Dalit student’s death at IIT-Bombay highlights institutional failure to create safe spaces, says Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle

18-year-old was driven to end his life in part due to institute’s inability to address the discrimination faced by students from marginalised backgrounds on campus, say members of student group

February 14, 2023 01:06 am | Updated February 16, 2023 12:12 am IST - New Delhi/Mumbai

Students hold a vigil at IIT-B on Sunday night. 

Students hold a vigil at IIT-B on Sunday night.  | Photo Credit: TWITTER/@AppscIITb

A day after an 18-year-old Dalit student of IIT, Bombay, allegedly killed himself within the campus, a student group at the institute has alleged that the first-year Chemical Engineering student was driven to suicide in part due to institutional failure to address discrimination faced by Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi students on campus. 

The police have registered an FIR for accidental death and have questioned students and lecturers and recorded statements of the parents of the student. A senior police officer said the Powai police had not yet found any note but that they had taken the student’s mobile phone and laptop into possession and sent it for forensic analysis.

The Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) at the campus has said the institute failed to create inclusive spaces for students from marginalised social backgrounds. It said, “We do not know what pushed him to this end: caste discrimination or unendurable stress. What we know for sure is this is an institutional issue… We must understand that this is not a personal/individualised issue, but an institutional murder.”

IIT-Bombay is already being investigated by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) over complaints from the APPSC about the lack of student counsellors who understand and can deal with caste-based mental health issues, including but not limited to discrimination. 

While repeated complaints from the APPSC have forced IIT-Bombay to start introducing some mechanisms like SC/ST student mentorship programmes, where first-year students from marginalised backgrounds have the benefit of being mentored by someone from their social backgrounds, students said the institute was not fast enough in taking forward the initiative. 

“For instance, we know that the Chemical Engineering Department, where the deceased was studying, does not have any SC/ST student mentors,” Pranav Jeevan, a student and member of the APPSC at IIT-Bombay, told The Hindu.

Meanwhile, in a statement issued on Monday, the APPSC said, “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. These institutional and casual ways of casteism cause mental and psychological stress on students, but IITs lack any mechanisms to help them.”

The Powai police have said that the student’s parents have not yet levelled any allegations of caste discrimination or otherwise against the lecturers, students, or the institute, adding that students they spoke to told them that the 18-year-old was mostly quiet and not very social. “We have also recorded statements of some lecturers,” the police said, adding they had recorded inquest proceedings and handed over the body to the student’s family members for last rites after the autopsy. 

Mr. Jeevan said that the students had held a candlelight vigil on the campus on Sunday afternoon, only after which did the institute agree to hold a condolence meet on Monday evening, which was held under police supervision. He added that even at the condolence meet, when students tried to raise the issue of lack of adequate support for Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi students, “the director said the meet was closed and that this was not the time for it”. “After we kept pressing for discussion on it, the administration said this may be taken up some time next week but we are not sure yet,” Mr. Jeevan said. 

Institute Director Subhasis Chaudhuri in an email to students on Sunday evening announced that the student died in a “tragic incident”. He went on to say that the institute “deeply mourns” the death and offered prayers for his family members. 

Responding to the NCST’s investigation, Mr. Chaudhuri had last month informed that the campus was working to hire one student counsellor each from SC and ST backgrounds in an effort to support SC and ST students. He had also disclosed that the institute was planning a sensitisation course on caste-discrimination which would be made mandatory for all on campus.

Suicide prevention helpline in Mumbai

Tata Institute of Social Sciences icall  022 25521111 Monday to Saturday: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Suicide prevention helpline in Delhi

Sanjeevani 011 24311918011 24318883 (Mon-Fri)  268622222686448840769002 (Mon-Sat) Timings: 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.

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