Dalit student death | IIT-Bombay denies charges made by Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle

Institute refutes charges of institutional failure to create safe spaces and that the campus lacked adequate mental support for students from socially marginalised backgrounds

February 14, 2023 07:43 pm | Updated February 15, 2023 09:07 am IST - New Delhi

Students take part in a sit-in protest in the IIT-Bombay campus late on February 13, 2023 over the death of a Dalit student. Photo: Twitter/@ChintaBAR

Students take part in a sit-in protest in the IIT-Bombay campus late on February 13, 2023 over the death of a Dalit student. Photo: Twitter/@ChintaBAR

While no steps can be 100% effective, discrimination by students, if at all it occurs, is an exception, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Bombay, said on February 14 in a statement refuting charges of institutional failure to create safe spaces levelled by the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) after an 18-year-old Dalit student, Darshan Solanki, allegedly died by suicide on Sunday afternoon. 

The APPSC, a student body within the IIT-B campus, on Monday issued a statement saying that the institute had failed to create inclusive spaces for Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi students, and that the campus lacked adequate mental support for students from socially marginalised backgrounds, referring to Mr. Solanki’s death as an “institutional murder”. 

Responding to this, IIT-B said, “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.”

In their statement, the APPSC had said that they had repeatedly raised issues related to the lack of student counsellors and mentors who were able to understand the caste-based mental health issues faced by Dalit, Bhujan and Adivasi students, and said that the institute still lacked such a support system. 

IIT-Bombay is already being investigated by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), based on a complaint from the APPSC over a lack of student counsellors for Scheduled Caste (SC)/Scheduled Tribe (ST) students. According to information submitted before the Commission, the institute said it had taken note of such issues and was in the process of hiring one SC and ST student counsellor each, respectively. 

The institute had also said that it was finalising a sensitisation course on caste discrimination and would make it mandatory for all on campus. However, no timeline has been made available for these steps. 

Meanwhile, the institute formed a committee on Monday to investigate Solanki’s death, and said in a statement that it was an “unfortunate incident” that could not be prevented “despite the efforts of the Institute and Student Mentors”. 

While students have already been complaining about the lack of SC/ST student mentors, the institute had taken note and started a specific programme, where first year students from marginalised backgrounds would have access to student mentors who could understand their problems and concerns. However, some students have said that Solanki’s department, Chemical Engineering, did not have any SC/ST student mentors.

While an institute official said Solanki had been assigned a student mentor, when asked whether the mentor was part of the SC/ST mentorship programme, they said, “Mentors are not assigned keeping any specific background in mind.”

In Tuesday’s statement, the institute said caste identity is never disclosed to anyone (whether students or faculty) once the admission process is completed, and that students are sensitised to not seek “proxy information like entrance test ranks”. It said, “The institute takes utmost precautions to make the campus as inclusive as possible. IIT Bombay has zero tolerance for any discrimination by faculty.”

According to the NCST’s investigation, students had also reported the head student counsellor at the Student Wellness Centre for holding public anti-reservation sentiments in the form of a social media post from a few years ago. The students had said that the post was still public and intimidated students from wanting to visit her.

In its response to the Commission, the institute had said the counsellor had been asked to take the post down and “warned” to avoid similar actions, before adding she was now working on a mental health survey with the SC/ST Cell of the campus. 

The institute added that its SC/ST Cell was available for anyone to reach out with issues, and that over the last many years, “only one case was found to have substance” where strict action had been taken. Mentioning that students are encouraged to seek assistance right from the orientation programme, the institute added, “Although some who need it do not seek support due to societal norms, many students have benefited from the support.”

Meanwhile, the APPSC on Tuesday issued another statement doubling down on its allegations against the institute. It added that the institute’s condolence meet was a “hollow show off” because students were not allowed to freely speak about institutional problems that they believed had led to Mr. Solanki’s death.

The APPSC also sent a letter to the institute director and administration pointing out that the testimony by a senior of Solanki’s had emerged, urging that this be considered as evidence in any investigation related to his death. The student body also asked that the institute file an FIR under Sections of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act; that the internal committee to investigate the incident have at least 50% SC/ST representation and one external member who has had experience dealing with such issues. The students also demanded that an ‘Open House’ discussion on the structural issues within the campus be held within the next few days. 

Those who require assistance for overcoming suicidal thoughts may contact Sanjivini, Society for Mental Health suicide prevention helpline 011-4076 9002 (10 a.m. to 7.30 p.m., Monday-Saturday).

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