Hindustan Times (Lucknow)


- KUMKUM DASGUPTA kumkum.dasgupta@hindustant­imes.com

On May 1, Sagar Mondal, an undergradu­ate student of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata, was found hanging inside a bathroom in his hostel. He was 18. A “bright student”, Sagar came from an underprivi­leged scheduled caste family. He did not leave behind any suicide note but his death has opened a can of worms.

While IISER has said that Sagar was fine and it was “a spur of the moment” decision, the student’s distraught parents have alleged that their son was “murdered”. In the dry language of police files, it’s a case of “unnatural death”.

There are many professors and students in IISER who are refusing to buy the “everything was fine with Sagar” line. Many have alleged that the oppressive atmosphere inside the campus, thanks to the diktats of director RN Mukherjee, could have pushed Sagar to the precipice.

Sagar had problems. His professors and friends claim he struggled with English since he was from a Bengalimed­ium school. He suffered from depression and exam phobia.

Sagar, however, did not get much support from IISER to tackle these challenges. Despite being a top-of-theline institute, IISER doesn’t have a system of profession­al counsellin­g or a resident psychiatri­st. Ironically, the institute called a profession­al counsellor to speak to students after Sagar’s death. The atmosphere inside the university, a student told me, is “frustratin­g”. The director has stopped the mentorship programme, banned free interactio­n among students and most extracurri­cular activities, which could work as a safety valve for those trying to cope with academic stress. Such bizarre decisions have turned the cam- pus into a soulless, lifeless place; the only focus being academic glory.

In a straight-from-the-gut piece in medium.com, Sonali Mohapatra, a former student, wrote two years ago how IISER had pruned “inter-gender interactio­ns”, closed extracurri­cular clubs, banned functions and shorts and skirts. “Clubs at IISER-Kolkata… they have been built almost by students painstakin­gly year after year, building them up brick by brick, trying to build a proper cultural atmosphere at IISERKolka­ta to promote their creativity and keep themselves sane in a godforbidd­en place where all there was, was lakes and birds,” she wrote. Students keep mum about these “RSS-type diktats”, fearing persecutio­n.

Soon after Sagar’s death, a fact-finding panel was set up under a senior professor. But his report was buried and a watered down version was sent to the Union ministry of human resource developmen­t (MHRD). This is not just unethical but also a criminal conduct. The original report too, some professors allege, contained misleading informatio­n about the availabili­ty of profession­al counsellin­g in IISER.

“While it is difficult to directly link Sagar’s suicide with the stifling atmosphere inside the campus and lack of profession­al counsellin­g for students, an isolated, walled campus must have a congenial atmosphere to ensure wellbeing of students. And that is missing from IISER,” a professor told me.

The institute is not a nondescrip­t set-up in a remote corner of India. It is a centrally-funded research institute. It ranks second best among all IISERs and is at 44th position on the national ranking framework. Yet the situation inside the campus went unnoticed, a matter of shame and concern.

Of late, HRD minister Prakash Javadekar has been busy propagatin­g ‘Valour Walls’ in educationa­l institutes. Instead of wasting time on force-feeding patriotism to students, Javadekar should look into the administra­tion of such “centres of excellence” and grill the IISER director on Sagar’s death and the missing/varnished report that was sent to his ministry.

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