Umma. Chakku. Vappicha. And Thumpu. Fathima Lateef’s last words were about her parents, her family, the “only people in this entire world” who made her happy.
She was young, only 19; she was smart — she was in a humanities program at IIT Madras — and in photos her eyes smile.
But she left a clue about the pain that pushed her past the brink. It was a note on her phone, just like the message to her family, but terser, darker: a single line singling out a professor as “the cause of my death”.
Her death — her family now questions if it was indeed a suicide — has shaken students at IIT Madras, a quiet oasis of forest punctuating the bustle of Chennai’s thoroughfares. The case has also acquired political dimensions. In this story, we review how events have unfolded since Fathima was found dead on Saturday.
‘FOUND HANGING FROM CEILING FAN’
Fathima Lateef was from Kollam, Kerala, and was admitted to IIT Madras in July. She was found dead on November 9; a police official quoted by PTI says other hostel residents last saw her the previous night, and that she didn’t take her mother’s calls in the morning.
When her mother asked one of the residents to search for her, she was discovered hanging from a ceiling fan in her room, the official said.
The hostel warden told Fathima’s family what had happened.
‘THE CAUSE OF MY DEATH’
The family travelled to Chennai, where a horrifying surprise was waiting for them on Fathima’s phone, a Samsung A50.
The password had been removed, her sister Aisha said in an interview with India Today TV.
On the wallpaper of the home screen, she said, Fathima had identified a professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences as “the cause of my death”.
“Other persons” were mentioned too, she said (but it is unclear where).
“Fathima wanted the world to know that there is some solid reason behind her suicide,” Aisha said.
On November 14, the police approached the Saidapet Court to get permission to send the cellphone to the cyber cell. The aim: checking the veracity of the note.
They also questioned several people, including professors.
FAMILY SUSPECTS FOUL PLAY
Fathima’s father, Abdul Lateef, met with Tamil Nadu’s police chief on November 15.
He and other family members spoke to reporters after the meeting; they said Fathima had told her mother about harassment by the professor she mentioned in the note on the homescreen.
They said she feared the professor, and called for his arrest.
Fathima’s family said they weren’t sure if she had committed suicide or had been killed, and gave a number of details about the circumstances surrounding her death: they found her room untidy and there was no rope on the fan; she had cried in the mess and had been consoled by someone; she didn’t pick up her dried clothes even though she was normally a stickler for routine; she sent a friend to get her marksheet.
They claimed Fathima’s room had been tampered with, and that CCTV footage had been promised, but not provided.
Asked by India Today TV if Fathima had faced harrassment for her name and religion, her father Abdul said, “Yes, she was harrassed in every way.”
‘THEY WERE HIDING SOMETHING’
Fathima’s sister Aisha said a few classmates of hers kept repeating positive things about her “as if someone taught them”.
“All are covering up something. We can very much say from their fac[es], and from their gestures and actions that they are hiding something from us,” she said in her interview with India Today TV.
Aisha also ruled out poor grades as a possible cause for Fathima’s suicide.
On the contrary, Fathima was the “class topper” in all subjects and others recognised she was special even for an IITian, Aisha said.
SPECIAL TEAM TO INVESTIGATE
The case has been transferred to the Central Crime Branch, and a special team will work on the investigation.
Senior politicians, including MK Stalin, the leader of the Opposition, have commented on the case. Stalin tweeted on November 14 that the “saffronisation” of government-run institutions needed to be “checked immediately”.
There have been protests both inside and outside the IIT campus, by college students and members of political youth organisations.
IIT Madras students have asked the institute’s management to take action on multiple fronts, including by establishing a complaints committee, appointing counsellors and inviting independent experts to review students’ psychological well-being.
On November 15, IIT Madras said it was offering the police its full cooperation.