Hold your peace forever?

24 10 2015

Some thoughts on the recent student suicides at IIT Madras, and the debate on mental health that followed.


IIT Madras had witnessed two suicides during the last couple of months. Apparently, these unfortunate incidents have no common denominators except the decision to end one’s own life. The shocks from the incidents did incite some serious discussions on mental health within the campus and among the larger stake holders, especially the alumni. As often as they turn out to be, this time too the exchanges in social media and newspaper were filled with bitterness.  I hate to say this on the eve of every major incident from the campus, but the reactions from both sides to me, appear too far fetched, although definitely not in equal terms. I fully concur with the requirement of sensitisation and debate on this matter. As pointed out in the article in ‘The Hindu’ certain gargantuan moralist fossils that have long stayed and become a rigid part of the system should be placed in the museums, from where they could be marvelled by glorious past enthusiasts at a safe distance. But having agreed on these, I do find some of the generalisations in the absence of adequate data problematic. On the other hand, I find  Khap panchayats in favour of preserving the institute honour, who have time and again used this policing tactic to extinguish the scope of the debates  or attempted to put the blame squarely on people who dared to speak out, much more deplorable and offensive.

Do we have a problem?

I have read that during the period of Raj, the designated purpose of an English grammar school was to remove every bit of tenderness from young boys, so as to  prepare them to become foot soldiers for the imperial enterprise. Every other aspect of the imperial education was tied to this aim. Unsurprisingly, even sports. As the eminent writer and historian Ramachandra Guha had pointed out in his LSE lecture:

Cricket, wrote Christopher Douglas, the biographer of the controversial English cricketer Douglas Jardine, is a game that teaches its pupils to be “honest, impervious to physical pain, uncomplaining and civilised”. In the introductory words of Professor Michael Cox- it’s a game that turned “lads into chaps, chaps into men, and men into gentlemen”. These are sensibilities supremely English, and cricket, surely, the supreme English sport.

 The colonial enterprise has long withdrawn from India, but again unsurprisingly, our education system still embeds the ghost from that era. In my opinion the stout refusal to acknowledge the problem of mental health in professional education, and create workable, self evolving systems in place comes from the very idea of “ideal engineer” or “professional” who has no place for “weaknesses”. The question is not whether students of professional courses should be prepared to handle stress – both academic and personal, which all reasonable people would agree that they should be, but the kind of coping mechanisms to be promoted and systems to be put in place.  Unfortunately, the professional institutes in our country, even the elite clubs like IIT’s, have not moved far from the 70’s thinking in the western world. In short, we are at least 40 years behind the world universities in dealing with mental health issues. 

Much worse is the false sense of pride inculcated in the alumni of this exclusive club, who more often than not, are completely privilege blind so much so as to attribute their superhuman qualities to their success, as against a realistic assessment. The problem with the IIT system, in my opinion, is that very often otherwise competent people, who are probably less strong mentally or have different requirements, get crushed under the weight of the system. And since we do not have to talk about them most of the time, all is well and hallelujah! This survivorship bias, unfortunately, has become the hallmark of the dominant discourse, and this is very much a part of the problem.

The Academic part

In my opinion, the root of the problem is not the competitive nature of the programme. Of course, I do believe that relative grading is not a very good idea under most circumstances. Even software companies have started to move away from relative assessment in appraisals. Academic stress for some part is inevitable in any system, although the option for self-paced programmes and giving more electives from the third year onwards can handle some aspects of this. The extraordinary attendance requirement, though not religiously followed by every faculty, in my opinion is a total nonsense. This only helps to protect incompetent faculty members, and never students. This is also a burden shifting, wherein the important duty of an undergraduate teacher to make the subject interesting and engage the students is transferred to the students, who in the process are penalised for having bad teachers.

