Do educational institutions play a role in student suicides? The shocking suicide of Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad on Sunday, has shaken the academic community in India. The incident has also brought back into focus the long history of student suicides in some of the most prestigious institutions in the country, confronting them once again with the familiar question of culpability of and abetment by authorities.

Vemula was among the five Dalit students who were suspended by the university last year on accusations of harassing a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. As a result, on Monday, student associations across the country erupted in protest and called for a probe into the circumstances of Vemula’s death, while questioning the role of authorities in the events that unfolded.

This is not the first time that the University of Hyderabad has found itself in the centre of a controversy regarding its treatment of those from the backward minorities. In 2013, P Raju, a 21-year-old student of the Integrated MA (Linguistics), committed suicide at the university premises.

His suicide led to strong reactions from the academic community as a group of teachers came together to file a Public Interest Litigation in the Andhra Pradesh High Court in 2013 on his behalf as well as of students from other universities in Hyderabad, such as Osmania University and English and Foreign Languages University, which had seen multiple suicides in the same year.

The petition detailed systematic failures on part of the institutions in managing various pressures on students and provided a blow-by-blow account of how lack of empathy from the teachers as well as the university authorities was aggravating the situation for students.

Abetment of suicide?

While Raju had done well academically after entering the university, his grades slipped in the seventh semester, a fact finding committee had found. He reportedly also chatted with one of his friends in Australia about his depression and when she asked him to seek help, he said there was nobody in the university willing to help.

The university, meanwhile, blamed the incident on a love-affair gone wrong, even though a fact finding committee constituted soon after Raju’s death countered this suggestion. The report, which took cognisance of at least 24 reported suicides in various colleges in Hyderabad till 2013, concluded that caste and financial background of students had a strong role to play in feelings of alienation among them:

Most of these students belong to marginalised classes and communities: i.e., SC, ST, OBC and Muslims. The presence of this factor in the perception of mainstream culture is an unmitigated disadvantage to these students, who are seen as an ‘atrocious presence’, ‘irritants’ and as undeserved beneficiaries of state generosity. 

The study noted a very real rural-urban divide in the campuses and cited "lack of English skills" as an "additional handicap".

We heard several reports from our student respondents that explicit and subtle insults by teachers were not uncommon experiences in relation to English proficiency in classrooms.

The teachers were not only reported to be less than willing to walk the extra distance to help students, but also actively discouraged them:

One instance was reported where the marginalised student was described by a teacher as ‘a disaster to academics’. There seems to be very little sustained handholding and mentorship that teach students how to approach the issue of difficulty.

Administrative and policy failures

The report also found that withdrawal of existing support measures such as scholarship stipends and fellowships, promoted a sense of instability and anxiety among students from marginalised communities.

This [discontinuation of fellowships] has had a differential impact on the students: the fellowship amount, which may not be significant in comparison with a well-funded student’s mobile phone bill, would make a significant difference to the life of an economically marginalized student who is also trying to support a family which has pushed him to this stage.  

Similarly, lack of training in computers led to students from marginalised communities not doing well in online tests because of their non-familiarity with the medium. More striking was the revelation that none of the students or teachers on the campus reported any knowledge of any advisory or guidance committee where they could voice their academic problems and seek help.

“Interpreting these suicides as the expression of individual difficulties which need no systematic response is likely to have no mitigating effect on such suicides in the future,” the study concluded. “Unfortunately it seems as if the university (and this is a problem not only with the University of Hyderabad) has not been able to get over its old mental block against some of the most promising candidates of marginalised communities.”

Responding to the petition, the High Court asked the universities to implement a series of measures in an interim order dated July 1, 2013 but little has changed so far, experts point out.

Suneetha Achyuta, a Hyderabad University alumni, who works with Anvesha, a women’s and minority rights initiative, put it in perspective. “The universities were asked to implement several short term and long term measures as agreed upon by a committee constituting various eminent position holders in universities across the state including EFLU, Osmania and Hyderabad University,” she said. “There was talk of forming student support committees, internal committees to investigate matters before detaining students or suspending them but none of that seems to have happened in any place.”