On Holi, 13 March, students and teachers of Jawaharlal Nehru University were dismayed to hear of the suicide by hanging of an MPhil History student, Muthukrishnan Jeevanantham. While many discourses have come up, none of them is able to give a clear picture of what made him take the final step. On the other hand, from the information that does come up, one is able to get an idea of the harsh realities that students from backward and marginalised communities face in one of the most sheltered, progressive and tolerant-perceived spaces in the country.
The main narrative propagated is that of an institutional murder — in other words, an abetted suicide. It is here that it branches out. The Ambedkarite group of students was instinctively the first to point out Muthukrishnan’s Dalit identity, followed by Left groups. They focus on the difficulties he was facing in his department (Centre for Historical Studies – CHS) in getting the supervisor of his choice, and how isolated he felt after spending one semester in JNU. They also mention his troubles last semester in securing a hostel room and getting his fellowship money. These are stated to be due to caste discrimination. In addition, the new UGC regulations regarding making viva marks the deciding factor, and on the proposed seat cut in 2017 as well as the ban on protests at the administration building are said to have created an oppressive and authoritarian atmosphere for him on campus. The Left narrative shares many of these tropes, though it doesn’t point fingers at individual professors. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) version points fingers at solely the department. Both the ABVP and the Ambedkarites are demanding that an FIR be lodged against some professors in the department, involving charges of abetment to suicide under the SC/ST Atrocities Act – as well as their dismissal, though the latter wish to implicate the vice-chancellor (VC) in addition. The investigation is still pending.
Behind the multiple narratives coming out of Muthukrishnan’s death, lies the fact that the matter is sub-judice, and that the exact causes of his suicide/death are not known, nor exactly who it was that abetted the suicide, if so. Each group is keen on getting justice, but they differ on the main culprit with varied amounts of certainty.
What emerges out of all the political narratives is a large amount of contradictions in the politicisation of Muthukrishnan’s death. He was happy to have gotten admission in JNU after several attempts, he had finally received a hostel room, had finally received his fellowship money, he had three semesters out of four remaining in his course, and the new seat cut was not going to apply to him.
While several student leaders have descended on scavenging his Facebook profile for posts against the VC, it needs to be pointed out that his last Facebook post (denouncing inequalities in proposed JNU admission policy, something a concerned member of the student body would post generally about) was from 10 March, a full three days before his death on 13 March.
Umar Khalid and his organisation, Baso, were quick to pick up Muthukrishnan’s post to demand the resignation of the VC on this matter: "VC Jagadeesh Kumar must resign from his post, VC and administration are equally accountable and should be held responsible for the policies which have contributed immensely in creating this atmosphere and climate in the campus. The implementation of UGC Gazette was one of the immediate factors contributing to the atmosphere in the campus leading to Muthu’s suicide."
A major point of concern is that there was no suicide note recovered. A scholarly man with an interest in activism, and a comrade of Rohith Vemula – is it surprising that Muthukrishnan did not leave behind a letter. The message Muthukrishanan wanted to leave, has not been been left by him – his letter, it seems is now being written by others. His blog was last updated before coming to JNU. In an effort to not be outdone by Bahujan organisations, especially when unelected radicals were playing hardliner, one of the first to politicise the matter was the incumbent union (AISA + SFI, whose bases were eroding over the years). This had also been the case in the Najeeb incident where, despite the fact that everyone went back to their rooms and the crowd was identified, dispersed and properly cautioned of strict action, leaders within minutes of the fighting posted updates giving a personal squabble a communal colour with posts such as “Muslim student lynched in Mahi-Madavi hostel by Sanghi mob” escalating matters to involve political organisations with vested interests, duly increasing pressure on both Najeeb (who was new, and now involved in an incident inflated beyond proportion by others) and the three students he quarreled with (who were then accused of being communal agents and had to seek protection from the ABVP). The next morning, Najeeb went missing.
Responsibility of the union in first the Najeeb case, where the Students’ Union President Mohit Pandey was present on the spot (and hence responsible for ensuring the safety of a student he witnessed being attacked), signed a petition multiple times asking and later changed his statement on the issue – and now the Muthukrishnan case, where the union is attempting to appropriate him as a martyr and claiming to have been alongside him in activism — is being stealthily skirted, while the rhetoric on the part of left student leaders continues unchecked — to be revived during the next tragedy. The shadow of the same reaction by the union is visible this time as well.
