The death by suicide in Telangana of a 19-year-old student of Delhi’s prestigious Lady Shri Ram College for Women has rattled the collective national conscience, casting a pall on the current state of India’s education system. The searing parting note she left behind cited financial difficulties, reportedly stemming from the non-receipt of a government-sponsored scholarship as well as the digital divide during online college classes. Read more here. The disturbing incident, which is being termed by many students an “institutional murder,” has once again blown the lid off the economic disparity, class difference, ingrained elitism, and the blind spots that exist in our country’s systems.
My own time at LSR was perhaps my first lived experience with the social issues that surround us all, but which we often choose to overlook. Every day spent within the sanctuary of those red brick walls was a lesson of my privilege; every afternoon on its sunny green lawns a caution of the entitlement I could afford to exercise; every class a masterclass in how to conflate literature and real-time issues. But above everything, the harshest reality LSR confronted me with was that the time and space I devoted to realising my privileges was the biggest privilege of them all. Many juniors, seniors, peers – crunched financially or vulnerable mentally – couldn’t afford to spend their efforts on philosophising. Against all odds, they were at LSR to study, learn, earn a top degree from a reputed place, and leave – in hopes of creating a better life for themselves, or a better world for others.
How Institutional Murder Comes Into Play
Unfortunately, the recent suicide has shown us that even that reality is a privileged one; one that keeps getting more and more unaffordable as you keep going down the class ladder. And this is where the validity of the “institutional murder” label comes into play. Who is to be held accountable for a life that was manually ended amidst poverty? The deceased herself or the institutions she was a part of? Didn’t the college and government play a hand in the breakdown of her mental state that ultimately drove her to suicide?
One has to understand that the final step wasn’t taken by the student in a vacuum. A horde of factors preceded it, indicating the institutions’ role in all this – socially, politically, economically. It becomes wholly significant to examine them because that is where the clue to the reasons for a death like this lie. In this particular case, one doesn’t have to peer deep into the matter, because the student stated it in writing before ending her life.
Financial Factors Behind The Suicide
The deceased girl’s note, written in Telugu read, “Because of me my family has many expenses, I am a burden to them. My education is a burden. If I can’t study, I can’t live… Please try and ensure that the INSPIRE scholarship is at least given for a year.”
The girl was entitled to the government’s INSPIRE scholarship of Rs 1.2 lakh for her exemplary results in class XII, but the receipt of the amount had been delayed. The family had mortgaged their Telangana house to fund her education at LSR, where she was staying at the college hostel. Exacerbating her financial difficulties, students had been asked to evacuate their hostel rooms, which are now reserved only for first-year students.
Additionally, the college (like most others in the country) had been conducting online classes that required the use of a digital device, something the deceased’s family was ill-equipped to procure for her. To afford her education, the family reportedly had to even stop sending their younger daughter to school.
Why Is The Education System So Inaccessible?
With all these facts laid bare, acute mental stress and guilt of being a burden to her parents are but justified outcomes. So can it ever be the deceased’s fault? Would it be fair to argue that she should have maintained stronger grit of mind – for her own sake, for her family’s sake – and soldiered on despite the poverty? No, these arguments are, in every which way, morally, medically, ethically corrupt.
The girl wasn’t a victim of her own life. She was a victim of the social structures, economic hierarchy, and central institutions that bound her to an inconvenient education. Online classes, laptops, study loans, PG facilities instead of hostels – the divide in our systems does not account for economically-weak students. Blanket measures have been introduced to keep schools and colleges up and running during the pandemic. But why has no attention been spared to students who aren’t privileged enough to partake in it? Should the system be so inaccessible to students who desire to dream, study, and succeed?
Other Student Suicides – High Time To Change The System?
My mind can’t help but go back to Rohith Vemula’s suicide in August 2015. A case that was vastly different – in the factors that preceded it, his Dalit identity that was prominently stated in his final letter, and the conditions surrounding him – and yet so similar to the LSR case in 2020. They represent the plight of two students – unlike each other in age, gender, qualifications – but collectively failed by the institutions they were a part of.
What likens them most, perhaps, is how Vemula’s death was termed an “institutional murder,” by no less than prominent personalities, just as the LSR girl’s death is being labelled now. There have been several other similar instances, where student suicides cited educational shortcomings. The NEET student who ended her life after not receiving a hall ticket. The student who died by suicide after being shamed for non-payment of fees. If only the education system hadn’t been so flawed, so myopic.
Institutions must realise that students who can’t afford to dance to the tunes of their systems are not collateral damage that can be neglected. Education is a basic right, not a take-it-if-you-can-afford-it offer. It’s time for a change in the system. It’s time for a revolution before another young dream is quashed to death.
Views expressed are the author’s own.