Despite the Constitution guaranteeing and legally assuring its citizens with equality, Caste-based discrimination continues to be a societal reality and educational institutions are not immune to it. Right from Rohit Vemula to the recent suicide of Darshan Solanki, several incidents of students committing suicide have been linked to caste discrimination and abuse over the years. Alarmingly, it has been noted that most of the suicides of Dalit and Adivasi students took place in India’s most reputed educational institutions such as the IITs and several other central universities. Despite reservations being a boon for those belonging to lower castes, reports have indicated that educational institutions are dominated by those belonging to higher caste both the teachers and the students where students belonging to marginalised communities often being discriminated.
After centuries of suppression, Education can be considered the only way of upliftment for those belonging to the marginalised communities allowing them to gain empowerment, social and economic mobility, and societal transformation. And the university spaces don’t seem safe for them because of the poor treatment they receive from their peers and others on the campus. In premier institutes like IITs and premier medical institutions where the scores of the entrance exams matter, when a student belonging to marginalised community enters such an institute they are soon dismissed as a “quota student”, often labeled as a student who does not deserve to be studying there and further alienating them.
Most of the suicides that took place had been dismissed as personal acts of desperation on the part of the students and their inability to deal with advanced education. It must be considered that out of all the student suicides that took place in India’s premier institutions, most of the students belong to the Dalit and Adivasi communities which shows a pattern that needs to be questioned as said by Sukhadeo Thorat one of the most senior educationalists in the country. It must be seen that not all suicides cannot be regarded as a result of personal frustration at least not those suicides of Dalit and Adivasi students, it is crucial to analyse if these suicides are linked to the power structure of higher educational institutions and the inclusion of Dalit students into it.
Dalit and Adivasi students have primarily joined the system through representational mechanisms such as reservations. However, this is regarded as an ‘excessive’ and threatening’ presence in the system. When the system has been destabilised or questioned to a slight degree (only) by the deaths of Dalit students, it instantly had attempted to maintain its status quo, frequently by compensating measures or by outrightly rejecting the claims of caste discrimination. Temporary compensations and other welfare measures would temporarily pacify the tensions absolving the institutions of the crime of inciting students to commit suicide.
Very Recently, the Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud speaking as the chief guest at NALSAR, Hyderabad said that there’s a need to recognise and acknowledge the problem of suicides of students belonging to the marginalised communities. He spoke about the need to create “institutions of empathy” rather than creating “institutions of excellence”. All of the suicides can be interpreted as protests against the insensitivity and prejudice practiced by various institutions against Dalit and Adivasi students often labeling them as “quota students”. Death seemed to be the only appropriate way to protest seeking to emphasise their prejudice and equitable participation in higher education for those Dalit and Adivasi students who committed suicide.
Some major cases of student suicides linked with caste discrimination from recent years:
Dr. Jaspreet Singh (2008)
Jaspreet Singh was 22 years old, he was a final year MBBS student at Government Medical College, Chandigarh. He wanted to become a surgeon after the completion of his MBBS. However, his ambitions were crushed by a professor who not only insulted him based on caste but also failed him twice in the same paper and threatened to keep failing him. He tried informing several other faculty members and his peers about the casteist actions of his professor which had no effect, and he failed again by one mark. Singh hanged himself from the ceiling fan in the college library, stating in his suicide note that he couldn’t take the insults and prejudice he’d received from two other students and his community medicine professor any longer. The college management attempted to portray this death as yet another example of a ‘depressed’ Dalit student who was unable to cope with ‘rigorous academic pressure.’
At the beginning, no case was filed under SC/ST prevention act but following the intervention of the National Scheduled Caste Commission, police filed a case under the act and Singh’s answer sheets were sent for revaluation to the panel of three external examiners in which he passed the exam, but after his death. Even after many years after his death, no action was taken against the professor, and he continued to be the head of community medicine.
Manish Kumar Guddolian (2011)
Manish Kumar Guddolian, a 20-year-old student of IIT Roorkee’s Department of Computer Science and Technology, committed suicide in 2011. He could not put up with the caste-based harassment he received from his own batchmates, and the hostel warden’s insensitive attitude made him move out of IIT Roorkee. His death was attributed to his inability to cope with academic pressure by both IIT Roorkee and Roorkee police. In contrast, Manish’s parents claimed that he was subjected to caste-based abuse throughout his time at IIT, Insight Foundation, an advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the rights of SC/ST students, recorded their statement. Manish’s mother also claimed that he was called ‘Chamar’ by his peers often asking him insulting questions like ‘Do chamars have the capacity to study’. After years of humiliation from the administration and his fellow batchmates, he killed himself.
