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

Mumbai: Around 12:30 pm on February 12, Darshan Solanki, a first-year BTech student at IIT Bombay, made his regular “Sunday call” to his parents. In the video call that lasted a few minutes, Solanki shared what his day had been like and his plan to visit his friends on campus. Solanki’s father, Rameshbhai, had even transferred Rs 3,000 into his account – a rare indulgence – because the father wanted the son to enjoy a weekend outing. Less than 45 minutes later, Solanki had died by suicide.

Solanki was 18, a first-generation Dalit student, studying at India’s premier institute. His father, Rameshbhai, works as a plumber; his mother, Tarlikaben, is a domestic worker in Maninagar, Ahmedabad.

Solanki did not leave a note behind, and neither had he shared his state of mind with his family. But students at IIT Bombay, who have been closely tracking the circumstances behind his suicide, and the general alienation that Bahujan students face – more specifically those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes – say that Solanki’s death is an “institutional murder”. One alumna, who knew Solanki even before he joined IIT, has claimed on social media that the student had been struggling. The institute has now agreed to set up a committee to look into the reasons behind Solanki’s extreme decision to end his life.

Solanki joined the institute only three months ago. And that is the most crucial period when young Bahujan students need real support, a PhD scholar told The Wire. “Even before the student could introduce himself or make friends, he is asked for his JEE scores (a common entrance test to secure admissions in IITs and other engineering colleges in the country). The score gives away too much information – the student’s academic standing, caste location, their social vulnerabilities.” “You are soon negated as a “quota student”, a student undeserving of the space,” another student pursuing her MTech degree said.

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Solanki’s maternal uncle, who had accompanied his parents to Mumbai soon after they received a call from the institute’s administration, said that his parents are crestfallen. “They can’t make sense of what went wrong. How can an institute that promised a better life for the family snatch their child away so brutally?” he asks. Solanki had spent the whole of last year preparing for the JEE exams. “He was a role model to not just his family but so many of his other cousins and relatives. Now with his death, how can any parent let their children dream of studying at a premier college like this?” his uncle says.

Darshan Solanki with his father, Rameshbhai. Photo: Special arrangement

A student who had accompanied the family to the civic-run Rajawadi hospital where the post mortem was carried out on Solanki’s body said that Tarlikaben had only one question to ask. “What do you do on these campuses that our children just end their lives?” This question, he says, sums up the level of alienation and discrimination that young Bahujan students are subjected to on campuses.

In 2014, another young student, Aniket Ambhore, died by suicide on the Bombay campus. Following his death, and subsequent demand from his parents Sanjay and Sunita, a committee was set up to investigate the cause of his death and remedial measures that need to be implemented to make the campus environment conducive for students. The committee submitted its report in 2015 and acknowledged that his death was an outcome of a “discriminative atmosphere” on campus. But it took another seven years for IITs to even set up an ST-SC Students’ Cell at the institute.

This cell too, many students and professors that The Wire spoke to say, has been functioning without a clear mandate. Several student organisations functional on campus have been negotiating with the cell to focus on  Bahujan students’ concerns – mental health being one of the most urgent ones. A senior professor, on the condition of anonymity, says the cell had in fact conducted a survey a few months ago. “Over 20% of the SC-ST students had participated in this survey. The cell, we are told, has identified at least 15-20 students who are in dire need of help. The administration is aware of this. Yet, there has been no intervention on their part,” the professor said.

Students from both the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) and Ambedkar Study Collective (ASC) have been in the process of helping the cell draft its mandate. “This can’t be our job. But if we don’t do it, the institute will never,” one PhD scholar and a member of APPSC told The Wire.

“When Darshan (Solanki) ended his life,” a young researcher on campus says, “The SC-ST Students’ Cell should have been the first to be informed. But they discovered his tragic death through a local newspaper. That is the state in which this cell exists.” The Wire tried contacting both the cell’s convener, Professor Bharat Adsul from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and co-convener Professor Madhu N. Belur from the Department of Electrical Engineering, but couldn’t elicit a response from them. Belur, when contacted, claimed, “I am merely a co-convener who is here to provide logistical support to the students. I am not authorised to speak to anyone outside the campus.”

Hours after Solanki’s death, a condolence meeting was organised on campus. The institute’s director has sent out an email condoling his death, without mentioning his name. This agitated many students and they later confronted the director and other officials at the condolence meeting. When students asked why Solanki was denied the dignity of being named even at his death, some officials on campus said that they “didn’t have the required consent from his parents”. This, the students think, is a baseless excuse. “I was so disturbed to see the director’s email that I went back to see other condolence notes issued by the institute over the past few years. Notes issued on the deaths of cats and dogs too mentioned their names. They denied Darshan a dignified farewell even at his death,” an agitated PhD scholar from the social sciences department said.

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The APSSC, in a statement issued soon after the condolence meeting, called the administration out for its “symbolic gesture” and claimed that the condolence meeting was merely a “hollow show-off”. “Death is once again normalised by the ‘premier’ institute,” the students’ organisation states in its note. “We don’t need Institutes of Eminence (IoE) like IITs; what we need is an “Institute of Empathy”.”

Students said that only on a death are the casteist fissures of such premier institutes exposed, gaining media traction. “But if you closely observe the everyday working of these campuses, you will know how suffocating and alienating these spaces can be for Bahujan students,” says Kanthi Swaroop, a PhD scholar and member of the ASC. He says at IITs, the student’s soft skills, linguistic abilities and ability to participate in extracurricular activities are considered of utmost importance and young Bahujan students, from rural backgrounds, find it hard in the initial years. These soft skills, Gedam says, decide how the teachers treat you in class, their recommendations, and even placement at the end of the fifth year.

“Alienation starts rights at the beginning of the academic journey. And even if the student manages to overcome these obstacles and settle down by the end of second or third semester, he can’t ever be a part of the inner Savarna circle,” Swapnil Gedam, a PhD scholar and member of the ASC, points out. He says the alienation endured by Dalit and Adivasi students on campus is only comparable to Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s theorisation of “social boycott”.

While suicides in universities are not uncommon, Gedam says that the responses differ depending on the student’s caste location. “When a Savarna student dies, the discourse is around his/her mental health. But when a Dalit or an Adivasi student is pushed to end their life, they are invariably looked at as a “loser” who couldn’t deal with academic pressure,” Gedam claims.

Mental health concerns can’t be looked at in isolation, many students shared. The institute runs a Students’ Wellness Centre to provide mental health services to students on campus. This centre, students allege, is run by a person who is openly anti-reservation. Her social media posts opposing reservations were shared with the administration and the students’ organisation demanded that she step down. But nothing changed. Instead, the students were accused of “stalking” her on social media platforms.

“Now tell me, how can a Bahujan student who is already facing discrimination because of her caste identity ever feel secure talking to a counsellor who is openly casteist?” asked PhD a scholar.

Edited by Jahnavi Sen

Featured image: A picture of Darshan Solanki placed at the condolence meeting. Photo: Special arrangement