Death of a Student: Personal Tragedy or National Shame?

 

Asma Rasheed, K. Satyanarayana and Uma Bhrugubanda

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The suicide of Mudasir Kamran, a Kashmiri research scholar at the EFL University, Hyderabad has been described as "a personal issue" both by the university administration as well as other sections of society. Far from being so, we argue, his death is a symptom of a failure to acknowledge and respond to major shifts in higher education today. In fact, the act of naming it "personal" absolves the University as well as all of us of any responsibility for this tragic turn of events and precludes a critical reflection on the education system in India. Since 2009, sixteen new central universities have been added to the existing twenty-four. These have increased the number of students from dalit, adivasi and minority communities who are struggling to enter and persevere in the face of unwelcoming, stultified academic and administrative structures.

On the one hand, the Government has recognized the importance of supporting and nurturing groups that were hitherto excluded from educational opportunities through scholarship schemes like the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship for SC/ST students and the Maulana Azad National Fellowship for Minorities. On the other hand, this is not matched by a corresponding over-hauling of existing institutional cultures. Our universities have remain mired in older regimes of elitist, casteist and sexist thought and practice that refuse to engage with and adapt to new student needs, let alone challenges to established knowledge structures. This fact is underscored by the recent reports of a disturbingly large number of suicides by dalit students in premier institutions.

In EFLU itself, Mudasir's death is the fourth one in the last five years. The "facts" of this case have been widely reported and continue to be debated. Without repeating these, we wish to make three points—one, if Mudasir was recognized as "mentally disordered" or depressed for over two months, why was there no professional counseling offered? Though individual efforts by his supervisor and a senior faculty member were made, the situation demanded trained counselors and a support network from within the campus community. Two, if there was some form of "harassment," why was it not referred to a sexual harassment committee which would have brought in different perspectives and possible resolutions? The narrow framework of violence or deviant behavior which the Proctor and others seem to have worked with (and indeed continue to work with) reveals a chronic institutional insensitivity to "difference" in sexual orientation or even cultural expressions. Indeed, a more open atmosphere on campus where issues of friendships, relationships, sexuality, romance, rejection and harassment are discussed would surely facilitate a broader culture of tolerance and emotional support.

Three, the act of taking a Kashmiri Muslim student to a police station late at night cannot be dismissed merely as an "error of judgment." A law-and-order approach is willfully blind to the political nuances and the dynamics of some identities, such as dalits or minorities. It is reported that on coming out of the police station, Mudasir broke down inconsolably saying that this was the first time anyone from his family had ever stepped inside a police station. Given today's fraught political situation in the aftermath of the execution of Afzal Guru and the Hyderabad bomb blasts, the ramifications of involving the police and making this dispute public were very grave!

What are the consequences of simply setting up new universities or converting institutes into universities? EFL University is a case in point. It was originally set up as a language institute in 1958. Subsequently, it grew into a deemed university with teacher training and research as its primary focus. In 2007, it became a Central University when the B. A. and several other new academic programmes were introduced. In a single stroke, student population tripled and is now younger as well as more socio-economically diverse. To complicate matters, programmes specifically introduced for foreign students have also altered the dynamics of campus life. There is a serious lack of basic facilities such as water, adequate number of rooms and bathrooms as also proper food in the hostels. In addition, the lack of space for social interaction and facilities for sports or cultural activities compounds the stress and overwhelming sense of suffocation. To make matters worse, there have been no Student Council elections since 2009 and there are no elected student representatives. All of this is worsened by a stubborn refusal to reexamine hierarchies that work with easy binaries like merit/reservation, discipline/violence, intelligent/dull, hardworking/lazy.

A thorough investigation is urgently required. Firstly, to look into the incident of Mudasir Kamran and examine questions of institutional and social responsibility. Secondly, to prescribe measures to make our universities socially and culturally inclusive. More importantly, it will be our willingness to learn from such an investigation that will go a long way in making new as well as existing Central Universities truly national, democratic and egalitarian spaces. Else, we will continue to be on the brink of yet-another-tragedy not only at EFL University, but in institutions all over the country.

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Please also read related articles published recently:

The Killing Fields of Academia: by N. Sukumar & Shailaja

An open letter to the EFL Community from Teachers' Front for Justice and Democracy

Fact Finding Report on Mudasir Kamran Mallah's Death: Bahujan Intellectuals' Collective

Statement in support of the struggle for justice for Mudasir Kamran: by Struggle Committee for Justice for Mudasir

Justice for Mudasir Kamran, Munavath Sriramulu and others: EFLU Students' Struggles: by Dalit Camera Team 

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: The color of Kashmiri Blood in a Hyderabad Campus: by Achuth Ajit & Ria De

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Asma Rasheed, K. Satyanarayana and Uma Bhrugubanda are faculty members at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.

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