“Tomorrow is the first death anniversary of Samarveer Singh. Will you participate in it?” said a message from a student on my phone. I was shocked. Has it already been a year since Samarveer Singh, an ad-hoc professor at Delhi’s Hindu College, died by suicide? I felt ashamed that I had to make some effort to recall the date of his death.

“Where are you doing it?” I asked, expecting the memorial meeting to be held on the premises of Hindu College, where Singh had taught for more than eight years before he was arbitrarily fired.

My guess turned out to be wrong and the meeting was to be held online. Later, the organisers said that it was difficult to get a place in the college to hold the meeting. The memory of the death by suicide of an ad-hoc professor was not good for the image of the college.

Around 30-35 people attended the online meeting, four to five of them were teachers – none from Hindu College – and students from other colleges.

Were the teachers of Hindu College not aware of this meeting? Or do they not consider Singh their colleague, worthy of being at least remembered? Was it because he did not hold a permanent position? Did most of the students whom Singh taught for eight years also not know about this meeting?

At the meeting, some of Singh’s students and colleagues remembered him fondly. They talked about his passion for teaching, of his commitment to his discipline and philosophy and his concern for students outside the classroom.

While listening to them, I felt that the vice chancellor and principals of colleges should also have been present at the meeting. They should have heard the student who spoke of how college has played a crucial role in her life. It is not just about coming from a small town to the big world. She said that she was able to escape from a violent environment and that college seemed like a place where she could feel safe. How precious this feeling of safety is can only be understood by the one who could hear the trembling voice of that student.

Women students often prefer the university or college to their homes – they are safer and freer spaces. University allows them to escape the stifling environment of their homes and take a breath of freedom. They want the opportunity to continue studying further so that they do not have to go back to the same prison.

At the meeting, students also said that after they joined, they understood the real meaning of politics – different from the pedestrian sense in which the word has been used in their homes, communities and neighbourhoods. They understood how important politics was to them and why they needed to be political.

While listening to the students, I realised the importance of college teachers in their lives. It ranges from awakening interest in a subject to helping students develop self-esteem. In a sense, the role of a college teacher is even more delicate than that of a school teacher. I must have heard of countless instances where it was a college teacher who got a student interested in literature, a subject the student had reluctantly opted for.

Students also understand their teachers by being with them. Who respects them, who despises them and who is indifferent. Who wants to force his voice down their throat and who encourages them to develop their own voice, to let them blossom? Which teacher takes out time after class to have tea with students at the canteen? Of course, teachers should also publish research papers but what could be more important than these living books to which new pages are added every day?

While talking about Singh, students also remembered teachers they had met after admission. One student had not entirely figured out her subject when her teacher was fired. She was also an ad-hoc professor like Singh. These students saw and felt the humiliation of their teachers and found themselves helpless.

These teachers have been replaced by other teachers. Most students said that many of the new teachers are not interested in their subjects. They also lack the ability to teach. That is not just because of their being new but because of their incompetence. They compensate for this deficiency by humiliating the students.

Students said that under the new education policy, these teachers now control almost 40% marks as they check the internal assessments. This is dangerous because they can use it to target or selectively punish students. All this makes students miss their teachers even more.

Those students as well as their ad-hoc teachers were burdened with more work compared to teachers with permanent posts. It was evident that teachers themselves were exploiting their colleagues.

Students also expressed concern about the environment of colleges with the effect of the new education policy becoming evident. The standard of curriculum and other college programmes are deteriorating. Now, there is space in the college for only “nationalist” programmes. After all, this memorial meeting could not be held on the college premises because the death of Samarveer Singh is an inconvenient memory for the college and the university.

Samarveer Singh’s memorial service was painful yet reassuring, because of how sensitive and aware students are of their environment. Their concern for their teachers was touching. A student said he wants teachers to know that they care about them as well and that their relationship is not limited to the classroom and lessons – it is not utilitarian.

All this cannot bring back Singh, nor is it any consolation for the teachers like him who were fired after working for years. That the teachers who replaced Singh and the others lack the teaching skills of their predecessors only increases the pain of Samarveer Singh’s death.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.

Also read:

The cruelty of Delhi University’s ad-hoc teacher system