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The JNU Suicide: What We Need to Do for Our Young

Makarand R Paranjape |

Updated: March 16, 2017, 2:14 PM IST
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The JNU Suicide: What We Need to Do for Our Young
Dalit MPhil scholar J Muthukrishnan.

Holi in Jawaharlal Nehru University is always raucous, boisterous, joyous, and sometimes wild. But this year’s celebrations were tragically marred. By the evening of Monday, 13th March 2017, the heart-breaking suicide of J Muthukrishnan, a 28-year-old PhD student enrolled in the Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, cast a pall of gloom on the campus.

“Rajini Krish” as Muthukrishnan fashioned himself on Facebook, came to JNU after his MPhil at the University of Hyderabad. He had finally made it to JNU after working very hard and trying several times to gain admission. When he had been admitted, he was known to have been ecstatic. His friends and teachers at the Centre for Historical Studies knew him as a hardworking and pleasant young man.

ALSO READ | MPhil Student of JNU Allegedly commits Suicide; No Note Found, Say Police

On Monday afternoon, Muthukrishnan went to Munirka Vihar, outside the JNU campus, to meet some friends and have lunch. Hostel messes are closed in JNU for Holi, so most students go out to eat. Eyewitnesses reported that Muthukrishnan appeared depressed, but was unable properly to explain why. One of his friends said it might have had something to do with relationship issues. At any rate, he asked to lie down to rest, which his host, a South Korean, kindly arranged. Muthukrishnan went inside and locked the door.

When lunch was served a little after 2:00, his friends knocked at his door to invite him to join them. No response. Taking him to be resting, they let him be. But after another couple of hours, they felt rather uneasy. Was he all right? This time they knocked much louder. When they heard nothing, the host pushed the door back forcibly, only to see that he was hanging from the ceiling. The police were informed immediately. They arrived a little after 5:00 p.m. to find Muthukrishnan already dead.

These are the facts as we have them. A five-member team from AIIMS, led by Dr. Satish Gupta, head of Forensics, completed the post-mortem examination on Wednesday. The autopsy report put out by them rules out foul play. There were no marks of injury on Muthukrishnan’s body and the contents of his stomach were found to be normal. “Prima facie it's a case of suicide by hanging,” the report says, adding “However, it is a matter of investigation about the circumstances in which the deceased has committed suicide.”

If depression led to Muthukrishnan’s suicide, then we must face the bitter fact that it is not uncommon in our students.

Last May, a 26-year-old student killed himself in Ber Sarai, near JNU. At first, he was reported to be in a PhD at JNU, but later this was denied; he was actually enrolled at a private university. In July 2013, an undergraduate in Korean Studies, Akash, killed himself by slashing his wrist after attacking an ex-girlfriend with an axe in Room no 203, quite close to my office in the School of Language, Literature, and Culture Studies. After that shocking and gory calamity, JNU had instituted a University-wide process of informal counselling to students. A faculty member was nominated in each Centre to be available to students facing difficulties of any kind, whether academic or personal. The university also has counselling and psychiatric services at its Health Centre. Clearly, however, these mechanisms are insufficient to deal with the problems that students face.

In Muthukrishnan’s case, that he was a Dalit and Rohit Vemula’s friend led to an instant caste twist. According to the police, Muthukrishnan did not leave a suicide note. His FB posts are being used, not only student groups on campus, but even by political parties in Parliament to allege caste discrimination. They are calling for a CBI inquiry followed by stern action. But the question is against whom? What evidence do we have that Muthukrishnan was treated badly or denied justice in JNU? Or that it was terrible treatment meted out to him because of his caste that led to his suicide? How is it that the narrative of “institutional murder” began to gain ground even before the facts have been properly known, let alone established?

From reports emanating from the Centre for Historical Studies, Muthukrishnan had requested a change of supervisor. Given that the person he wished to work with, a distinguished member of the faculty close to retirement, the Modern Indian history faculty group was yet to decide to whom he would be reallocated. If there is any other further reason for his dissatisfaction or proof of any specific discrimination he faced in JNU, then it is yet to surface.

One of the problems is that many disadvantaged students are fed on ideological myths, rather than encouraged to develop real competence in their chosen fields of study. When they discover that they are misfits in the real world, which expects from them something other than what their political mentors tutored them to believe, there is a shock of disillusionment, even betrayal.

The causes of student dissatisfaction run far deeper than caste politics. Perhaps, piecemeal tinkering or insincere political one-upmanship constitute the cause rather the cure. Indian higher education, especially in the Humanities and Social Science, is in crisis. It needs thorough and wide-ranging reform and renovation. This does not, however, imply that we do not need better institutional mechanisms to identify those who need special attention or support in our universities.

In the meanwhile, the need of the hour is not to exploit Muthukrishnan’s sad demise for petty political gains. If gifted young Indian has lost his life, it is a loss to the whole nation. We must work harder to ensure that such mishaps do not recur, rather than immediately launching a divisive blame game to create further unrest, discontent, and anger. JNU is known for its sensitivity to difference; we have a tradition of inclusiveness, of reaching out to alienated and marginalised sections of society, with the latter themselves making an effort to integrate with the others. We must strengthen these traditions to make our campuses more cohesive, compassionate communities rather than hatred-mongering, deeply divided spaces.

(Editor’s Note: The author is a Professor at JNU. Views expressed are personal)

First Published: March 16, 2017, 2:14 PM IST
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