IIT Bombay Suicide: Did Authorities Fail to Act Even After Surveys Pointed to Rampant Casteism?

Although an internal probe panel linked the recent suicide of a Dalit student on the campus to academic performance, at least three surveys by SC-ST Student Cell pointed to a highly discriminative atmosphere on campus towards students from the Dalit and Adivasi communities.

Mumbai: The 12-member committee set up by the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B) to inquire into the death of 18-year-old Darshan Solanki, a first-year B.Tech student, tried to individualise the cause of his death by blaming his “poor scores”, his “aloofness” and implied that he didn’t face caste discrimination on the campus. But the several dozen testimonies of students belonging to Dalit and Adivasi communities gathered by the institute’s Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (SC-ST) Student Cell over the past year – but never made public – point to an insensitive, hostile, and highly discriminative atmosphere on campus.

The institute since 2021 December has carried out at least three different surveys and one open house for students belonging to Dalit and Adivasi communities. The reports and the raw survey data accessed by The Wire reveal a disturbing presence of both casual and direct casteism faced by students from Dalit and Adivasi communities on the Mumbai campus. After Solanki’s death by suicide on February 12 this year, the SC and ST students’ alumni groups also conducted two separate surveys on the online messaging platform WhatsApp. One of the two surveys, accessed by The Wire, too points to discrimination on campus.

The SC-ST student cell in February last year sent out questionnaires to its 2,000-odd students belonging to the SC and ST communities. Of them, 388 (i.e around 20%) responded. And among them, as many as 77 students have shared their experiences of hostility, indifference and casteism both in the hands of faculty members and fellow students on campus. Many students shared their experiences of facing casteist abuses and discrimination across residential spaces like hostels, common spaces like gymkhanas, canteens and the institute’s social media spaces.

The detailed questionnaire covers many minute aspects of discrimination. The questions cover the nature of casteism, the places where the students experience discriminative behaviour, the general perception of Savarna students towards them and how they perceive their Savarna counterparts, the use of typical casteist terms like “meritorious”/ “underserving”/ “quota students”, sharing of casteist jokes/memes/songs by both students and faculty members, and if faculty members favoured “general category” (Savarna) students, among others.

Also read: Dalit Student’s Suicide Points to Well-Known – But Ignored – Caste Discrimination in IITs

A master’s student from Jhansi, while sharing his experience on campus says, when a student from the “general category” fumbles, he/she is looked at as a clueless student. But if the same question were to be faced by him and if he fumbles, he is immediately termed as “unmeritorious”. Another student with All India Rank 2 says while he has never faced any discrimination, he has been told time and again that he has occupied a general seat. “I am told I should have rather used the reserved seat,” he testifies.

One student belonging to the Dalit community shares that his classmate once had raised doubt about one computer application on their class WhatsApp group. The student’s lack of knowledge was equated with him being from a “reserved quota” and being heckled by the group. It was later discovered that the heckled student was a Savarna.

In Solanki’s case, the inquiry committee also makes a sweeping mention of his struggle with computers. The committee, however, fails to acknowledge how a lack of skills soon takes a casteist turn on campus.

As many as 93 students shared that Savarna students openly shared casteist or anti-reservation jokes, memes, or songs on campus. At least nine others share their experiences of encountering casteist memes and jokes from faculty members. Forty-three students, a disturbingly high number, accused teachers of favouring Savarna students over them.

The survey also touched upon the sense of alienation and discomfort felt by students to reveal their caste identity on campus. As many as 34 students shared that they felt left out on campus. Close to 40 students were taunted or subjected to casteist slurs for their physical appearance or behaviour. Four students shared that they faced untouchability on campus. As many as 26 students conclude that the IIT Bombay campus is casteist in the survey.

Over the years, on persuasion from students and anti-caste groups, efforts have been made to hide entrance exam scores in most premier institutes. However, students in the survey say both Savarna students and teachers come up with different innovative ways to find out the scores of students from Dalit and Adivasi communities. Similarly, many students shared how their surnames were asked with the intention to find out their caste identities.

Even when such a glaring report was ready for over a year, it was not taken into consideration by the 12-member committee while inquiring into Solanki’s death by suicide case. It is important to point out that both the convenor of the SC-ST Student cell, Prof. Bharat Adsul, and its co-convenor, Prof. Madhu N. Belur, are also a part of the committee that inquired into Solanki’s tragic death. Also, student organisations like the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) and several individual students who were privy to the survey reports had separately highlighted the testimonies of students before the 12-member committee.

“But the committee overlooked it. And in fact, they make the same mistake that we were trying to warn them through these testimonies,” said a Ph.D. scholar, who had deposed before the committee. The committee inquiring into Solanki’s death starts with his “poor scores”, and lack of interest in academic performance. “What the committee failed to acknowledge was that an otherwise very bright student was struggling and needed support,” the Ph.D. scholar further added.

