“Even EWS (Economically Weaker Sections) people feel that they come here through genuine reservation as compared to us. EWS openly tells our case is genuine unlike you,” a Dalit student of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT-B) said in an Open House on caste discrimination held months before 18-year-old Darshan Solanki, another Dalit student, died by suicide inside the campus, a few months into his Chemical Engineering course.
Months before this Open House on caste-discrimination, IIT-B’s SC/ST Students Cell had conducted a detailed survey of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students in February 2022, in which 388 SC/ST students participated, out of whom, 77 students described in detail the kinds of caste-based discrimination they faced while on campus.
The survey, results of which The Hindu has seen, showed that 37.1% of these students were asked their JEE/GATE/JAM/(U)CEED ranks within the institute by fellow students seeking to know their identity. In addition, 26% of the respondent students said that they had been asked their surname with the intention of knowing their caste.
A day after Mr. Solanki died, the Institute’s Director had said caste discrimination, “if at all it occurs, is an exception” and that ranks are not asked of students.
While nearly 70% SC/ST students said that they believed asking for ranks/surnames could be a sign of casteism, a smaller survey conducted by Insight, the official institute publication, showed that not as many General Category students felt the same way. For instance, 37% GC students said they believed asking for surnames is not casteist. The Insight survey, conducted in 2021 threw more light on how GC students perceived Dalit and Adivasi students. The survey showed that 26% of them preferred that their roommate was from the same category. Moreover, it showed that 42% GC students believed that holding anti-reservation sentiment was not casteist.
The results showed that 90% of the respondent GC students had witnessed someone using a caste slur, and over 15% had used it themselves. Further, over 80% of them said that they had witnessed people making, sharing, and laughing about jokes, memes on reservations, while 22.6% said they themselves had made and shared these jokes.
The SC/ST Students Cell survey pointed out that over 21.5% of students were afraid of facing backlash from students or faculty if they talked about caste-discrimination in the institute, while another 25.5% said they were unsure of how they would react.
Responding to the survey, 29.4% students said that they were not comfortable discussing their caste identity in the campus and over 33% students said they would only discuss it with “a very close friend”, which in most cases happen to be people from the same social background as themselves.
The Insight survey showed that GC students are not as guarded about their caste identity, revealing that 42% were comfortable talking about it in the open and 11% were comfortable talking about it in extended friend circles.
The internal inquiry panel probing Mr. Solanki’s death, had recorded in its interim report, a testimony from one of his friends (from the SC/ST community), who had pointed out that he was “sensitive about his caste identity”. In addition to this, Mr. Solanki’s sister had deposed before the panel, describing how he was laughed at for asking questions about computers.
However, in the interim report of March 2, the panel said there was “no specific evidence” of caste discrimination in the case.
The SC/ST Students Cell Survey pointed out that over 15% respondents said they had faced mental health issues because of the discrimination they faced due to their caste identity.
“I won’t check your paper as you are a Meena (a Scheduled Tribe),” yet another ST student had said at the Open House conducted at IIT-B in June, 2022, recalling that this is what a faculty member had told them. Another student in a B.Tech course, went on to share that his student mentor had asked him his rank and category on the first meeting, adding, “Faced discrimination in the very first week, felt can’t live here anymore.”
In addition to the February, 2022 survey, the SC/ST Students Cell had conducted another survey of mental health, in collaboration with the Student Wellness Centre of the institute in May, 2022, which saw 134 students respond. Of these, over 22% said they were apprehensive about either the SC/ST Cell or the SWC reaching out to them.
In fact, according to an informal survey conducted by an IIT Alumni Support Group, 93% of 60 respondents (Alumni and students) believed that there was caste bias at IIT-B and most of them said they had not reported instances of discrimination to the SC/ST Students Cell.
Sources involved in the making of the survey told The Hindu that the significantly fewer responses to this survey compared to the February one was specifically because SC/ST students believe the SWC is not a safe space for them.
In June 2022, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) had launched a probe into the lack of mental health support for SC/ST students in IIT-Bombay after a complaint that the head counsellor of the SWC had signed a public petition to end reservations and shared it on their social media.
While the institute officially admitted to having conducted the surveys after The Hindu reported it, it had said that it cannot make the results public as the consent of students for this had not been explicitly taken.
The surveys and the Open House conducted in 2022, formed the basis for the institute’s decision to start a caste sensitisation course, which would be made mandatory for all on campus. This course is still under preparation.
Further, after the NCST complaint, the institute had also agreed to hire one SC and one ST counsellor and train existing ones in affirmative counselling for the marginalised. Both the hiring process and the training are also still underway.
According to a senior at IIT-B, who volunteers for SC/ST mentorship programme, a Dalit student who had joined the institute during the Covid-19 pandemic was chosen as the class representative while classes were held online. The moment physical classes began, he was asked his rank, following which classmates started questioning how a “non-meritorious” or “reserved category” student could represent them.