“I have faced casteism in my university when I was pursuing medical in a reputed college and no one did anything,” said Sakshi (name changed on request), who is a medical professional, when asked whether authorities at educational institutes help tackle casteism. “Most of the time even professors are casteist as well,” she added.

On February 12, Darshan Solanki, an 18-year-old, first-year student of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, allegedly died by suicide by jumping from the eighth floor of the hostel in the afternoon.

The Powai police said the incident took place at around 1 pm after which police was informed and a case of accidental death was registered. A police officer said the student, Darshan Solanki, a native of Ahmedabad, had joined IIT Bombay three and a half months ago and was a BTech student.

“We have eye-witnesses who saw Solanki jump from the refuge area of the hostel building. We are recording statements of his roommates and are trying to ascertain the reason,” the officer said.

While the police said they are investigating the matter, Solanki’s family have alleged that he was pressured due his Dalit identity, which is why he took the extreme step.

Solanki was a first-generation Dalit student, studying at India’s premier institute. His father, Rameshbhai, works as a plumber; his mother, Tarlikaben, is a domestic worker in Maninagar, Ahmedabad.

No suicide note has been left behind, and the police are investigating the matter. However, the incident has opened questions about institutional casteism in major universities like IIT.

The Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle student collective at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, has described the death as an institutional failure. It says that premier institutions lack mechanisms to help students from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes deal with harassment and discrimination on campus.

Astha Savyasachi, a freelance journalist recalled her experience in an engineering college, saying that all the Dalit students were made to sit on one side.

“Eventually, over the next few weeks, we began following an unsaid decree. All the students from SC/ST/OBC categories began sitting together in the right-hand-side rows. Today, when I look back at it, it reminds me of how Dalit houses are always located at the periphery of the villages. The caste system likes to keep things neat. No mixing,” she wrote in an article, penning down her experience.

A Dalit journalism student on the condition of anonymity said that she had to hide her identity as a Dalit for a long time as students casually used casteist slurs. “This is nothing new. For a long time, I feared the same situation,” she said.

Many students that The Citizen spoke to said that casteist slurs were commonly used among teachers as well. “I was told that I have got admission in the university due to reservation,” Anika (name changed) a student from a Kolkata university said.

Earlier in February, another controversy emerged when students from Bangalore’s Jain University were said to have performed a mocking skit belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Father of Indian Institution Dr. BR Ambedkar.

The video shows a group of students, The Delroys Boys, performing a skit mocking people belonging to the Scheduled Castes, reservations as well as Dr Ambedkar. The students allegedly also mocked serious matters such as “untouchability”.

However, no action was taken against the students. It was after various Dalit groups and students protested in the university when six students part of the skit were suspended.

A number of police complaints were registered against the students. Aakshay Bansode, state member Yuva of Vanchit Bahujan Aaghadi filed a complaint in Nanded district of Maharashtra seeking strict action.

Speaking to The Citizen about institutional casteism that is still very much relevant in today’s time Delhi University Professor at Miranda House Abha Dev Habib said that Rohith Vermula from Hyderabad University who died by suicide due to institutional casteism shows a gory picture of the situation.

On January 17, 2016, Vemula died by suicide with a banner of the ASA and left behind a searing note talking of unfinished dreams and how he felt his “birth was his fatal accident”.

“While reservation has indeed empowered a section but the bias that we have overcome in the caste system has not happened. We are witnessing caste and religious based crimes going up. The youth or the institutions will try to find the same kind of autonomy to do whatever they want to do, Habib said, adding that even in DU casteism existed in subtle ways, but did not mean “it does not exist.

“The situation is worse in engineering and medical colleges due to the fact that parents are flushing huge amounts of money for their children,” she added.

A study released in September 2021 stated that casteism is not only prevalent but also institutionalised in the Indian higher educational institutions particularly in the technical fields of medicine and engineering. However, these institutions rarely acknowledge the discrimination and wilfully ignore both subtle and overt forms of casteism.

The study, entitled ‘The Steady Drumbeat of Institutional Casteism’ focuses on the various ways in which casteism is practised and even normalised in the current higher education system of the country. It may exist in the direct form of abusive casteist slurs, gestures, comments and physical exclusion or in its indirect ill-informed opposition to the constitutionally mandated policy of reservation and routine biases inflicting psychological harm upon the victims.

The study was conducted after Vermula and Payal Tadvi, a medical student who died by suicide at Topiwala National Medical College in 2019, deaths.

The study refers to their suicides as ‘institutional murders’, while highlighting the culture of victim-blaming and apathy towards the victims of such institutional murders for calling them ‘mentally weak’ even after their death. Such an approach is also observed in the cases of sexual harassment of women too.

As per the study, persons who share experiences of caste-based discriminations in higher educational institutions get accused of being ‘obsessed with caste identities’ or being ‘over-sensitive’ or ‘paranoid’ about it. This culture of not recognising and dismissing discrimination without the willingness to appreciate the experiences of persons from their own ‘locations’, contributes to the further marginalisation of such persons and their experiences.

While, IIT Bombay has denied allegations of discrimination, students have alleged that when they reached out to the authorities about the skit no action was taken.

According to a statement issued by the institute on Tuesday, “IIT Bombay strongly refutes claims in some news articles that imply that the cause (of suicide) was discrimination, and say it amounted to “institutional murder”. 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.”

“While you do not penalise a student from belonging to a particular caste, you do not have any respect for them or their hardships and this is the major problem,” Habib said.

Meanwhile, many student organisations protested asking for justice. “This is nothing but institutional murder,” a student collective at IIT Bombay said.

Jogdand, Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi in an interview recently said that there are no systemic efforts to address casteism and foster sensitivity among faculty, students and staff at these institutions.

“This stereotype of Dalits being intellectually inferior stems partly from seeing them as beneficiaries of reservation policy and partly from their historical exclusion from the knowledge process in the society. Availability of reservations is seen as a deviation from the mainstream.

“Dalit students are stigmatised for being a beneficiary of reservations. They are expected to justify their presence in places like the IITs,” he said in an interview to Scroll.

Meanwhile, Chief Justice of India, Justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud called for effective steps to end discrimination in educational institutes.

There is a need for effective measures to put an end to discrimination in educational institutions, and authorities should show empathy towards the affected students, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said, while delivering the silver jubilee lecture at the 19th annual convocation of NALSAR University, Hyderabad.

He also expressed concern over the growing incidents of deaths by suicide of students from marginalised communities.

“But I have also been wondering where our institutions are going wrong, that the students are forced to give up their precious lives, in these instances,” he said. “The issue is directly linked to lack of empathy in educational institutions,” he added.

While referring to Ankit’s death, the CJI said, the first step to solve the issue was to recognise the problem, adding that “nurturing empathy could end the culture of exclusion”.