Also read: IIT-B Suicide: Probe Panel Hints at ‘Deteriorating Academic Performance’ of Student as Cause

On speaking to Solanki’s friends and classmates, the inquiry committee claims that Solanki had been aloof on campus. This, they attribute to his JEE- rank differences, (lack of) computer familiarity and language barrier. The committee, however, fails to probe into possible reasons behind Solanki’s aloofness. Instead, the committee blames Solanki for not paying enough attention to his studies. In this background, it is crucial to understand how alienation and caste- discrimination have impacted other Bahujan students on campus. The February 2022 report shows that at least 58 students experienced mental breakdowns because of the casteism they suffered on campus.

Mental health impact on the SC and ST students in IIT-Bombay

Another survey was conducted in May last year, dedicatedly to looking into the mental health status of students from SC and ST communities. This survey takes the February report ahead by focusing exclusively on the mental health issues of the SC and ST students. In this survey, of the 2,200 students from the two communities, only 134 participated.  

This survey points to the pressing need for institutional support for most participants. The students were asked a cluster of 15 questions – all focussing on the mental health state and requirements of the students in IIT- Bombay. The questions focus on a range of issues including depression, agitation, loneliness, and lack of confidence suffered by the students. This survey focussed on the mental health status of the participants over two weeks before taking the survey. While over 30% said they had gone through at least a few disturbing symptoms over that period, around 7% (around 10 students) indicates serious signs of self-harm. Another 16% (over 20 students) showed signs of severe mental health problems, the survey found.

IIT Bombay. Credit: University website

IIT Bombay. Photo: University website

The report concludes that one-fourth of the students in the institute face severe mental health problems.  The survey also found that less than 50% of students attributed their mental state to academic pressure. The rest were bothered by the atmosphere on campus.

“While talking to many students, we realised that SC/ST students prefer to hide their identity to escape the stigma of reservation. It was very significant that despite a hostile environment in IITs, 9% of students (12 students) attributed caste as a substantial reason for their mental health problems. Four students (3%) also identified professors’ casteist and discriminatory attitudes as the reason for their mental health issues,” the report finds.

The survey reveals around 21.5% feel that the English language is the main reason for mental agony, around 36% of students felt troubled due to their socio-economic background and 22% attributed their mental health issues to the cultural difference.

Testimonies before the open house

Following the two surveys, the SC-ST student cell arranged for an open house on June 29 last year, moderated by professor Sharmila of the Humanities and Social Sciences department at IIT- Bombay campus. Many students openly shared their experiences of daily casteism at the open house.

One fourth-year engineering student, at the open house, shared: “Reserved people (students from SC/ST/OBC communities) were made to feel like they don’t deserve (to be) here. They just see that reserve people lack merit. Even though many people are progressive about pride and gender when it comes to caste how many of them get the notion of caste?” The student further asked if there was any course on caste sensitisation, like the one on gender.

Another student openly shared his experience of blatant casteism at the hands of a professor. The student, in his deposition, said, “I won’t check your paper as you are a Meena (Meenas are categorised as a scheduled tribe in Rajasthan).”  

Also read: Subtly But Surely, India’s Premier Colleges Still Enforce Caste Norms. I Saw it First Hand.

One student appealed to the SC-ST student cell to reach out to more Bahujan students who were not present at the open house. “There are many people (students) in need, and they might have not come today here in the open house because of fear… fearing that their identities might get revealed, etc.,” the student said.

The Wire has sent a detailed questionnaire to the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of IIT-Bombay seeking responses as to why the institute ignored the SC-ST Students’ cell reports and why the survey results have not been made public despite demand from student organisations. The story would be updated as and when the institute responds.

Unreported cases of discrimination

Following Solanki’s death, the alumni group of IIT-Bombay conducted an informal survey on the alumni WhatsApp group. One such survey was initiated by Dheeraj Singh, an IIT Kanpur alumnus, who is mobilising IITs alumni and faculty for SC/ST welfare.

Darshan Solanki (centre) with his parents. Solanki died by suicide on February 12, 2023. Photo: Special arrangement.

Singh, who was also an ex-research staff in IIT Bombay, shared those 59 alumni and students participated in the survey initiated by him. Of them, 93% said that they experienced discrimination on the IIT-B campus but did not report it due to various reasons.

“Cases of discrimination are a common phenomenon,” Singh says. “But they go unreported because of many reasons – one of them being the lack of redressal mechanisms,” he adds. Singh says that the institute takes advantage of this structural flaw and refuses to accept the discriminative atmosphere on campus for students belonging to SC and ST castes.

Despite glaring evidence gathered by the SC-ST Student cell, in the past five years, since the cell’s inception, only two cases of caste discrimination were filed with the institute, a Ph.D. scholar shares. “The SC ST cell came into existence only in 2017. And the moment these complaints were filed, the institute tried to convince the complainants to withdraw their cases,” she adds.

Singh says that the IIT is fully seized with the real situation that there is rampant discrimination on campus in subtle forms and “is merely protecting its public image using zero complaints filed narrative,” he says. “As long as the institute is able to dodge formal complaints, they can claim there is no caste discrimination on campus. They did this after Aniket Ambhore’s death by suicide (in 2014) and now after Darshan Solanki’s death,” Singh says.