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

New Delhi: A 12-member committee constituted by the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B) to probe into the recent suicide at the institute has concluded that “deteriorating academic performance could have affected” the student to take the extreme step.

The 18-year-old first-year student in the chemical engineering department – Darshan Solanki – jumped from his hostel building on February 12 resulting in his death. Solanki was a first-generation Dalit student from Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Also read: 18-Year-Old IIT Bombay Student Jumps from Hostel Building, Dies by Suicide

The interim report of the committee also noted that “that there is no specific evidence of direct caste-based discrimination” despite Solanki’s sister alleging that her brother had shared with her that he had faced caste discrimination at IIT-B. The report did include Solanki sister’s statement but concludes that academic pressure may have compelled Solanki to end his life.

“Other than the statement of DS’s [Darshan Solanki’s] sister, there is no specific evidence of direct caste-based discrimination faced by DS during his stay at IIT Bombay. The possibilities of substance abuse, accident or homicide can be ruled out,” the report said.

After Solanki’s death, several Bahujan students and student bodies, familiar with happenings in IIT-B, alleged that it could be due to the “discriminative atmosphere” prevailing at the premier colleges in the country such as IITs. They had also said that the lack of facilities to address mental health concerns on the campus was also responsible for the death by suicide of Solanki.

A picture of Darshan Solanki placed at the condolence meeting at IIT Bombay. Photo: Special arrangement

Referring to the phone call Solanki had made moments before he had killed himself, the report says, “In the absence of call details, forensic analysis of the phone/laptop, and post-mortem report of DS [Darshan Solanki], the committee at present cannot arrive at a final conclusion on what actually triggered DS to take this extreme unfortunate step.”

A total of five possibilities that could have resulted in Solanki’s death were considered by the probe committee: academic, personal relationships at IIT-B, caste-based discrimination, substance abuse, and accident/homicide.

On the academic aspect, the report said Solanki’s marks in all subjects, except in one HS109 paper, were “very poor”. “It appears from the marks obtained in various courses that his performance deteriorated specifically in the second half of the Autumn semester,” the report added.

Citing interactions the committee members had with Solanki’s “friends”, the report said, “Interaction with friends revealed that DS [Darshan Solanki] did not show much interest in studies and preferred to stay in his hostel room most of the time, including regular academic hours. It was also informed that DS used to skip classes regularly, sleep a lot and wanted to relax a bit for a few months. DS also used to mention that he was not adequately prepared for the exams.”

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

On the question of possible caste-based discrimination faced by Solanki, the report noted, “None of those interviewed/interacted person, including friends, wing-mates, teachers, TAs [teaching assistants], mentors of DS [Darshan Solanki] and staff of the Hostel-16, mentioned about any kind of discrimination (including caste-based), either reported by DS himself or by any of his friends. Amongst those, three of the students informed that, even though they also belong to the SC-ST category, they never faced any kind of caste-based discrimination on the campus. However, one of the friends belonging to SC/ST category informed that DS was sensitive about his caste identity.”

The committee also spoke to Solanki’s sister, to whom the deceased student said to have mentioned about caste-based discrimination at IIT-B.

Recording Solanki’s sister’s statement, the report said, “The only person who mentioned to the committee about caste-based discrimination faced by DS is his sister. During the interaction with the family of DS, his sister said that DS used to mention about caste-related issues faced by some students at IIT Bombay, and that he has also faced it himself.

“However, she also informed that DS used to say that he would adjust and manage. When asked for any specific incident mentioned by DS, she said that there was no particular incident to mention. She further mentioned about a few instances in which his queries related to computers and other subject matters were sometimes laughed at by some students. When specifically asked, his father and uncle said that DS did not mention to them about any type of discrimination faced by him.”

Criticism of the probe report

Dheeraj Singh, an alumnus of IIT Kanpur, Kharagpur and a social activist mobilising IITs alumni and faculty for SC ST welfare, ex-research staff in IIT Bombay, questioned the probe report.

He highlighted that there are no terms of reference (TOR) attached to the report brought out. “Does it mean the committee was doing the inquiry of its free will and not following the TOR mandate? Does TOR exist?” Singh posed questions to IIT-B authorities.

Also read: Little Known About IIT Bombay Panel Looking Into Darshan Solanki’s Death, Say Students

He also pointed to the fact that there are no external members and no suicide/mental health experts on the committee. “Hence independence and competence of the committee and their findings are questionable raising serious doubts on the intentions of the IITB Director behind constituting such a committee.

Referring to a 2014 student suicide that took place on the IIT-B campus, Singh said, “IITB Director appointed a 100% internal committee comprising majorly of IITB professors (7/12), as expected, has given itself a clean chit while all blame has been laid at an individual level to first-year student Darshan, a first generation in family to go beyond class 12th. IITB modus operandi is exactly the same as it had adopted for another student Aniket Ambhore who died by suicide in 2014.”

Singh also alleged that the report has inadvertently acknowledged that suicide risk is “very common” at IITs. “The committee is saying that low academic performance in IITs is a suicide risk factor, which is an admission of the fact that suicide risk is very common in IIT due to pervasive academic stress in IIT. As a result, suicides are a common occurrence in IITs. From the grading bell curve IITs follow, 20-25% of all students are at mental illness/suicide risk. IIT own committee, therefore, has blown the whistle on the huge suicide risk to students with low scores in IIT (ie. exposed deep flaws in the present system),” Singh noted.

He also posed a number of questions about the way the probe committee carried out its investigation.

Caste-based discrimination is not new to premier institutions, more specifically to IIT- Bombay. Only a few years ago, another young student, Aniket Ambhore, had died by suicide on campus.

In the last one year, the institute’s SC- ST cell has conducted at least two different surveys to understand the impact of caste discrimination on students from Dalit and Adivasi communities. These surveys have highlighted several alarming issues, including the fragile mental health of Bahujan students. The survey reports are known to the institute but have not been acted upon, students and faculty members privy to the working of the cell and the survey report shared with The Wire.

Against this backdrop, the recent finding in Solanki’s death is insensitive, students have alleged. “You can’t treat this as a one-off incident when you are fully aware of the situation on campus. The institute has shown zero commitment towards making the campus safe for Bahujan students,” a PhD scholar told The Wire.

This article was first published on The Wire.

(With inputs from Sukanya Shantha)

Note: 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.