The Kota-quota hierarchy at IIT

With another alleged suicide at one of India’s premier institutes, the Dalit community, though scared of the consequences, talks about daily casteism, how their identities are linked to academic performance, personal struggles being belittled, and the upper caste belief that they’re the ones being discriminated against

February 24, 2023 01:29 am | Updated February 26, 2023 01:34 pm IST

Students from different organisations demand justice for Darshan Solanki outside IIT Bombay.

Students from different organisations demand justice for Darshan Solanki outside IIT Bombay. | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

Trigger warning: the following article contains potentially distressing material; please avoid reading if you feel disturbed by suicide

For a couple of fleeting hours on February 20 under Mumbai’s hot sun, the banner #JusticeForDarshanSolanki was held high. About 50 students from various political outfits came together outside the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay gate, seeking justice for an 18-year-old Dalit student who had allegedly taken his life on the campus, in just the second semester of a degree in chemical engineering. By justice, they mean an acknowledgement and addressal of institutionalised discrimination against the already-marginalised Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi (DBA) community. While suicide is a multi-factorial global issue and may have many risk factors, Darshan Solanki’s death has spotlighted caste discrimination within the country’s premier institutes once again.

The previous night had been more sombre, with a candlelight walk for Solanki, who had spent the first semester at home in Ahmedabad, and had come to the campus only in November 2022. About 75 students, mostly DBA, entered hostel number 16 at IIT Bombay’s Powai campus, where Solanki, the son of a plumber, had been living. He would have been among the first generation of graduates in his family.

Relatives and neighbours of Darshan Solanki hold a candlelight vigil in Ahmedabad on February 19, 2023.

Relatives and neighbours of Darshan Solanki hold a candlelight vigil in Ahmedabad on February 19, 2023. | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

For many DBA students, IIT, with its pedigree, is a break with past suppression and an arrival into a life of promise. But DBA students don’t often come prepared for the hostile world on campus that sets greater store on where they’ve come from rather than who they are. It’s like landing on a stage only to have a trapdoor opened beneath you. Upper caste students, or those from the general category, believe it is they who face discrimination. Institutions have little will or the way to tackle this.

“I wonder if we would be here today if Darshan had not come to the campus for the second semester,” a PhD student and member of the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) said. The vigil was ‘allowed’ by the institute, on the rider that the campus would be shut all day to the media, visitors, and guests.

The APPSC was formed in 2015 after the death of Dalit student Aniket Ambhore in 2014. The collective began pressing for an SC/ST Cell, which was created in 2017 and started functioning only two years ago. In 2020, the student body helped draft its mandate, which is awaiting approval by IIT-B. APPSC managed to get an SC/ST student mentorship programme started because the selection process of student mentors under the existing programme was opaque. The ‘general category’ mentors would perpetuate stereotypes with ‘ice breakers’. Solanki was assigned a mentor, but he was not from the SC/ST community.

As the candlelight vigil, a combination of silent protest and remembrance, wound its way through the campus, a week after Solanki’s death, on February 19, a WhatsApp group of campus students demanded “Justice for Darshan Solanki”. The conversation on the campus-wide group soon veered into caste. An upper caste student posted, “Itna hi discrimination hai toh reservation hi hata do na. (If there is so much discrimination, we might as well do away with reservation.)” Another joined in: “We are the ones being discriminated against through the reservation system.”

A rally demanding justice for Darshan Solanki in Ahmedabad.

A rally demanding justice for Darshan Solanki in Ahmedabad. | Photo Credit: PTI

Subtle segregation

A few weeks after Solanki’s death, the IIT-B campus wears a look of normalcy. In the mess of hostel 12, there is a segregated space meant only for “pure vegetarians”, those who do not consume even onion and garlic. “Do you know how many times a Dalit or Adivasi has taken their food to that section by mistake and then were pushed out of there violently?” said Paresh (name changed to protect privacy). There is no sign that non-vegetarian food is not allowed at certain tables; neither is there any sign that the space is exclusively for vegetarians.

