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Making of a tragedy

What should be blamed for student suicides?

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
October 14, 2011 3:55:05 am

The recent suicides in elite institutions like IITs and IIMs are worrisome and raise several questions. Due to the high-profile nature of these institutions,suicides within their precincts gain wide publicity. It is possible that there are as many or more suicides in lesser-known institutions in medical,engineering and management disciplines. Many students face immense pressure in many of these and a few succumb tragically to cutting short their lives. Each life lost is precious for parents,friends and family,teachers and institutions,and society at large. Those around are traumatised,wondering what went wrong and if some sort of timely help could have averted the worst. In most cases,institutions rarely have an open attitude towards discussing student suicides,resulting in an eclipsing of the incident,and a head-in-the-sand attitude until the next such case occurs.

According to WHO,India has one of the highest suicide rates worldwide,with about 40 per cent people who commit suicide being under the age of 30. The focus has been on farmer suicides as these have political resonance and their causes can often be traced to economic crises and government policies. The death of a farmer is often the death of a breadwinner,impacting immediately the livelihood of his or her dependants. Though youth suicides outnumber farmer suicides,little attention has been paid to the risk factors and the causes of suicide in this demographic. Attention to student suicides is paid only around board exams,when stress levels across the Indian urban middle class are high or when a student at an IIT,IIM or the AIIMS,commits suicide.

Institutions conduct internal inquiries and come up with the usual factors of stress,inability to perform,parental pressure or issues of failed personal relationships. Some observers have noted that many Dalit students have committed suicide in elite institutions,pointing a finger at stress experienced due to caste discrimination. Others point to fear of failure and dismissal once admission has been gained. No doubt,individual psychology plays a role in every case.

How does one understand the nature of suicides in such institutions? David Émile Durkheim,the French sociologist who published a classic study of suicide in 1897,argued that we must separate the surface causes or immediate provocations for a suicide from the real and deep-rooted causes. The former constitute the tipping point that sends an individual over the edge. According to Durkheim,suicide is an outcome of the individual’s relation to society. If this relation gets vitiated in an extreme way,the person falls victim to suicide. But this can happen in different ways; some individuals become too detached from society and lose their bearings,others are over-integrated with society and find rejection unbearable; yet others succumb due to anomic conditions of society — such as rapid financial or social shifts.

Indian society has been undergoing rapid change since the 1980s. As the economy began to grow and relative prosperity became an achievable goal for larger sections of society,families began to strategise to enter one or the other tier of the middle class. Not that families never strategised before,or that families in all strata do not strategise,but “planning” has become more calculated and more so with the aspiring middle class. The various sections of the middle class invest everything in their children — “concerted cultivation” — as expensive a school education as they can afford,coaching classes that easily destroy up to two years of a growing teenager’s life by denying him or her normal socialisation during these psychologically and emotionally precarious years. Admission of children to elite professional education is a dream of most middle-class Indians,and once it happens,no child is supposed to look back or wonder why s/he is there or whether it was even something they ever wanted. Indeed,the majority buy into parental aspirations and desires so completely that when asked what their topmost aspiration is,most say,“to make our parents proud”! Not to become the world’s best engineer or doctor or designer or travel the world or just be a schoolteacher or an artist or a social worker,but simply the desire to get rich,to make their families better than the neighbouring Joneses. It is at the altar of such families and parents that we have to lay the blame,not only for the suicides of those who cannot achieve parental ambitions and are afraid of disappointing them but also for the destroyed lives of many other young people.

Institutions may exacerbate the pressures on such children but they are rarely the sole culprits. At these institutes,students from a variety of caste,class and cultural backgrounds converge. They are under greater pressure. They need to adjust,but the desire to be “cool” does not easily allow thoughts of possible failure. And Indian families do not welcome back failed or recalcitrant students as much as they do not welcome back daughters after a failed marriage. According to them,they have invested too much in both.

The writer teaches sociology at IIT,Delhi,

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