Claims and Facts
In the last few days, we have witnessed the unfolding of an event that is, in equal parts, tragic, destructive and perplexing. Fathima Latheef- a talented, promising 19-year-old, and first-year Integrated MA student of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) Department of IIT Madras- was found hanging from the ceiling fan in her hostel room on November 9, Saturday. She had joined the Department in July, ’19, and was reported to have been a class topper. Fathima was also reported to have been seen, by several staff members of her hostel Sarayu, in a state of deep distress and crying in the cafeteria the day before she died.
The family’s statements and Media narratives
Fathima’s father, Mr Abdul Latheef, works in the Middle East, where Fathima and her family had lived during her schooling years. When he was informed of the news, he quickly returned to his native town of Kollam and summoned a Press meet shortly thereafter, on Nov 12, Tuesday. On that day, he told a local Mathrubhumi News reporter that after the news of the tragedy was communicated to him, a small group of family and friends, including Fathima’s twin sister Aysha, her uncle, the Kollam Mayor, and two representatives of the Left-wing political organization DYFI, travelled to the police station in Chennai to recover her body. The father had not yet arrived from the Middle East at the time and had been unable to accompany the group.
By her father’s account, at the police station, Aysha was able to recover her sister’s cellphone, which was apparently lying unattended. Aysha later told the media that there was no password lock on the phone and that there was a message “on its wallpaper” directly and tersely accusing her teacher, Dr Sudarsan Padmanabhan of the HSS Department, for her death. The father also told the media that there were more messages in the phone, accusing two other Professors of the HSS Department, Drs. Milind Brahme and Hemachandra Karah, for her death. From alleged photographs of these messages that appeared in the media, it seems that these messages were created using the app Samsung Notes, and were dated Nov 8, Friday.
Aysha and her father also informed the media that Fathima, a bright student, was systematically “harassed” by these Professors, “in every way”, insinuating that there were religious as well as “other forms of harassment”. They recollected that Fathima was wont to complain to her family about the harsh treatment meted out to her and her classmates by these faculty members. The father further speculated that his daughter’s death was perhaps not a suicide but a murder, because he felt the authorities’ response to the crisis left much to be desired.
The statements of Police investigators
Various news reports seemed to suggest that Fathima’s cellphone was submitted to the Police soon after its discovery by her sister, and the alleged discovery of the messages. However, it is crucial to note that there has been no credible or official confirmation yet of her family’s statement that the police in Chennai were shown the messages discovered by Aysha. One source stated that Fathima’s sister Aysha had requested to take the phone from the police station, and returned it only after a significant delay of one or two days. The alleged suicide note was not mentioned to the police at the time. In fact, Aysha and her family chose instead to independently organize a press meet in Kollam on Nov 12, and speak to the media about the evidence that they claim to have discovered on the phone.
According to a report in The New Indian Express (“IIT Madras suicide: Kin of Kollam girl accuse faculty”, published 3:07 AM, Nov 13, Wednesday), a senior police officer supervising the investigation affirmed soon afterwards that “no one had access to Fathima’s phone”, and that it would be opened for forensic examination only when the father reached Chennai on Thursday, Nov 14th. The officer categorically denied that the police had seen any message on the phone, nor were aware of the allegations in the media. He dismissed the ubiquitous screenshots of her “suicide note” circulating on social media as being fake. The police also suggested, in slight contradiction to her family’s view, that they had received hints from other students that Fathima was concerned about her academic performance. On November 15, this Friday, the phone was submitted by the police for forensic examination.
Contradictions, and the aftermath
The statements issued to the media by Fathima’s family not only contradicted the later statements issued by the local police investigating the case but were accusations based on alleged evidence whose existence was later denied by the police. However, this critical inconsistency has not deterred the social media at large and highly influential Left-wing politicians of both Kerala and Tamilnadu from vastly amplifying those allegations, and screaming foul in public forums. In a matter of days, social media was rife with angry, uninformed, damaging speculations about the guilt of the three IIT faculty members named by Fathima’s family, and especially of Dr Sudarsan Padmanabhan. A source close to him revealed that he had even been delivered anonymous death threats in the wake of the allegations. The scandal was likewise traumatizing to the other accused faculty members, one of whom is differently-abled.
At first glance, we might hazard that the Latheef family have some political pull, and so were able to escalate the matter of their daughter’s death even up to the Chief Ministers of the two States in a matter of days. Their allegations were exceptionally bold, aggressive and uninhibited, even in the absence of official or other confirmation of evidence. It appears that the police have not yet received the suicide note and other messages, as of Nov 15, Saturday, and the matter is still with the forensic section at the time of writing.
Nevertheless, various media reports and politicians have been unreservedly pressing with their accusations, as though the guilt were a foregone conclusion. In particular, Left-leaning politicians of both States and biased media sources have been quick to suggest or claim that the incident was an instance of religious persecution of the Muslim student by the faculty members who were, incidentally, all upper-caste Hindus.
A grounded perspective
Dr Sudarsan Padmanabhan
In all this furore whipped up by politicians and religious organizations keen to take advantage of the opportunity to further their own agendas, there are several questions that have remained unasked. As the days pass, those silent questions grow increasingly pertinent and insistent. The most important and urgent of these questions must be about the personality and character of Dr Sudarsan Padmanabhan, who is the primary accused named by Fathima’s family, and to a lesser extent, that of his two colleagues who are also allegedly involved.
