Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Another IIT Delhi student dies by suicide; Casteism, inequality, institutional harassment continues to claim lives

On 16 February, the Indian Institutes of Technology-Delhi community mourned the loss of Varad Sanjay Nerkar, marking the third student suicide incident within the institute recently.

Dheeraj Singh, an alumnus from IIT-Kanpur, highlighted the alarming trend, citing that Nerkar’s case was the fifth reported suicide from IITs this year.

Nerkar’s parents asserted that their son had been subjected to harassment by his supervisor, shedding light on the complexities students face.

In an attempt to comprehend the situation, discussions with IIT-Delhi and IIT-Bombay students, as well as Prof N. Sukumar, were conducted, with students opting for anonymity due to fear of repercussions.

A student revealed, “I spoke to the press after Ayush’s case and faced threats from the administration.” A final year student from Dalit community, Ayush Ashna (20), died by suicide in Indian Institutes of Technology-Delhi on 8 July last year.

Delhi University Professor and author N. Sukumar emphasized the urgency of replacing the term ‘suicide’ with the term ‘institutional murder’ when addressing student deaths in IITs.

An IIT-Delhi student disclosed, “If a student misses an exam due to health issues, the professor administers a tougher re-test, seemingly seeking revenge.”

Prof Sukumar shared incidents highlighting exclusionary teaching practices, where student rankings led to preferential treatment, impacting reserved category students adversely. He recounted a distressing case from IIT-Roorkee, where a student rewrote thesis chapters repeatedly, only to face dismissal from the supervisor, labeling the work as ‘trash.’

The IITs face ongoing criticism for fostering casteism within university spaces, evidenced by incidents such as the deaths of Bahujan students, casteist slurs from Associate Professors like Seema Singh, and issues like the absence of functional SC/ST cells. The accusations also extend to practices like segregation based on vegetarianism in PhD mess and the allocation of land for a gaushala at IIT-B. The resignation of professors like Vipin Veetil further underscores the perception of IITs as a Savarna enclave.

In 2020, the Union Ministry of Education established an eight-member committee, including IIT directors, to assess the effective implementation of reservations in IITs. Surprisingly, the committee recommended scrapping the reservation policy, arguing that IITs, as institutions of national importance, are primarily engaged in research.

In 2019, former Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal presented data in Lok Sabha, unveiling a stark reality—95% of faculty positions in IITs were occupied by Savarnas. This left the majority of the Indian population, belonging to SC, ST, and OBC categories (70-80%), confined to a mere 5%. An RTI filed by IIT-B students exposed alarming statistics: 24 departments lacked SC faculty, 15 had no ST representation, and 9 were devoid of any OBC faculty. Despite numerous applications from reserved categories, a fraction were selected, while others faced rejection under the vague label of being “not found suitable.”

The disregard for reservation norms extends beyond faculty positions. From 2015 to 2022, five departments at IIT-B witnessed zero admissions of ST students for PhD. Similarly, IIT-D recorded 25 departments with no ST admissions and 10 departments closing their doors to SC students. In 2023, six departments at IIT-D repeated this exclusionary practice for OBC PhD candidates.

In December of the previous year, the Minister of State for Education disclosed a concerning trend—since 2018, 2,066 OBC candidates, 1,068 SC candidates, and 408 ST candidates had dropped out of IITs.

A poignant account from an IIT-Bombay student shed light on the challenges faced: “I used a computer for the first time when I came to study in IIT, while my classmates here already knew C++,” illustrating the disparities within the academic environment.

Another IIT-D student elucidated the sense of being under constant surveillance, where the ‘Savarna administration’ and students maintain a watchful gaze, always ready to rebuke and criticize the activities of Dalit students.

She underscored the ‘hypocrisy of Savarna people’ who openly engage in religious rituals on campus but dismantle Ambedkar’s posters, deeming them ‘too political.’ “They fear even the images of Ambedkar because they know that it can shake the very foundation of any Brahmanical institution,” the student added.

The student shared an astonishing fact, revealing that “hardly 10-12 people (including the faculty) attended the condolence meeting organized for Ayush, of which, most were APPSC members.” On one hand, the increased turnout of students for subsequent cases to protest can be viewed as a hopeful sign.

Following a recent incident, IIT-D students compelled the director to sit on the ground with them and agree to their demands, including postponing ongoing minors until the next Open-house.

However, Prof Sukumar, in contrast, informed Maktoob that just last week, “a student from IIT-Kharagpur died, and it was not even reported in the media.”

“The counselor only helps with academic issues. I once described to them my difficulty with handling anxiety, and the response wasn’t very sensitive or encouraging,” described the student from IIT-D.

Last year, in response to a complaint filed by APPSC of IIT-Bombay, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes ordered the Director of IIT-B to remove the head counselor, Hima Anaredy, for her insensitivity towards tribal students. It also requested the appointment of a counselor with an ST background. However, the institute continued to disobey the order. But recently, IIT-D has collaborated with Max hospital for mental health care, which seems like a positive step.

In July last year, IIT-B updated its anti-discrimination policy to include direct and indirect ways of caste abuse. This included not commenting on or asking students about their caste and JEE rank. However, many other IITs have not even initiated these policies on paper. Similarly, the IITs have been organizing Open House, in which the administration talked to students in the aftermath of the death of students. But Maktoob was told that policemen were also present in the last IIT-D Open House, which made the environment formal and intimidating. While concerns about mental health and the incapabilities of the counselor were raised in that, the question of caste was invisibilized. Similarly, caste was a later addition to the student portal used to report problems, making it obvious how the system is just incompatible with understanding caste-based discrimination.

Dalit student collectives have been constantly urging the government to formulate an anti-discrimination legislation for educational institutes by the name of ‘Rohith Act.’

Prof Sukumar pressed on the need for a social audit of these institutions and to look into the recruitments, student dropouts, compliance with the reservation policies in the last 20 years to understand the root problem better.

Saransh Nagare is a graduate from St. Stephen’s College and editorial intern with Maktoob.

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