A volunteer mentor and teaching assistant (TA) for the caste sensitisation course that has been in the works for nearly a year, Mr. Paresh said, “Every student I have interacted with has said how their identity is at risk of being ‘revealed’.” This ‘revelation’ comes as part of casual conversations in corridors, among peers, and between staff and students, who may ask what rank a person got in the entrance exam. A high rank usually means an open category student; a low rank would mean a person has been given admission on reservation.

In hostel rooms, where ranks shouldn’t matter, a high ranker will often not communicate with a low ranker. It is difficult for ‘official’ committees to combat these subtleties. IIT-B has refuted that ranks are asked of students.

A candlelight vigil in support of the IIT student who allegedly died by suicide.

A candlelight vigil in support of the IIT student who allegedly died by suicide. | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

An upper caste student at IIT Gandhinagar said, “I secured Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) rank 100, but there are students who came in at 1,000. I have a better IQ, and they will have to work harder to come to my level. Obviously, I associate with people who are going through what I am,” he says, on tight groups formed on caste and class lines. The informal delineation is often formed based on interests that exclude. Take the tennis court: a DBA student may not have grown up playing the game. They may find access to the requisite shoes difficult, even if coaching is provided. These subtle differentiators draw the groups apart.

Many DBA students are not able to access coaching centres that charge fees over ₹1 lakh per year — another indicator that they’re not part of the merit-list entrants. There are also other giveaways: skin colour, where people come from, the way they speak English, the clothes they wear — markers that often exclude and prejudice.

Three days after Solanki’s death, the IIT-B Confessions page on Facebook buzzed with posts. Confession #2710: “To: Those who say there is no discrimination in IIT, what is harassment you ask?... When your roommate asks you your JEE Rank on just the 2nd day in college, that, unfortunately, is casteist. When your friend opens up in front of you and says it would have been ‘good’ had a certain section of our society been allowed to form a separate nation instead of ‘eating away deserving seats’, that is casteist... When social media is used to share memes and jokes targeting specific people, that is casteist...”

Replying to this and three other similar posts is confession #2747(1): “especially for SC / ST, please read all. This is a long rant against those who claim to face discrimination in the Institute. To put it shortly: whatever you are saying is non-sense, you are not looking at things from the other side...”

The main gate of IIT Bombay’s Powai campus.

The main gate of IIT Bombay’s Powai campus. | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

The struggle is real

After two years of slumming it out in Vijayawada, where he moved from his village, to access better coaching, and another two years of trying to keep up with coursework in IIT, Umesh (name changed), a Dalit student, was diagnosed with depression. He knew he could pick electives that would help him make up for his lost grades, but a faculty member stood in his way. When he landed up at the counsellor’s office in the Student Wellness Centre, Mr. Umesh, who is now pursuing postdoctoral studies in the U.S., was told, “You’re playing the victim now.” A few months before, Merriam-Webster had declared gaslighting as one of the words of 2022.

As per government data, IITs across India have seen 34 student suicides from 2014 to 2021, of which 53% were either from Scheduled Castes (SCs) or Other Backward Classes (OBCs) backgrounds. In the same period, 88 students took their lives within Central universities, Indian Institutes of Management, and a few other institutes, of which 60.22% were SCs, Scheduled Tribes (STs), or OBCs.

More than a dozen students across IITs in Delhi, Madras, Bombay, Gandhinagar, and Roorkee have maintained that caste discrimination most commonly manifests as an anti-reservation sentiment. The fault lines caused by an innate belief of meritocracy on one hand and generations of discrimination on the other, have deepened in the days after Solanki’s death.

Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and  Students’ Federation of India (SFI) supporters stage a protest alleging discrimination in the death of Darshan Solanki, an 18-year-old first-year engineering student at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and Students’ Federation of India (SFI) supporters stage a protest alleging discrimination in the death of Darshan Solanki, an 18-year-old first-year engineering student at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. | Photo Credit: ANI

Campus beat

Yahan Kota se kaun kaun hai? (Who all here are from Kota?)” the professor asks the first-year B.Tech students in an IIT-B class. It’s a trick question, says Shreya (name changed). Several unsuspecting ‘quota students’ stand up, often not understanding the implications.