Rohit Vemula (2016)
Rohit was a Ph.D. scholar at the University of Hyderabad and a member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA). Rohit and four others were suspended following a complaint by the local section of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). The university also revoked his monthly stipend of Rs 25,000 for promoting “issues under the banner of the Ambedkar Students Association” (ASA). The complaints of ABVP against ASA were also taken up by the then Union minister and forwarded to the HRD minister calling for action and saying that “Hyderabad University has become a den of casteist, extremist, and anti-national politics.” Rohit and others who have been suspended were removed from their hostel rooms for which they had set up a tent on the campus premises and began a relay hunger strike.
On 17 January 2016, Rohit committed suicide with a banner of the ASA and left a searing note about unfinished dreams and how he felt his “birth was his fatal accident”. The note also said: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” His death provoked anger and protests across India, and it received extensive media coverage as an example of state-sponsored discrimination against Dalits in Indian institutions. However, the government’s only response has been to try to establish that the student was not a Dalit but an OBC, thereby completely deflecting attention away from the ongoing caste-based institutional discrimination. Following his death, many students, activists, and professors urged that institutions enact the ‘Rohit Act’, to provide legal protection for students from the marginalised communities in higher educational institutions.
Payal Tadvi (2019)
Payal belonged to the Bhil ethnic group, a tribal community, and was maybe the first woman in her community to study medicine. She had traveled to Mumbai to pursue a post-graduate degree in gynecology after completing her undergraduate degree at a medical school in Jalgaon. However, in the hostel, three senior postgraduate students allegedly oppressed her, often hurled casteist slurs at her and kept her away from essential jobs, and humiliated her for having obtained admission through reservation. She hanged herself in her hostel room on May 22, 2019, and left a note where she revealed the abuse she endured and implicated the three accused of being responsible for her suicide. She stated that it had become unbearable for her to continue while being tortured by the three.
The accused doctors were later charged under the Indian Penal Code under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the Maharashtra Prohibition of Ragging Act, abetment of suicide, destruction of evidence, and common purpose. They were taken into custody and then later released on bail.
Darshan Solanki (2023)
Darshan was a first-year B.Tech (Chemical) student at IIT Bombay. Darshan was facing alleged caste discrimination from his peers as reported by his sister and others at his university. In the statements given by some students, his aunt and his sister, they all emphasized that Darshan was being harassed because of his caste. He even wanted to shift rooms due to the harassment he was receiving from his roommate, His peers mocked him for his queries about computer knowledge, electrical gadgets, and other topics, as claimed by other batchmates. When Darshan’s batchmates discovered Darshan’s caste, they shunned him, limited their interactions with him, and ridiculed him for belonging to the SC category. Darshan told his sister Janvi that when his friends found out he was from the SC community, they would point him out and yell, ‘Dalit aaya.. Dalit aaya’ (see, the Dalit is here) whenever he tried to join them during group study or lunch. Darshan’s classmate told the IIT-Bombay internal committee that he was worried about his caste and often considered what others would say of a reserved category student enrolling at an institution like IIT Bombay.
The Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle at IIT Bombay claimed that Darshan’s death was not a personal or individualised issue but rather an institutional murder, they also stated that despite their complaints, the institute failed to make the place welcoming and safe for Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi students.
Some yet many other students lost their lives due to the kind of discrimination they faced in campus from the management, faculty or their peers. As per the data provided by the Ministry of education, 61 students died by suicide at IITs, IIMs, and NITs between 2018 and March 2023 and between 2014-2021, out of 122 student suicides at India’s top institutions and central universities 68 were from the backward communities as per the government data provided in Lok Sabha. While caste is not explicitly discussed on the campus but an invisible boundary or tag is created alienating those belonging to the marginalised communities, we cannot politicize the experiences of students who are dead but we can, however, claim that they have experienced some kind of discrimination and alienation in its micro or macro levels unable raise their voice ultimately leading to their death.
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Neha Krishna Maadhuri Andru, currently pursuing B.A LL.B in National Law University Odisha (batch of 2027).