It is unrealistic to expect every student to perform well in any given course or project. The principle should be to positively reward the ones who do well and put effort.  The disinterested should be allowed to scrape through with an average grade, given that a certain required minimum level of conceptual understanding and/or effort is demonstrated. Very often, this required minimum is not made clear at the outset, and this lack of proper information results in frustration and unnecessary stress. The delays and extensions in the final year project have very often been the reasons for suicides during the past. IIT Madras has taken note of the issue and now has a provision to substitute B.Tech project with courses, which is a good start. In any case, I have felt that there is a certain lack of transparency in some project evaluations. This is not to make any insinuations of personal vendetta or arbitrariness as such from my part, although there have been hearsays of such nature, but only to suggest that it is certainly possible to tell students at the outset as to what is required.

The Human part

Living inside a huge campus, especially during the most vibrant as well as impressionable years of one’s life brings in the question of dealing with human relations. It is an inescapable fact that campus dwellers exist in a web of relationships from platonic friendships to romantic love of hetero or/and homo varieties. This is exactly where the system in place is so fragile and conservative. Even when there are many aware and compassionate faculty members and supportive peers, the culture of frowning and refusal to acknowledge continues. The prevailing  conservatism is  often suffocating to someone who might not have any relationship issues at all, as I have felt many a times while listening to some younger friends. Of course, IITM is still three notches above the private colleges in South, by and large, in this regard. But the more relevant question is whether one would like a national institute to be compared with pathetic moral policing ones from the state, in the same breath. I have heard from friends that the counselling and guidance unit, for all the good work they do, lack a non-judgemental approach towards relationship issues. This simple fact, if true, alienates many a people who need real help.  The alleged use of students as some sort of information gatherers or even spies, can only make things worse. In my opinion, such moves are reprehensible and displays a kind of colonial hangover.

On top of the relationship questions, there is the issue of perceptions. This is the way-too-dangerous-zone which is almost unmanageable. Particularly vulnerable are the perceptions about caste and gender. The general perception about most Dalit students by the upper caste ones is pathetically prejudiced, not to mention completely wrong. The language in which it comes out is often very covert, but the under tones are easily distinguishable. I have had personal encounters with these prejudices as a teaching assistant in a basic engineering course. The same goes about gender relations. Young men generally believe that women have it easy, quite unreasonably,  and are so cocksure about their superiority. The question of LGBT is frowned up on, and some, both from students and faculty, are openly hostile.

Personally, I know the dynamics that goes on only too well. Having graduated from an NIT (or Regional Engineering College, as it were when we had joined) a decade ago, which too had a similar mix of population and a highly skewed sex ratio, I understand the popular perceptions in such a high testosterone campus. Trust me, they are far from reality by any yard stick of reasonability! It took me a few years to realise the mistake in perceptions about gender relations and even the elephant inside the room- caste. This is as much applicable to faculty as students. I believe that given the situation, sensitisation is the only way forward. But a systematic mechanism should be in place to make sure that this is done along with the academic orientation during the first weeks of the class. In fact, it is high time that we think about coming up with a systematic regime for sensitising on  gender, sexuality and caste prejudices.

Way forward..?

To be frank, we do not, as yet, know the extend of the problem. It is beyond me to speculate about any all weather solution too. But if anything, the discussions should begin. The naysayers and honour brigade might go on with their usual businesses of personal attacks and questioning intend, but it is also important to bring them to the table. It is absolutely unfortunate that some otherwise well meaning people have interpreted the debate, to put it mildly, as a mere perception difference between Humanities students and Engineering students. Not only is this kind of tagging ludicrous, but it does show a certain inability to engage with ideas and confuse them for people. As far as I have seen, this is a peculiar IIT Madras problem, where many engineering or science students (even faculty) have an unwarranted sense of intellectual supremacy. In fact, most these supremacists do not have any clue about the questions they address any more than a commonsensical grasp, which too is often wrong.

In any case, if you ask me, the first step in the right direction is to come with a speak out campaign. As a student and while inside the institution, nobody, for no reason, should be made to hold his/her peace forever. The institutions which are supposed to handle such issues should be asked to adhere to a completely non-judgemental approach. And we certainly do not need more moral policing, even if disguised in the security and safety jargon. Every student should realise that there is no worth in suffering in silence.

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