Malayalam poet ONV Kurup in his poem 'Towards Sarayu' depicts the mental torment of Ram on abandoning Sita. The poem begins with a prayer that he too be absorbed into the serene depths of Sarayu, and ends with the self-immolation of Ram by drowning. Moving from the epic theme of capturing the confessions and soliloquy of a man in power, when we come to present-day realities, what we see about Sarayu is that it is no more supremely tranquil.
From the more recent developments on the banks of Sarayu, i.e. Ayodhya and its outskirts, we find Sarayu, now shorn of its pristine brightness after flowing through the rough and tumble, has taken on a kind of ruthlessness as its face. After flowing thousands of miles further south, when it reaches southern India, the 'holy river' gets further reddened. Probably because of that, one of the 'torture room'-housing ladies hostels in IIT-Madras has been named 'Sarayu'by authorities. If Ram had shed his tears on the banks of Sarayu in a contrite monologue, the lament of the 19-year old Fathima Latheef bore a tone of protest. She courted death in room 346 of 'Sarayu' on the night of 8th November. She left this world, but not before leaving behind the cause of her death in her mobile phone, which read 'Sudarsan Padmanabhan is the cause of my death, please see my Samsung note'.
Sudarsan Padmanabhan was an assistant professor for the first year student in her integrated MA in Humanities and Development Studies. Witnesses vouch for his racial slurs on the pretext of her internal marks. After suffering the mental trauma for several days for that reason, she ended her lfe. A single line in her note "my name itself is a problem, 'vapichaa' "(father) is enough to tell that it was a virtual 'murder'. But in spite of that background, the authorities were trying to reduce her death as a mere student suicide. But under pressure of agitations, the government has been forced to transfer the case to the Central Crime Branch, Chennai.
Fathima Latheef, hailing from Kilikolloor, Kollam, had secured the first rank in the entrance test for the integrated MA courses in IIT's. One who had distinguished herself in co-curricular activities right from childhood, she however took an academic path different from what high-scoring teens usually choose – a choice she made for having an affinity with society and with a wish to work alongside them. Hence her option for sociology. However, when she landed on the campus motivated by that lofty goal four months ago, this was the way she was received by the authoritites. One wonders if this centre of higher learning - for yore nicknamed 'Iyer, Iyengar Technology' – is justifying its sobriquet once again.
It is not the first time that such incidents happen in IIT-Madras where high-caste hegemony is a hallmark of its academic and administrative set-up. Five suicides have been reported in a period of a year, and over the last five years the number is 35. Out of them, over ten are from Kerala. But authorities are not prepared to face the fact that most of those who choose the path of death are victims of caste discrimination, racial insults and Islamophobia. Instead, they tend to bracket them all under the heads of mental stress and work load. And there is an obvious machinery working to ensure that the outside world is not allowed to know whatever happens within the campus. And hence DMK leader MK Stalin called IIT a 'mystery island'.
But this is not a matter of IIT-Madras alone; most of the leading higher education centres have dark corners of mystery, as proven by instances of Rohit Vemula, Ahmed Najib and others. There have been several incidents of Dalit and Muslim minoritites going under distress in campuses. In fact getting into such portals of learning itself is a hard nut to crack for such sections. Due to anti-reservation prejudices alone, scores of students are denied admissions there. Then if a few succeed in jumping over the barbed fences of the institutions and then their fate turns out to be similar to Fathima's, the better word to describe that would not be suicide, but genocide.
The redeeming feature in the scenario is that in social media and other alternate channels, serious campaigns do happen against this genocide; the state government also made meaningful intervention. But there is something more worthy of attention: collectives of those oppressed for long like 'Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle' and BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association) have become a force to reckon with in many campuses. The hope is that the resistance movements evolving from this neo-political entities will light those who are caught in the mystery islands of 'Sarayu River'.