Are India’s Educational Institutions Failing Its Students?

On 26th November 1949, we adopted the ‘Constitution of India’; the backbone of our democracy. Our Constitution begins with a preamble that says – “We the people of India have solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic and Republic …”. 69 years later (give or take a few days) a girl killed herself because she was tyrannized by her own professor.

Fathima Lateef was a promising and amiable student. This 19-year-old aspired to be a civil servant. She was just thirteen when she realised her true zest for social service and began to work towards her dream. She topped every class and got herself enrolled in one of India’s premier colleges. Apart from being an excellent student, she was a passionate reader, and by the time she was 17 she had read almost all the classics and other popular books written from all around the globe. She had a pretty normal life. But things took a turn for the worse when she was the victim of a hate crime. This brilliant but innocent girl was traumatised by this brutality and gave up hope.

This story might seem like the backstory of a thriller. I wish it was just that. But no, this is a true story. And it could just as easily been me or you. As a student, I couldn’t bring myself to the fact that discrimination still exists in the 21st century, and that too in a prestigious college from where a legend like  A. P. J Abdul Kalam received his master’s degree. For the past few weeks, Fathima Lateef made major headlines in all the newspapers. So, I don’t want to dive deep and do a case study, but there are a few things that I feel must be said.

First, the relevance of fundamental rights in the present scenario. Fundamental rights are the building blocks of our Constitution. I’m sure most of you are aware of what Article 15 is, and according to Article 15 discrimination is prohibited in India. Discrimination against any caste, sex race, etc. is a violation of our fundamental rights. Now, it is evident that Fathima was exposed to extreme religious intolerance. Her mother, in an interview, said that even the name Fathima was a burden and cause of trouble for her. We are still stuck in an era where we judge a person’s identity by their lineage and not by their character.

Fathima Lateef is not the first person to take their life because of intolerance they faced at their educational institutions. Recently, a Muslim tribal post-graduate student Dr Payal Tadvi committed suicide due to unmerciful abuse from her fellow students. The famous Rohit Vemula case is another example. His suicide note shook the country as it said, “my birth was a fatal accident”.

It is reported that from January 2016 to June 2019 there were 23 suicides by students from the Dalit community across India’s premier institutes of learning. In 2019 alone, five students have committed suicide at the IIT Madras campus. Why is it not being taken more seriously?

There is a famous quote in a poem written by Poonthanam, “vidya kondariyendadariyade vidhwanennu nadikunnidu chilar” – some people are educated, not knowledgeable or wise, and yet pretend to be great scholars! This poem was written in the 17th century but Poonthanam’s words still ring true. In a country that is divided by language, religion, caste, etc. the least we could do is keep our educational institutions free of discrimination. 

I believe that the sole purpose of education is to enlighten young minds about the importance of treating people as equals. But, if students experience discriminatory treatment from a place which is supposed to be fair and welcoming, then what is the authenticity of our education system?

Students are the future of India, and it is imperative that they know the importance of a cast free society and the biggest sin a teacher can commit is to be biased towards their pupils. As teachers, it is their responsibility to treat all their students as equal. And if they don’t, then all their years of training and teaching go moot.

But before I sign off, I would like to tell readers who face such intolerance that you should raise your voice, stand by what is right, and remember, nobody can make you feel inferior until you allow them to. As long as the human race exists, all kinds of discrimination and prejudices will exist in society. Be proud of your ethnicity, gender, race, religion, and caste. If you are confident about who you are, then nobody can destroy you. As a patriotic citizen and as a responsible individual, it is our duty to treat everyone equally. To change the world, first, we must change ourselves.

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