Trigger Warning: Caste-based violence and institutional murder
On 12th February, Darshan Solanki, a first-year BTech student at IIT Bombay jumped from his hostel building on campus without leaving any note or reason for doing this act.
“Despite all the data pointing to lack of institutional support for SC/ST students, the institute did not care to act on them to create any suitable support mechanisms. . Disregarding all these detailed testimonies and data which are available with the institute, the director (of IIT Bombay) still kept reiterating either blindly or shamelessly that there is no discrimination in the campus.”APPSC
Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC), a student body of the IIT Bombay, termed the death of 18-year-old Dalit student as an ‘institutional murder’ and claimed that the death was not a personal/individualised issue but rather a caste-based discrimination and socio-cultural exclusion within the institution was responsible for the death.
How is the institute reacting to Darshan’s death?
In a statement, IIT Bombay “strongly refutes” claims that Darshan’s death was caused by discrimination or that it was an “institutional murder”. ‘It is wrong to make such accusations when the police are still investigating the case. Based on initial inputs from friends, there is no indication that the student faced any such discrimination. We request that such unfounded allegations not be spread,’ the statement read.
On 16th February, the institute admitted that it had conducted two campus-wide surveys in 2022 that documented different kinds of caste discrimination faced by Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe students and the consequent mental health issues they were facing, as reported by The Hindu.
However on 18th February, APPSC tweeted asserting that, ‘in a mail to students, the director of IIT bombay claimed that they could not comment on the death till the report is ready, but in the public statement given on 14th February, they openly declared that there was no discrimination.’
Nevertheless the administration has established a committee to conduct a “parallel” investigation into the reported caste bias surrounding the death. The committee consists of members of the SC/ST Students Cell, faculty, students, student mentor coordinators, and the in-charge chief medical officer of the IIT Bombay hospital.
Precautions taken by the institution and substantial justice
The institution has SC/ST Cell, which is responsible for sensitising the campus community about the importance of diversity. IIT Bombay Officials also said that the SC/ST Cell mentorship programme, where students of marginalised backgrounds can choose a student mentor from their own social backgrounds, had begun in May 2022. However, according to students, this had not been extended to Solanki’s department, Chemical Engineering, by the time he enrolled into the programme.
There is an apparent lack of action from the institution’s administration to provide an environment where all students feel included without any sort of discrimination with regards to caste. Hardly two weeks before Darshan’s death, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes had sent a notice to IIT Bombay for failing to provide mental health support to the institute’s Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students.
This came after a complaints written by APPSC, which stated, ‘IITs are infamous for the high number of student suicides, most of which are students coming from SC/ST backgrounds. Even the data on student dropout shows that most students belong to SC/ST categories. It is no hidden fact that students from the SC/ST community face immense harassment and discrimination on the campus from students, faculties, and employees.’
“Despite all the data pointing to lack of institutional support for SC/ST students, the institute did not care to act on them to create any suitable support mechanisms. . Disregarding all these detailed testimonies and data which are available with the institute, the director (of IIT Bombay) still kept reiterating either blindly or shamelessly that there is no discrimination in the campus,” APPSC said.
Institutional murder in Indian campuses
Darshan Sonalki’s suffering and death is not something new; none of this is new. Deaths of Dalit and other marginalised students have been happening in Indian universities for many years, but this has not awakened the policymakers, administration, or people who run these institutions, who predominantly belong to upper castes and whose commitment to social justice ends with the paperwork.
The names Rohit Vemula, Payal Tadvi, Chuni Kotla, Bal Mukund, Fathima Latheef, Pradeep Meghlay, and now Darshan Solanki will forever be remembered as students who died by suicide because of caste-based and religion-based discrimination in their institutions. The dreadful deaths of these students show how identity-based violence is used by modern institutions against minority students. They also show how fierce other organisations of recognition are, like the media and academic interpretation communities, which won’t accept anything less than death as proof of caste-based violence.
Students from marginalised groups face layered discrimination at educational institutions, where many students come from privileged and upper-caste families. As a result of quotas and reservations, they are often made fun of and insulted.
In the case of Dalit and other marginalised students’, constitutional morality, academic truth, and social justice are ignored. It’s as though the unalive bodies of students and the letters they leave behind were needed for people to realise how unequal our society is. The death of the person being recognised had an ironic effect on this recognition. It is as if their deaths were necessary for their lives to be seen as unfair and bearable.
It’s clear that discrimination and marginalisation based on caste continue to exist in the country despite the passage of legislation like the SC/ST Act 1989. The federal government promotes the establishment of SC/ST cells in educational institutions. But do they do justice?
There exists a SC/ST cell at IIT Bombay that offers seminars on topics related to the experiences of marginalised students and aims to eliminate prejudice against them. We may not have lost Darshan if the cell did its job on time and finished the sensitisation course which is under preparation.