Before I proceed with narrating the tragic case of Delhi University’s institutional failure, I must confirm that there is possibly nothing more I can add to what is already being said. Except perhaps, putting it in the context of the larger changes in the education sector and of course, my personal experience at the “safe space” that LSR administration and few of the students are claiming it is.
I recall I was in the midst of typing out an Instagram story, a little upset with few seniors who were writing lengthy welcome posts for first-years in an odd fashion that seemed to normalise the toxic competitive atmosphere of Lady Shri Ram College for Women, when a senior approached to ask me if I had heard about a death by suicide of a fellow LSR student. I was saddened at the unfortunate news but well, she was not the first to have been failed by this educational institution, was she? There had been so many cases of students dropping out of college that the entire student community throughout the country had become indifferent to the discriminatory nature of online classes and exams.
However, the one thing that remained a cause of worry was the radio silence we received from the college administration and professors. Not a single word of condolence, not one statement addressing the tragic death of their student, let alone taking responsibility for the preventable death of Aishwarya Reddy.
The hush-hush on the issue was to ensue till we read the heart-rending final note of Aishwarya to her beloved ones. She wrote,
“Nobody is the reason for my death. Because of me there are a lot of costs being incurred at home, I am a burden to them. My education is a burden. I can not live without studying. I’ve been thinking for many days and I felt like death is the correct option for me. People will try to establish some reasons for my death but I’ve not committed any sin. Please try and ensure that the INSPIRE scholarship is at least given for a year. Everybody please forgive me. I am not a good daughter.”
These ten lines were enough to shake the dormant conscience of the otherwise elitist LSR student body. The entire fraternity was overwhelmed by a deep sense of remorse at the tragic institutional murder of one of their own, Aishwarya—a brilliant student of second-year Mathematics Honours who perhaps thought that even death was better than bearing the economic burden of online education at one of the most prestigious of Delhi University. Now, we are unitedly boycotting classes, calling it nothing less than an institutional murder because at that moment, we knew it was on us too for letting LSR be an institution that was neutral towards the political developments in the country. We wanted to break the belief of our college professors who believed that no matter what, they will see the students in lecture the next day.
In light of her suicide note that relieves everyone from the responsibility of her untimely demise, LSR, known for maintaining an indifferent stance on students’ issues, has yet again shown an unnerving apathy and has dismissed any role in the factors that compelled their student to take her own life. The top-ranking institution which boasts of a feminist crowd, claims that the suicide was an aftermath of personal issues concerning the student and that LSR has nothing to do with it. However, the question is—are we to believe their assertions?
Aishwarya, an aspiring young student with enormous potential came from a working-class family which had even mortgaged their house to sponsor their daughter’s education. For her academic brilliance in class 12th examinations, she had been awarded the INSPIRE Fellowship from the Ministry of Science and Technology which made it possible for her to dream that she could also pursue higher education. As told by her parents in an online meeting, she was particularly distressed by the fact that her parents had to discontinue the education of her younger sister to fund her education.
As happens with students coming from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, she was the only source of hope for her parents. However, the scholarship amount awarded by the Government of India was continuously being delayed, citing the pandemic as a reason. Aishwarya, who was due to receive her first instalment of the scholarship since March was disappointed with the postponement that cost her her life. While it is true that the primary responsibility of her death falls on the Government of India, it is also true that she was managing everything bravely until the pandemic thwarted the traditional mode of education. The economic burden of online education, with no support from the University, was too heavy for her to bear.
Here, it would be important to note that despite repeated requests, the college did not show any explicit support to her or any student facing financial troubles. It was under the DU administration’s watch that students were asked for their internal assessments without any flexibility with the date of submissions. Until now, we have not been given a legitimate reason for paying the full fee as neither are services of college being utilised nor are professors’ salary paid from our tuition fee.
A sense of guilt surrounds the hearts of students which is also the source of our rage against the system. We know that we have been fed with lies all these years. To those who still believe that the LSR administration was not complicit, I say we need to realise the fact that her death could have easily been averted. Had she been given a laptop and an internet connection to attend online classes and give her assignments, her parents would have been able to see her doing what she loved most—study.
We must not forget that it was the college administration which had forced its students to vacate the hostel with their bag and baggage during a life-threatening pandemic, under the pretext of preparing the hostel facility for the first-years. Those who could not get to their homes had to find expensive accommodation in Delhi, which was precisely the case with Aishwarya. Despite much opposition from students, it was LSR which had introduced the unique policy of keeping the college hostel for just the first-years.
Though the college authorities have reiterated that they have been utmost lenient with students, the recent statement of LSR Hostel Union reveals the pressure students have been put through. Further, the college which claims to be dedicated to providing a safe, inclusive space for learning to its students has paid no heed to the students’ demands regarding the excruciatingly long lectures that have taken a toll on the mental health of students as well as caused financial distress to the students’ families who find it difficult to afford expensive data packs required for online classes.
The principal has gone on record to say that the college administration is highly accessible and has indulged in a camouflaged fashion of victim-shaming by saying that the student should have approached the counsellor. I think I speak for all when I say that a vast majority of us were not even aware that our college had a counsellor. During further discussions in our General Body Meetings, we found that our college indeed had a counsellor. However, the said counsellor only comes to college for 2-3 days in a whole week and can only be approached within limited hours that align with our lecture timings.
Contrary to her statement, the LSR Student’s Union contends that based on the comprehensive surveys indicating the amount of stress the students were going through due to the online classes conducted, several letters were written to the college administration demanding that their concerns be addressed.
Talking about the elusive nature of college administration, an LSR alumnus anonymously said, “As society and department Union members, we would be standing outside her (the principal’s) office to get quick approvals, for 2-3 hours without food or rest. We spent weeks running around like this to get sanctions for big events. This tells you just how inaccessible they would be for a student who’s not in any union, and has problems on the personal front.”
While Aishwarya’s tragic note does not explicitly hold the institution accountable for her death, it is crucial to focus on the aspects that culminated in the unfortunate incident. The University’s overall disregard for students’ mental health concerns, the exclusive nature of online exams, the lack of transparency while demanding the full fee even when a pernicious pandemic is at its peak has transformed the national health emergency into a mental health crisis that has engulfed all the students.
Keeping the larger implications of their policies in mind, the University must not paint the case of LSR’s Aishwarya as an isolated incident and rather see it as a reminder to what will follow. The Delhi University and LSR administration must take full responsibility of Aishwarya’s death, disburse the entire scholarship amount owed to her with immediate effect, take serious consideration of the demands raised by students and ensure that what happened with her does not repeat.
Since the pandemic began, many student organisations such as AISA, SFI and Pinjra Tod along with the college’s Inclusive Education Committee have constantly been mailing DU administration highlighting the adverse impact of online classes and exams on the mental health of students. Yet, all the demands have fallen on deaf ears. So far, the aggrieved students have not been provided with any strong strategy to make education inclusive to those encountering internet connectivity issues and by extension, are not able to benefit from the ongoing classes on online platforms.
The movement is growing as the long-suppressed resentment of the college students is now surfacing and we should not come back with anything less than we ask for. We must wage this fight with the consciousness that the responsibility of Aishwarya’s institutional murder falls on our shoulders too as we let every incident pass by thinking of it as “the new normal”, and we must win.