Dalit student death | IIT-Bombay student body rejects interim report, faculty speak out

The Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle said that the report released by IIT-Bombay was a “haunting reminder of denial of justice”

March 08, 2023 02:12 am | Updated March 09, 2023 10:09 am IST - New Delhi

File picture of students protesting against the death of IIT student Darshan Solanki outside IIT Bombay, Powai. File

File picture of students protesting against the death of IIT student Darshan Solanki outside IIT Bombay, Powai. File | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

The interim report concluding that 18-year-old Dalit student Darshan Solanki’s death was not caused due to caste discrimination released by the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay was “strongly rejected” by the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, a student body on campus, in a public statement issued on Tuesday midnight. 

The APPSC, which has been at the forefront of demands for creating safe spaces for Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi students in the institute, said that the report was a “haunting reminder of denial of justice”, just as it was in the case of Aniket Ambhore’s death, another Dalit student who died by suicide at IIT-Bombay in 2014. 

And with student resentment building over the report, an Associate Professor at the institute has now also spoken out on the issue, highlighting the “déjà vu”. In an email on Tuesday night to all faculty on campus, the Associate Professor asked, “What does one do with our monochromatic denialisms — denials of institutional responsibility, of casteism, of the need to take a hard look at ourselves and our campus culture?”

The students pointed out that the 12-member committee headed by Professor Nand Kishore of the Chemistry Department, was neither impartial, nor did it show “any marked competence” in investigation by appointing an external member. 

The APPSC said that the report showed the committee’s “shallow, superficial, and flippant attitude”, and that a “hasty report” was prepared to “cover up the Institute’s shortcomings”. 

The students questioned how the panel had linked his interest in academics based on JEE Ranks, asking, “Is the committee not aware that JEE scores form the basis for discrimination in IITs where the practice of asking for ranks is used to single out, humiliate, and guilt the marginalized students into thinking that they are not deserving and competent?”

The student body called the interim report “the most unscientific document from a ‘scientific institution’”, and said that the committee never had any public terms of reference, nor was it revealed as to how it called for testimonies, how they were assessed and the tools to gauge their validity and reliability. It added that the panel had no external member, the representation of SC/ST members was less than 50%, students on the panel were not told that they had a right to dissent, no subject matter expert was consulted, disregarded his sister’s statement, and did not consider possibility of implicit discrimination and effects of structures. 

The students pointed out several contradictions in the committee’s report, saying that it first says there was no discrimination, then goes on to submit Mr. Solanki’s sister’s statement highlighting discrimination. Similarly, the students pointed out that while the committee said Mr. Solanki was uninterested in studies; it also went on to record that he had shown interest in some subjects. “Isn’t it the committee’s job to investigate why a person would feel alienated on campus?”

Podcast | Dissecting caste discrimination in Indian universities from admissions to placements

The APPSC statement added that the panel had recorded evidence showing what Mr. Solanki was facing in terms of being made fun of for not knowing computers well enough. It added that the panel also recorded that he was “sensitive about his caste identity” but the committee did not enquire why he felt that way. These testimonies were “brushed aside” by the panel citing lack of “specific instances”, the students said, 

The students also took issue with the panel “blaming” Mr. Solanki for not seeking assistance from the SC/ST Cell or the Student Wellness Centre. “It is common knowledge that these support systems exist for namesake… the ST/SC Cell do not have a legitimized mandate yet, and the SWC head counsellor was infamous for being casteist,” the students said. 

Faculty speaks out

Meanwhile, reacting to the interim report, which was submitted to authorities on March 2, a faculty of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department of the institute has spoken out about the need to fix accountability for institutional and structural caste-discrimination. 

In an email to all faculty sent on Tuesday night, the associate professor said the interim report held no surprises. The faculty said, “Once again, we find that that the suicide--its causes and responsibilities--are entirely individualized.” 

“The committee does not spend time to consider systemic causes for the deathly prevalence of academic anxiety in this campus. Instead, the report observes that Darshan Solanki felt “aloof”, possibly because of “JEE rank differences, computer familiarity and language barrier”. The implication is clear: Darshan was not discriminated against; oh no, it was he who held himself aloof (italics part of the quote),” the associate professor added. 

The IIT-B faculty said that like in Aniket Ambhore’s case, this committee also “tends to assume that caste-discrimination comes distilled as isolable acts and/or slurs… that if no direct causative triggers can be found between such acts/slurs and a suicide, then no links exist between caste-discrimination and student-suicides”. 

The interim report, the associate professor said, “strikingly” paints IIT-B as “something of a casteism-free campus”, “Never mind that two recent surveys among (many more than 3) SC/ST students in IITB, have unambiguously reported caste-based discriminations and oppressions. The committee does not seem to have been detained by these surveys at all. They were perhaps deemed irrelevant to Darshan’s suicide.”

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