Months before Dalit student’s death, IIT-Bombay surveyed caste-discrimination on campus

Surveys documented caste discrimination faced by students and mental health issues related to it

February 16, 2023 03:29 am | Updated 09:50 am IST - New Delhi

According to internal documents seen by The Hindu, IIT-Bombay knew of issues faced by SC/ST students and the need for “affirmative counselling for marginalized communities”. 

According to internal documents seen by The Hindu, IIT-Bombay knew of issues faced by SC/ST students and the need for “affirmative counselling for marginalized communities”. 

Months before the 18-year-old Dalit student, Darshan Solanki, killed himself inside the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay barely three months into his Chemical Engineering course, the institute’s Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Cell (SC/ST Cell) had conducted two campus-wide surveys about caste discrimination and mental health issues faced by SC/ST students, The Hindu has learnt. 

Sources who have seen the survey results have said that the two surveys collected information about the caste discrimination experiences of Dalit and Adivasi students on campus and the consequences of these experiences in the forms of mental health issues that they faced. 

According to internal documents seen by The Hindu and the sources aware of the survey, the institute knew of issues faced by SC/ST students and the need for “affirmative counselling for marginalized communities”. The institute was working to introduce certain measures to address them based on the results of the surveys, among other things. However, as of February 1, 2023, these measures were still a work in progress, the documents showed. 

The institute, in an official statement issued on Tuesday, said, “While no steps can be 100% effective, discrimination by students, if at all it occurs, is an exception.”

The surveys

The first of these surveys was conducted in February 2022, which collected information about experiences of caste discrimination faced by SC/ST students inside IIT-Bombay and from whom they faced these issues. The survey was circulated amongst all SC/ST students in the institute - numbering around 2,000. Around 20% of the SC/ST students had responded to this survey, sources said. 

According to the personal experiences of SC/ST students that the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle has collected, the most common way of caste discrimination within the institute manifested in the form of anti-reservation sentiment. This came in the form of SC/ST students being made fun of and being looked down upon for their reserved category status, faculty “blaming” them for lowering the quality of IITs, and not many mechanisms to address these issues.

A lot of these experiences also made it to the survey conducted by the institute’s SC/ST Cell in February 2022, the sources confirmed.  

Following this, in June 2022, the SC/ST Cell in collaboration with the Student Wellness Centre (SWC), conducted a second survey of Dalit and Adivasi students, this time collecting information about the mental health issues they faced during their time at the institute. This survey included questions about whether students were dealing with depression, loneliness, suicidal tendencies and other mental health issues. 

The second survey only saw around 5% of SC/ST students respond with several students saying they were apprehensive of participating in it given the SWC’s involvement because they knew that the head counsellor there publicly held anti-reservation sentiments. 

Following a complaint about the counsellor to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes last year, the institute had said they had asked her to take down the social media post and “warned” her about avoiding any such action, before adding that she continued to work with the SWC and SC/ST Cell. In Tuesday’s statement, the institute had said it has “zero tolerance” for discrimination by faculty. 

The institute has not yet responded to The Hindu’s questions about the surveys and their results. 

Measures in progress

Sources added that the institute had looked at the results from the survey and had already begun an SC/ST student mentorship programme where students from marginalized backgrounds could choose mentors from their own social backgrounds. But according to students, this was not yet implemented in the Chemical Engineering department, where Mr. Solanki was enrolled. 

Institute officials said that he was assigned a student mentor but said “mentors are not assigned based on background”, when asked if he had access to SC/ST student mentors. 

Furthermore, the institute had last year started preparing the framework for a sensitization course on caste discrimination, which would be made compulsory for all on campus. But as of February 1, this year, the institute said it was working to finalise the same. 

Moreover, prompted by the Union Education Ministry in December 2022, the institute had said it would hire one SC and one ST student counsellor at the SWC, which too was “in the process” as of February 1, as per a letter from Director Subhasis Chaudhuri to the NCST.

While the results from the surveys have not yet been made public, the APPSC in a statement on Wednesday called for the results to be made public. It said, “The unwillingness to appoint SC/ST student counsellors even after our complaints shows the blatant disregards towards students… We want the administration to stop hiding the reports of the surveys, conducted by the SC/ST Cell as well as others, and release them for public discussion as soon as possible.”

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