It has been an unsettling couple of days in the city of Manipal, India. I use the term 'city' here very liberally however, as Manipal is more a student suburb, an elevated hamlet saturated with universities ranging from medicine to management to hospitality to engineering. The most famous of these are the Kasturba Medical College and the Manipal Institute of Technology; I was a proud student of the latter.
On the 10th of March, 21-year-old Ishan Nihalani, a second year engineering student suffered a serious head injury when he fell off the footboard of college bus on the way to class. Four days later, due to complications, he succumbed to his injuries. Immediately after this, the student council raised several issues with the director of the university, asking for disciplinary action against the reckless bus driver as well as to address the issue regarding the inadequate number of buses providing transport from the hostels to the university, a point which had been brought up repeatedly in the past. The MIT campus has banned all forms of private transport for the last 5-6 years, leaving students with only two options to get to class from their hostels - take the college bus or walk the 1.5km to 2km distance from the hostels to the classrooms. However, there are just not enough buses to accomodate all the students, a situation further exacerbated by the newly appointed director's decision to double the student intake of the college this year.
The details of what happened next are, at best, somewhat conflicting, but the consensus is that the director not only refused to acknowledge the role of the bus driver and the college in this accident, but instead laid the blame solely on the student for being late to class. If he had not been careless and had been on time, apparently, he would not have died.
This careless remark set off a riot among the student body, as grieving classmates and friends joined with agitated seniors to destroy property and then form a 2000 strong mob outside the university building, demanding the resignation of the director. Police were called in, as well as the Vice Chancellor of the university to negotiate with the student council and the director. After several hours, the Vice Chancellor appeared to the vocal mob, and announced that the director has resigned.
The video can be seen below.
It would seem unfathomable that the director of an educational institute would speak so flippantly regarding the life of one her students, but I for one am not at all surprised. Many times in my own experiences, the management and board of most large educational institutes in the Asian sub-continent view the student body as an agitated, lazy, undeserving collection of rich, spoilt children. Rarely do they see them as individuals who have specific needs and weaknesses, much less human beings eager to learn. An incident like this, no matter how innocent the victim, is immediately chalked up to negligence on the student's part, as the college does its best to wash its hands off from anything that besmirches the university's reputation, thus putting the names and jobs of the staff and faculty above the needs and rights of the students they teach.
This whole fiasco leaves me with very mixed emotions. On the one hand I'm disgusted that a person like the now former director of MIT could ever reach such an esteemed post while clearly having no connection with the student's that walk through her halls. This is not some petty revolt regarding raised hostel fees or some boycott of a campus club; this is the death of a student. But as I mentioned before, I am not at all surprised, for it seems that this sort of detachment is a prerequisite for the job. When I was in my second year, a senior had died in a car accident. When his friends approached the director at that time to inform the parents, he coldly picked up the phone in front of them, and said "Sir? Your son is dead, please come and collect the body."
On the other hand, I feel a great sense of pride in the student body at MIT. I don't condone violence or vandalism, and I have often denounced the petty protests that we had in college as being excessive (we once went on strike because the mess food wasn't tasty). But given these circumstances, I'll tell you now, I would have been right there in the middle of that crowd, chanting "Resign!" just like everyone else. I'm proud that for once, the students rallied together for a worthy cause, and for once, justice, however mediocre, was served.
We as Sri Lankans should take note of these events as well, for our universities are more famous for their protests and strikes rather than for any real academic achievements. In fact, the only times we hear of anything newsworthy from these bastions of local education is when some student is either ragged or if there is a strike by the student body. Ragging especially has only escalated in the last few years, with more students being physically and emotionally (and in some cases, sexually) abused while the perpetrators are allowed to go scot-free. No actions are taken to prevent these incidents, no one is held accountable, and the educational system of the country continues it's slow but steady decline. Somewhere, it has to stop, yet sadly the few academics who are genuine educators at heart are few and far between.
If you watched that clip, you can hear towards the end of it the vice chancellor imploring the students to please go back to class the next day, now that their demands have been met.
Wherever Ishan is, I'm sure he wishes that he could comply.