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JNU student suicide: Are Indian universities creating disenchantment in students?

Research scholar J Muthukrishnan's had harboured a dream of making it to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). His friends and associates vow that he laboured and fought hard to realise this dream. But what happened once he stepped onto the prestigious campus? Was it disillusionment with a system that never embraced him? Or did his personal struggle overpower his fight against social injustices?

Muthukrishnan's battle against institutional caste-based discrimination will now be taken up by his peers and colleagues who will demand justice, transparency and an inclusive system. How long will the movement last? It is anybody's guess. Just over a year ago, he was fighting the same fight for Dalit research scholar from University of Hyderabad (UoH) Rohith Vemula.

Not much is known about the circumstances of Muthukrishnan's death. A resident of JNU's Jhelum hostel, his body was found hanging in a room in South Delhi's Munirka area. While the student bodies claim that he was targeted for his fight for Dalit rights, the cops investigating the case said there was no suicide note found and that he was not associated with any student groups in JNU.

"He neither made any complaint to the JNU administration nor was there any complaint against him by the administration," DCP (South) Ishwar Singh told PTI on Tuesday. On Wednesday, a five-member panel of doctors from Aiims conducted the autopsy and ruled out any foul play in his death.

"Prima facie it's a case of suicide by hanging. However, it's a matter of investigation about the circumstances in which the deceased has committed suicide and abetted to suicide," the report further said.

Friends and peers say that he was feeling alienated and isolated in Delhi and was disillusioned by the university administration's way of handling student affairs. His anguished post on Facebook only reflected his state of mind. This is what he wrote on his last post:

"There is no Equality in Mphil/PhD Admission, there is no equality in viva-voce, there is only denial of equality, denying professor Sukhadeo thorat recommendation, denying Students protest places in Ad-block, denying the education of the marginal’s. When Equality is denied everything is denied."

Sunkanna Velpula, post-doctoral fellow at IIT-Bombay, knew Muthukrishnan back from their UoH days, when they both were active members of the Ambedkar Students' Association (ASA). He says that ever since Muthukrishnan came to Hyderabad, he had aspired to go to JNU and pursue his PhD there and has worked very hard for it. It was also in UoH when he became a part of ASA, started asking questions on the social construction of caste and identity politics and the history of Dalit identity. He was inspired by Rohith's work and his death pushed Muthukrishnan to become increasingly vocal about Dalit rights and caste-based discrimination. His activism and social awakening after Rohith's death found expression in a heartfelt post on his blog Daliterature which was addressed to Rohith's mother.

He wrote:

"At the same time, all the leading national institutes will be headed by people who cannot even clear the 10th standard exam. These people claim dissenters as anti-nationals and seditious. They are going to kill many Rohiths, like us, just for eating beef, for being rational, for being intellectually productive for the country. But we are the real sons of this land and after we are all killed, there will be no nation."

Vikas Kumar Moola, a PhD student, was one of his few friends in JNU. He says that in Hyderabad Muthukrishnan was part of a fraternity. He was proud of the fact that he has overcome institutional, cultural and language barriers and made friends in Hyderabad. It was Muthukrishnan's friends who had collected money and bought him a flight ticket to Delhi when he got through JNU.

Another ASA leader from UoH, Dontha Prashanth said that the university space was inclusive and encouraged dialogue and introspection. "Our personal experiences became part of a common shared narrative. We were constantly discussing and connecting our personal experiences with our social backgrounds and identities. As a result, our individual burden was reduced," he says.

In Hyderabad, his personal experiences found voice, which were expressed through blog and Facebook posts. Sunkanna says that Muthukrishnan was conscious of his lack of English-speaking and writing skills, but he was constantly improvising and his activism helped him overcome his language limitations.

After the news of his death broke, friends started sharing their experiences on Muthukrishnan's (Rajini Krish) Facebook wall. A fan of Rajinikanth and Kabali, Muthukrishnan was seen as an ambitious and spirited individual. Rupali Bansode wrote on his wall: "He enjoyed listening to music and we would often perform steps of few songs. He was crazy about food and would always ask to invite him home for dinner. He would say that he gets less time for studying. His life for 27 years was full of hardships, economically as well socially. He used to say that he wants to have better command over English, would like to go outside India for PhD, would like to write a book, so many aspirations, sometimes I would say ok Krishh enough of your talk."

Another PhD scholar from UoH, Nelson Mandela S, recalls Muthukrishnan as someone who could strike up a conversation with anyone. "He was lively and had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. He was very excited to go to JNU," he says.

Though he continued with his online posts, Muthukrishnan spent the last few months in a troubled state of mind, says Vikas Moola. In his last interaction, Prashanth says Muthukrishnan expressed that he is unable to find his feet in the new campus, in a new city.

Vikas Moola, who is also a part of Bapsa-JNU (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students' Association), says that because of Muthukrishnan's political awareness, he was constantly urged by the members of Bapsa to participate in the organisation's activities, but he refused to take part. "He used to tell me that he had struggled for five years to get into JNU and he wanted to concentrate on his academics," says Vikas. He explains that Muthukrishnan was constantly under pressure to prove himself. He sought guidance for his academics, but he never got from his classmates and the department. He confined himself to the library. Vikas feels that he was isolated for his strong opinions and activism. "He kept on telling me that macha I don't have any friends, nobody talks to me in the classroom," says Vikas. Even after Muthukrishnan's death, none of his classmates came, he adds.

Muthukrishnan's friends and family are still coming to terms with his death. His family has demanded CBI probe into his death. Delhi police have said that the student suffered from depression. "Students like Rohith, Muthukrishnan had to face personal problems to get higher education. The problems that Dalits and religious minorities face are inherited. Caste-based hierarchy and discrimination has been handed down from generation to generation. The question to ask is why Dalit scholars are not able to go ahead in institutions like JNU?" says Sunkanna.

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Updated Date: Mar 16, 2017 22:17:13 IST