“The interview process to get into these teams is not explicitly casteist, but you have to pass the so-called ‘vibe check’. The vibe check is being able to speak English fluently, rapidly, and idiomatically, fitting in with the tier-1 city expectations. If you don't pass the vibe check, no matter how good your ideas might be, you will not make it to the team. And there is a specific word that they use -  which is common in IIT Madras - ‘chhapri’. It is supposed to mean 'very tacky' and refers to people from tier 2 cities who don't speak English very well,” he adds. 

Talking to TNIE about casteism in educational institutions, anti-caste writer, scholar and rapper Sumeet Samos says, “One of the major causes for suicides in IITs in India is the numerical majority of upper caste students amidst whom Dalit students feel isolated. This happens mainly because of the lack of sensitisation of upper caste students as well as the lack of support systems for Dalit students. They end up feeling less, inferior, under confident navigating such spaces. To think of a solution would be difficult but a starting point should be introducing mandatory courses on caste sensitisation and providing secure spaces for Dalit students to express themselves to any grievance cells aimed at them.”

Educational institutions should reflect ground reality and since Indian society is heterogeneous, multicultural, multiregional, multilingual and multidimensional, that has to be reflected in the admissions of students and appointments of staff and faculty, says Lakshmanan.
“Elite institutions like IITs and IIMs should realise the existing structural inequalities. There are umpteen committees, reports and recommendations that already exist. For example, former University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairman Prof S K Thorat’s committee examined suicides in educational institutions and recommended measures. But, we don’t know if IITs considered these recommendations and made any changes to their existing system,” he says. 

Pointing out the administration’s neglect towards student deaths, Vikram says, “They send us the same template of emails when they have to inform us of a student’s suicide, which is really dehumanising. Suicides in IITs have become normal. One suicide is one too many. One of the students in our department, Fatima Lateef, lost her life by committing suicide. It has been four years and we are still recovering from it.” 

Emphasizing that political parties also have a role in bringing about a solution to student deaths in educational institutions, Lakshmanan says, “Political parties are the policymakers in a democracy but I don’t see any party talking about student deaths that are happening all over the country.” 

(*name changed to protect the person's identity)

Discussing suicides can be triggering for some. However, suicides are preventable. In case you feel distressed by the content or know someone in distress, call Sneha Foundation - 04424640050 (available 24x7)

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