This writer has had the opportunity to converse with several IIT families and employees about Dr Padmanabhan, who is Associate Professor of Philosophy in the HSS Department. We have also been able to discuss these incidents with his family. Dr Padmanabhan has a considerable reputation in the Institute for his dedicated, effective and selfless contributions to several aspects of the Institute’s functioning. He is widely esteemed by his students and acquaintances as a reasonable, amiable, and obliging person, and a dynamic manager. Dr Padmanabhan holds two doctorate degrees in Philosophy and is in addition, a highly accomplished Carnatic musician. Like his two colleagues who were also named in the allegations, he leans toward the liberal and progressive in his intellectual positions. In fact, none who know him well can fail to be surprised that he could be accused by anyone of “Brahminical patriarchy”, and this is, if anything, even more, the case of Drs. Brahme and Karah. For example, Dr Milind Brahme, who obtained his PhD from JNU and teaches Comparative Literature and Language Studies in the HSS Department, was the faculty advisor of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a famously progressive and liberal independent student group within the IIT.
Fathima had joined her degree programme only last July. Therefore she had only been in the IIT-M campus for about four months. Her classmates remember her as a loner who mostly kept to herself, and who was used to topping her classes. A hostel mate recalled that Fathima was wont to call home several times a day and cry miserably on the phone. It was believed that she was very homesick. Dr. Padmanabhan taught her the course named Logic HS 1070 in this, her first semester on the IIT campus as an Integrated MA student. He reportedly described her as a brilliant pupil who frequently answered questions in his class. She is said to have performed very well in her presentations too. The grading system for this course is holistic and cumulative, in which presentations, class participation, exams, assignments and attendance are all taken into account in preparing the final grade.
The convention in the HSS Department is that all correspondence about class affairs is routed through a class representative and any requests from the class are also conveyed through the same channel. It is true that Fathima had an email transaction with Dr Padmanabhan on the eve of the tragedy, in which she requested her answer sheet to be re-totalled as she felt her exam score would then increase by five marks. This would have placed her at the top of her class in the test, in which a majority of students scored about 14 or 15 of 20 marks. Her teacher agreed to the request in his reply to her email. Dr. Padmanabhan is reported to have stated that apart from this single email exchange with Fathima, he has not interacted with her in any manner outside the classroom, and furthermore, to have recalled that there were never any negative interactions with Fathima at all in his memory during the few months that he taught her.
Dr Padmanabhan’s usual practice in all his courses is to hand out the question papers to the students ahead of the examination so as to reduce test anxiety. He also set extra, compensatory exams and assignments to give students a chance to perform better in the final grading system. The question paper of the midterm Logic examination was sent to all the students and in the examination, they were supposed to apply concepts taught in the first four chapters of the textbook. After the corrected midterm answer sheets were distributed this semester, he received an email from Fathima on Nov 8, 2019, at 6.12 pm, requesting a re-totalling of marks in her answer sheet. He read her email around 8.25 pm and soon afterwards, sent a reply agreeing to do so.
The real injustice
It is perhaps obvious to many, in the light of all this information, that there appears to have been no certain basis to many of the allegations that flew fast and furious in the wake of the tragedy. There was apparently no evidence produced before the authorities by the girl’s family, and the flurry of unsubstantiated accusations appear to have been mostly borne by the momentum of Left-aligned political and religious entities’ eagerness to opportunistically amplify a potential narrative of “religious persecution of Muslims by Hindus” in the very highest intellectual institutions of the country, and especially in one like IIT Madras, which has long been criticized by the Left for its demographic predominance of Brahmins. From the fact that the accusation of “Brahminical patriarchy” was hoisted onto three faculty members here who are particularly unlikely to be guilty of such offence, it is also evident that the campaign was a spontaneous or impulsive one, and ill-researched. However, this observation doesn’t yet exclude the possibility that some part of the campaign, at least, was a calculated endeavour to malign the top-ranked Eminent Institution of learning with a largely upper-caste Hindu faculty demographics.
In view of their recent irreparable loss, a most unjust twist of fate, the family of Fathima can and surely should be forgiven their lack of deference to due processes of justice, and their very public attempted character assassination of a highly respected member of society. The media, though, is gravely culpable. They are guilty of defamation through irresponsible journalism, and through pandering to sensationalism and politico-religious sentiment among the masses.
Sadly, how can we pin responsibility to a whole collective? Of the slew of articles and news reports that emerged in the aftermath of the tragedy and accusations, there were but a lamentably small number that seemed to have been written after a proper investigation, and an effort to ask the most natural and reasonable questions about the incident. Instead, it seemed that journalists and most media houses were hastening to reinforce a scandalous narrative that resonated with their own biases, even in the face of contrary evidence, and with little care for the social, emotional and professional consequences to the people that they were persecuting. Has it become acceptable in our country to name and judge an allegedly suspect individual publicly without a shred of validated evidence?
However, if we the public point one finger at the Media, we thereby also point three back at ourselves, who unquestioningly consume and trust the poor journalistic fare we are frequently fed with. It does appear that for many of us, our desire to be sensitive and empathetic and reserved in our judgement of our fellow men, has been subsumed by our eagerness to believe sensational narratives that corroborate our favourite ideological positions, confirm our fears and suspicions of the Other, or gratify our weaknesses. It is perhaps this pathological mediocrity amongst our own kind that makes it possible for the Media to get away with what it does, even profit by it.
Note: “This article has been authored by a group of concerned IIT alumni and associates of Dr Sudarsan who wish to stay anonymous