From then on, they are ‘marked’, while being made fun of as people too ‘simple’ to know the difference between Kota and quota. The former is a city in Rajasthan known for its factory-like gruelling coaching institutes that train students to crack the entrance exams of India’s premier engineering and medical colleges. The latter is a system that reserves 15% seats for SC students, 7.5% for ST, 27% for OBC. All this is affirmative action to ensure representation of historically socially marginalised people.

A person from an upper caste, who is an elected representative of the student body at IIT Roorkee, said remarks like ‘freeloader’ and ‘scholarship student’ are common, but that “many of them take it in a sporting way”. He makes a clear distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. “It is just something for us to make friends and bond over. There is no instance of caste discrimination being reported at our institute,” he adds hastily.

Yet, a few weeks after he’d been on campus, “Darshan told his TA that students had discovered he was Dalit, made fun of the way he spoke English, and berated him for being a ‘scholarship student’,” said Tarun (name changed), a senior, and volunteer mentor with the SC/ST student mentorship programme. Darshan had told his TA that he and three others — all Dalits — had been picked on. In a few more weeks, the mocking had spread to his hostel.

While no suicide note from Solanki has yet been found and the police are still investigating his death, students who knew him said there was the added pressure of a rushed second semester. Solanki had not performed well in academics in his first semester.

Rameshbhai Solanki, the father of IIT student Darshan Solanki, who allegedly died by suicide at IIT Bombay, speaks to the media.

Rameshbhai Solanki, the father of IIT student Darshan Solanki, who allegedly died by suicide at IIT Bombay, speaks to the media. | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

Past forward

Amit Jatav, who currently works in a marketing start-up in Mumbai, is a Dalit man from Rajasthan’s Karauli district. He graduated with a B.Tech degree from IIT Delhi in 2022. “When I reached IIT, I thought my life was set, but what I faced was something I never imagined. My confidence dropped, and I faced the same discrimination that Darshan faced; the only difference was that I didn’t end up taking my life,” he said, adding that daily slurs like ‘freeloader’ were thrown at him regularly. This, despite the fact that all education at IIT is subsidised, even for general category students. For Mr. Jatav, who said it was the first time he had come out of Rajasthan, there was no safe space where his complaints would be understood or acted upon.

In fact, when IIT-B conducted a caste discrimination survey in February 2022, students complained about members in the SC/ST Cell discouraging them from proceeding with a complaint, sources said. The cell has been purposefully silent on Solanki’s death, fearing that issuing a statement on the incident might inflame tensions and lead to further strengthening of the anti-reservation sentiment.

A couple of batches before Solanki, Rajesh (name changed), a Dalit and first-generation graduate, was stepping into the same IIT campus that Solanki was in, for a five-year integrated BSc/MSc course. He remembers how accomplished he felt about making it there. But the moment he walked into his hostel, a staffer smirked at his name. “He said people like me don’t last long here,” said Mr. Rajesh, who runs a start-up. He filed a complaint with the SC/ST Cell, but it did not go anywhere.

Meanwhile, students struggle to get the mandate for the SC/ST Cell at IIT-B passed. It specifies what counts as discriminatory behaviour and how complaints should be processed. Large parts of it are drawn from provisions of the University Grants Commission (Promotion of Equity in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2012. In 2021, during a talk at IIT-B, former UGC chairperson Sukhadeo Thorat had said it was imperative that the institute implement it. “There is a general lack of will to implement these provisions from the institute to the [Education] Ministry. When they wanted to end ragging, they criminalised it, pursued it, and ended it.”

If you are suicidal or distressed, please call Kiran 1800-5990019, Aasra 9820466726, or Sneha 044-24640050.

Congress leader Jignesh Mevani pays tribute to Darshan Solanki during a condolence meeting in Ahmedabad on February 16.

Congress leader Jignesh Mevani pays tribute to Darshan Solanki during a condolence meeting in Ahmedabad on February 16. | Photo Credit: PTI

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