Tragedy on coveted campus
- IISER student’s death brings into focus halted programme
SUBHANKAR CHOWDHURY AND SUBHASISH CHAUDHURI
Kalyani, May 2: The death of a penurious student on a coveted Bengal campus that draws the best science students from across the country has renewed the focus on how higher education institutes in India deal with stress linked possibly to attitudes towards the disadvantaged.
Sagar Mandal, 19, a second-year student at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Kalyani, 50km from Calcutta, was found hanging in a bathroom at the institute on Monday, the day he was supposed to write an exam on earth sciences.
When a young student dies suddenly in a premier establishment, it is bound to generate controversy, claims and counter-claims.
But two factors stood out after the death of Sagar, the son of a mason and the only person from his Majherpara village in Haringhata, less than 10km from the institute, to have made it to the IISER, an institution of national importance.
One, his relatives alleged that the boy had faced ridicule because he came from a backward class and was poor in English.
Two, sections of students and faculty said that an institutional mechanism intended at mentoring or counselling students in any kind of trouble on campus had been stopped without citing any reason a few years ago.
How the concerns of the disadvantaged and those with a sensitive disposition are addressed on campuses is a hot-button topic.
The death of Rohith Vemula, the University of Hyderabad PhD scholar who committed suicide after writing a poignant note, had prised open an unpalatable issue that was often swept under the carpet. The search for the cause behind the suicide of a young man who was chasing the dream to become a “science writer like Carl Sagan” soon became entwined in politics and the focus shifted to whether Rohith was a Dalit or not. Rohith’s family is yet to get closure.
At Kalyani, too, the effort seemed to be to nip questions in the bud.
A section of faculty requested this newspaper not to blow things out of proportion and suggested that Sagar committed suicide because of personal reasons. But another section insisted that an open debate was the only way to gauge whether systemic problems existed and, if so, how they could be fixed so that brittle minds were not driven to extreme steps. Neither section wanted to be on record.
Sagar’s brief life was an uncommon one. His father Susanta Mandal barely makes Rs 2,000 a month. For the family and its neighbours, Sagar had by gaining admission to the IISER already “achieved what none of us ever dreamt of”, Susanta told The Telegraph.
As the body of the 19-year-old reached the nondescript home in Majherpara around 4pm, most of the villagers converged there and many broke down.
His grief-stricken elder sister, Rekha Mandal, and mother Shantona Mandal accused a student of the institute of harassing him out of jealousy.
“That student who hails from an affluent family used to taunt him because Sagar came from a Scheduled Caste family. He used to mock him because he was weak in English. We suspect that he killed Sagar out of jealousy,” Rekha said.
Haringhata police have started a murder case after Susanta lodged a complaint naming three second-year students this evening.
“We have started a murder case on the basis of the complaint from the boy’s father,” said Swati Bhangalia, additional superintendent of police, Kalyani.
Some students suggested that Sagar suffered from anxiety about retaining his scholarship. He used to get a stipend of Rs 60,000 a year from the central government.
“He feared that if he under-performed in any of the exams, he might miss out on the scholarship offered by the human resource development ministry,” said a student.
But IISER director R.N. Mukherjee said: “There was no need for him to be in any depression on an academic issue because he maintained a fairly decent academic score in the semester exams.”
Mukherjee, who held a condolence meeting, said the IISER had a proper counselling system and that Sagar’s death was an isolated incident for which the institute had set up a fact-finding committee.
“We do have a proper counselling unit, which had replaced the mentorship programme. (Sagar) Mandal, however, didn’t require any counselling: neither he or anyone else on his behalf had said that he needed counselling,” Mukherjee said.
Some teachers claimed they were not aware of any professional counselling session being conducted of late.
“We don’t know for sure whether Sagar had any serious depression that required counselling. But even if he had depression, I don’t know how the institute would have come to his help, considering that it lacks a proper counselling unit,” said a faculty member who didn’t want to be named.
Until a couple of years ago, a psychiatrist used to be hired to counsel students, the teacher said. But for some inexplicable reason, this was stopped, he added.
But the first blow was the discontinuance of the mentorship programme, he said.
“Under the mentorship programme, each faculty member used to be assigned four or five students whom he was supposed to mentor in case they needed any academic or other kind of help,” said the teacher.
The teacher added that he did not know why the mentorship programme was stopped.
When the mentoring was stopped and the counselling unit was opened in August 2015, the teachers had thought that the counselling unit would do everything that was required to take care of a student needing support.
“But little did we realise that even the counselling unit would be rendered dysfunctional with the psychiatrist being told not to visit the campus any more and the dean of students himself assuming the responsibility of a counsellor,” a teacher said.
The institute said that if a student suffered from academic stress, there was a counsellor to help. If there were other psychological problems, the institute took the help of an external psychiatrist.
Asked for the names of the counsellor and the psychiatrist, registrar Joydeep Sil referred this newspaper to the dean of students’ affairs, Arindam Kundagrami. When this newspaper called him, both his numbers were switched off. Calls to the medical officer of the IISER, Somraj Gupta, did not go through.
That an element of mistrust had crept into the campus was evident from the sharp responses today. At one point, some students accused director Mukherjee of “insensitivity” for his alleged reluctance to reschedule today’s exam.
Asked if he was against rescheduling the exam in the wake of the student’s death, Mukherjee said: “It took us sometime to decide as this was a major decision. Besides, we were busy dealing with the police in the aftermath of the incident.”
Faculty members claimed Mukherjee had left for Delhi later in the day.