Some leaders, are entirely using Muthukrishan for shadowboxing with the VC. Shehla Rashid first scolds the VC for not tweeting on the matter (“He did not dedicate a single tweet to Muthukrishnan for a full 20 hours after his death.”) and then proceeds to shame him for doing so (the JNU VC dedicated exactly 140 characters of his mental space to Muthukrishnan. Nothing more.”) – all while retweeting one’s own tirades against the VC. The certainty of detail is of note here: “The only thing that was obviously [emphasis added] killing him inside is the reality of caste injustice, the suppression of dissent in campus after campus under the Modi government's rule, the disappearance of Najeeb to which he dedicated so many posts, and the suppression of alternate narratives and alternate ideologies in JNU by the present vice-chancellor, and the overall political situation in the country.”
Further contradictions come into play. She argues, “In December 2016, a group of students belonging to various Ambedkarite organisations had tried to present a memorandum of demands related to viva-voce to the JNU vice-chancellor (also the acting chairperson of UGC at that time), an act for which they were suspended. The suspension was finally not effected, but the students continued their struggle under the banner of 'Committee of Suspended Students'. Muthukrishnan supported this struggle, as can be clearly seen from his Facebook profile…The viva component has been shown to be discriminatory through data collected over several years by the JNU students' union, and hence the demand to lower its weightage.” Making the additional charge that stopping admission assistance booths prevented students like Muthukrishanan from mingling with others serves only political interests. One – the need for parties to put up booths to attract new students one month away from elections has been one of the reasons no student organisation has agitated to simplify the admission procedure in JNU on par with universities such as Jamia and DU. Two – admission assistance booths mainly led to increased interaction with political activists, a circle an activistic person like Muthukrishnan soon enough came to engage with.
While Shehla Rashid, AISA and Co make use of Muthukrishnan and appropriating the struggles he supported, such as the Committee for Suspended Students (a struggle that the Left was not part of till extremely late), one only has to look back at how the Left was mocking those very students.
An AISA activist posted, during that time, “We have two kinds of suspended students in JNU campus: 1) Suspended students who faced massive state state crack down and got registration in High court post 9 February movement. 2) Suspended students who got smoothly registred from JNU administration but still they call themselves 'suspended students'."
So my question to the political vultures would be: if they were protesting for a rightful cause (as now you acknowledge) and were wrongfully punished (as now you say) – shouldn’t you have been glad back then, that they were able to get their suspensions revoked without going upto the High Court? Political rivalry and the rat-race to take initiative and credit for struggles has led campus politics and polticians to descend to level of being blindly anti-student. Both the left and the right communalised the Najeeb incident and appropriated the actors, even though Najeeb was not an activist, and the most of the members of the Committee for Suspended Students had no political affiliation and yet the Left tried to discredit them.
The difficulties in characterising the “culprit” spill over into difficulties in characterising the general oppressor. The VC is allegedly Sanghi, the department is allegedly nationalist, Congressi and savarna, and the student organisation establishment is savarna left — but the “murderous”s professors: one is retiring (and could not take students) and one is an OBC — and neither belong to the “nationalist” school of historiography. One of them is a Christian who had been slandered, scapegoated and witch-hunted earlier by ABVP activists, on false charges of sexual harassment and caste atrocity when he and three other wardens confronted them for an illegal fire in a hostel room during a havan ceremony (as if such a thing would happen in front of 20 colluding ABVP member witnesses) – now targeted by two ends of the political spectrum.
Some of the same people who said he was friendless and he was depressed over how he was treated at the university seem near certain that he was cheerful till the afternoon of his death. Some of the same people who are using a 3 day old Facebook post against the VC’s policies to point fingers and insist on institutional murder, are saying they knew exactly how and why he died, are using it as “evidence” to obliquely blame the department professors.
On the other hand, ABVP, an organisation whose parent party had questioned Rohith Vemula’s Dalit status, mocked his progressive views and social justice outlook as anti-national while smearing his corpse and legacy - are taking a very different line this time. In an attempt to victimise and hound out the same professor they had scapegoated before in addition to another, as well as intimidate a rather anti-administration faculty - the ABVP is shedding crocodile tears as it clings to the very principles and administrations that Rohith Vemula and Muthukrishnan.
