Mumbai: “By the age of 18, don’t you think Darshan Solanki would have known the realities of caste?” was one of the first questions that a PhD scholar at IIT Bombay was made to confront when he deposed before the 12-member committee set up to inquire into the tragic death of the 18-year-old BTech student at the premiere institute. Befuddled, yet determined to respond pragmatically, the scholar told the committee that there is a difference between knowing one’s caste and knowing how to deal with the toxic nature of casteist discrimination. The humanities student had deposed in the capacity of a scholar and an anti-caste activist studying caste from close quarters.
Another PhD scholar, again a student of humanities and also working as a mentor to many students from Dalit and Adivasi communities, was abruptly denied the chance to finish his deposition. This scholar did not want to miss the chance of putting his views before the contentious committee and eventually submitted an elaborate written deposition.
“My intent to share narratives and experiences of SC and ST students was to make the committee aware of the extreme hostility that students face on campus. But after a 40-minute deposition, the committee told me they will call me another day for deposition. That never happened,” he said. The PhD scholar, in his written submission, mentions that several students he mentored had approached him from time to time, hoping to raise complaints of caste discrimination they were subjected to on campus. But the campus failed to provide any redressal mechanism.
The 12-member committee, headed by professor Nand Kishore, submitted its interim report last week and has implied that Solanki’s “poor academic performance” and “aloofness” could have led him to end his life, saying there was no evidence of caste discrimination. It now appears that the committee chose to overlook crucial depositions in which individuals and student organisations tried hard to bring the committee’s attention to caste-based discrimination, a sense of alienation among students from marginalised communities and the toxic state of affairs that exists in the Mumbai campus.
The Wire has accessed depositions of individuals and organisations which indicated systemic flaws that the institute has failed to acknowledge in the interim report. This report was also submitted to the parliamentary standing committee for the welfare of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SC/ST).
The Wire has sought permission from individuals and organisations before publishing excerpts from the depositions.
The PhD scholar who was denied a chance to complete his deposition writes in his written submission:
“In one year I received 5 requests of help from students. Three students wanted information regarding fellowships and financial help… Other two students complained about caste discrimination and felt uncomfortable due to the hostile environment on campus…One of them, raised serious concerns and complained about explicit caste discrimination from his classmates.”
He further explains that the student was willing to complain to the SC-ST student cell on campus. But when he found out the Cell had no clear mandate or standard procedure, he felt discouraged.
Depositions contest “no direct evidence” claim
The committee has argued that it has not found any evidence of direct caste-based discrimination against Solanki. But there are at least three persons who attested that Solanki was impacted by discrimination on campus.
One of them is an IIT-Bombay alum and also Solanki’s mentor. He, in his deposition, spoke of having met Solanki two times in November last year. Solanki, he says, had discussed the possibility of changing his room as the roommate was avoiding speaking to him after getting to know his JEE score, this witness says. “The roommate belongs to the general category and was not willing to discuss studies with Darshan,” the alum deposes, further adding that he had tried to console Solanki saying that he should not worry too much and find friends outside. The witness further adds that Solanki called him again in January, but he had missed the call. “I suppose he felt both lonely and the pressure of studies…” he says, adding that these could have been reasons behind his decision to jump from the 7th floor of his hostel building.
Solanki’s sister Jahnavi also said her brother was bothered by his peers’ unwillingness to speak to him after coming to know his JEE score. A classmate has also come forward to share his conversations with Solanki and other things that could have concerned him on campus.
Caste hostility on campus
Besides the direct witnesses, the other statements are also crucial because they reveal problems that students from marginalised communities face. Students and organisations who have invested greatly to ensure the campus addresses caste hostility with seriousness were among those to depose.
The Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) is a student organisation that has existed on campus for close to a decade. It actively works on issues concerning Bahujan students and the implementation of reservation in the selection of PhD candidates and in employment. Its hard-hitting deposition accuses the institute of not just neglecting but also being complicit in the caste hostility and discrimination faced by students from SC and ST on campus. “What we know for sure is this is an institutional issue. Let us stop looking at student suicides across campuses as isolated incidents,” the organisation writes in the deposition.
APPSC points to the lack of mental health support for the students, especially for those coming from marginalised social backgrounds. The group says they have raised this concern on multiple occasions, both with the IIT administration as well as other forums like the National Commission for SC/STs.
“In our earlier complaints regarding this issue, we have pointed out that the counsellors in IIT Bombay are not sensitized to understand the social realities of case that affect students from SC/ST/ OBC communities, rendering them inadequate to offer support or, at times, aggravating students’ troubles. There is no counsellor in the student wellness centre. Despite these efforts from our side, institute has only been choosing to either ignore the issue or downplay it,” the deposition states. “How often does this institute concern itself with the social and mental well-being of its students?” they further ask.
Another student organisation, whose name has been withheld because The Wire could not contact its members, meticulously laid down five points hinting at the “hostile environment” Solanki had to endure on campus. The inquiry committee claims Solanki was “aloof” but the student organisation has pointed to Solanki’s conversation with an alum, who categorically says Solanki was chatty and “probably the isolation he was facing in his immediate environment could have redefined him due to the unwavering fear of being judged by the peers”.
The fact that Solanki came from a humble background – his father works as a plumber and his mother is a domestic worker – could have additionally contributed to him getting isolated in the absence of any safe space where he could find belongingness, the testimony says.
As against the 16-week module, the first-year BTech semester was condensed to 14 weeks. Subtracting the weekends as well as the days (14) allocated for mid and end-semester exams, one can realise that the available time is “far less even for the professors to finish the syllabus, let alone the students to comprehend”, the deposition says. “For students, compressing the semester means needing disproportionate levels of assistance from teaching assistants (TAs). Also, students face dire need for sustained peer help from friends and seniors,” the students’ organisation points out in the deposition.
The organisation has also annexed many denigrating memes, WhatsApp conversations and posts on an informal Facebook page that used casteist slurs for students belonging to Dalit and Adivasi communities. The Wire has accessed these screenshots but due to their explicit casteist nature, is not reproducing them.
“The existing mechanisms and support systems on campus have been continuously failing the students beyond anybody’s imagination. This is evident from the anecdotes of discrimination shared by SC/ST students on campus,” the organisation states in the deposition.
“In the very first week of the PhD program, on the common CPS WhatsApp group there were group of students arguing against Babasaheb Ambedkar. It was very painful as I couldn’t respond to them because I did not know how to. It caused me a lot of distress. I felt attacked indirectly,” one student says.
A research scholar who was privy to the two crucial surveys conducted by the SC/ST student cell last year shared with The Wire that he had read out student testimonies given to the SC/ST student cell before the inquiry committee just so to ensure they can’t overlook the glaring problem any further. “These testimonies are traumatic experiences shared by students on campus – some discriminated by their roommates, a few by their faculty members. These might not be directly related to Darshan [Solanki’s suicide] but were crucial to understanding how caste operates on the IIT campus and Darshan too could have fallen prey to such viciousness,” he says. The detailed account of students given at the time of the surveys was first reported by The Wire and can be read here.
If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers they can call to speak in confidence. Icall, a counselling service run by TISS, has maintained a crowdsourced list of therapists across the country. You could also take them to the nearest hospital.