The disenfranchising and authoritarian policies of the VC/Admin Block as oppression and the barriers, everyday practices and shortcomings of the department are two entirely different things. More than half the time the CHS faculty sides with the students against the VC and his administration. For example, when the centres were sounded out on the policy of the share of viva marks in admission policy, Professor Janaki Nair suggested reducing the viva weightage from 30 marks to 20. CHS has always stood firm when it comes to upholding deprivation points for people from backwards districts, for women and in ensuring the reserved quotas for students and faculty are duly filled. Nearly the entire CHS faculty stood with the students after the 9th February incident, stood against the UGC circular regarding making the written entrance test simply a qualifying examination, and against a proposed seat cut in admissions from 2017.
The problems in our department are several, severe and must be dealt with - a heavy focus on English, the fact that the courses are so intensive that one does not have the time to improve one’s language, the chronic inability of students from reserved categories to seem to make it into the centre under general category due to invariably scaled down viva marks, the fact that students from backward sections feel neglected, excluded, inadequate and treated second-class in one of the most elite centres in the country - a place that any student ideally ought to be proud to have studied in. Most of all the abysmal practice of giving any candidate who has cleared the written exam, some even having come from MA in CHS 1 or 2 marks out of 30 in the viva should be done away with – it is not exactly the best way to make student feel they are worth anything, especially when it’s impossible to deserve so little in the interview after having cleared the written exam. Further, the notion that students are treated on an equal footing in CHS or in JNU is easily dispelled in Jitendra Suna’s powerful account of his experiences at the centre, titled 'The Death of a Historian in Centre for Historical Studies, JNU'.
Further, as this video shows, students of CHS are being asked to shut up while political organisations and leaders from other centres decide what narrative to create and which professor to witch-hunt even as the investigation is still pending. The person making the speech in the video clearly skirts around the fact that the professor in question was retiring and had taken zero students from Muthukrishnan’s batch. Nobody in CHS would claim it is easy to get a supervisor of one’s choice – that is a problem regardless of one’s background, in fact. And every student is provided a supervisor during the duration of their course, without exception – the danger of going without a supervisor is nil – as Shehla Rashid argues, “In any case, it is not as if the guide/supervisor has to write the thesis himself/herself. A supervisor helps by asking the right questions and pointing out fatal errors”.
Everyone is demanding an investigation, but many are already pointing fingers. But truly, if it was simply the VC and a few professors, then what explains the guilt the students of CHS are feeling, how deeply shocked and troubled each and every student of CHS is of this terrible loss? Struck by the belated knowledge of the loneliness of a fellow student one used to come across in hostel, or in the reading room – who one would share a cigarette with. One grapples with wishing one should have known him better, helped him with his ordeals, assured him that he would have a supervisor regardless, informed him who was retiring, that unanswered emails were a common occurrence, that students sometimes have to be more pushy about their needs. Easy, but honest assurances, too late to come by. At the MPhil level we no longer have a class as such, with everyone off to their individual supervisors and out for research – but I remember quite well in MA how so many of us relied on each other to get through the workload and the stresses of our department. That none of us were able to support Muthukrishnan when he was new to the centre and faced exclusion, bears heavily on us, especially when many of us have readily helped others in so many instances.
Regardless of whether or not politics is behind Muthukrishnan’s death, and regardless of whether the political discourses in the aftermath are correct - Muthukrishnan’s ideas have taken a larger than life place among progressives, students and campus politics. Every student organisation is quoting his words. The Wire has published his blog post on Rohith Vemula and his mother, titled 'A Universal Mother Without A Nation'; the Thorat committee recommendations that his last Facebook post mentioned now receive as much focus from non-Ambedkarite organisations as the Nafey committee report (earlier a clear omission on the part of the Left).
The family still seeks justice, and Muthukrishanan’s suicide note is still being written by others. While it may well turn out to be an institutional murder, the investigation needs to be completed, as the culprits would vary depending on the evidence that emerges – including phone records, texts, and accounts of his University of Hyderabad friends.
The author is a research scholar at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Images Courtesy: Getty Images