Students at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT-D) organized a candlelight vigil outside the main gate of the campus in South Delhi on Thursday demanding concrete measures in the alleged suicide case of a 20-year-old B.Tech student Ayush Ashna, who was found dead in his room in institution’s Udaygiri hostel.
The students’ outfits at the institute including the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC), the Ambedkar Students Collective (ASC), and others came together to protest what they called the ‘institutional murder’ of Ashna, a Dalit student.
During the protest, a portrait of Ashna was placed before the candles lit by the students, along with posters of other Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi students who had died by suicide at academic institutions in the last few years across India including Rohith Vemula and Darshan Solanki.
One of the students who joined the protest told Maktoob, “The reason behind the protest is to break the silence around the incident. We are not calling it a suicide because we don’t know if it was a case of suicide given a lot of caste discrimination across the IITs and universities.”
The students’ groups demanded that the matter should be highlighted and condemned at all levels and the circumstances around the death of the student should be made clear by the institution and a fair probe should be initiated by the police.
The news about Ashna’s death broke out among the students when they received an email from the institute’s director on Wednesday informing the students of the “sad and untimely demise” of Ashna.
The protesting students alleged that the condolence message from the Dean of Students did not reveal the caste identity of the student and that he is from Scheduled Caste (SC) community. They also maintained that a thorough investigation should be done if he faced caste-based discrimination.
Delhi Police, in the investigation, has not found any foul play or suicide letters in the case yet and said, “nothing suspicious was found.”
A member with ASC told Maktoob: “We suspect a structured pattern is being followed in IITs where students from marginalised communities are being pushed into being ‘institutionally murdered’, given the fact that in last 6 months 4 students at IITs have died what is being called suicides. We don’t even know if they died by suicide.”
He said that on the eve, soon after the news about Ashna broke out on the campus, the institution called for a condolence meeting but only one faculty member was a part of it.
“Interestingly, in the condolence meeting, only Head of Ashna’s department came and he didn’t even mention his social identity”, he said.
At the condolence meeting, the Dean of Students Affairs said, “we have to do more” and the director of the institute said, “we need to have a more humane institute.” he said.
“The words that came from the institution were too little and too less looking at the seriousness of what happened with the students.”
SC/ST cell was constituted only three months ago on the demand made by students after Darshan Solanki, a Dalit B.Tech student at IIT Mumbai had died by suicide to address the issues faced by the students of SC/ST community.
A student representative of SC/ST cell and a doctoral student in Humanities, Shainal Verma, raised the question that why students from the marginalised sections of society experience the institutions so differently and what measures have been taken by the administration to address the concerns or difficulties faced by these students.
Verma told Maktoob, “the caste discrimination is rampant at the IITs. We want a fair investigation into the case. Some corrective measures should be taken by the institution to ensure justice to prevent students from going through the agony that Ashna went through and they should do something potential to make SC/ST students feel safe within the campus.”
She further said that there is no sensitisation about caste discrimination among the students who belong to so-called upper castes.
“Whenever a student from a marginalised community achieves something in his/her academic career, the first reaction they get from these ‘upper-caste/savarnas’ is that they get it because of their caste.” she said, “nobody wants to put their mind into thinking about the battles this SC/ST student had fought to get something as basic as education. Nobody looks at the systematic marginalisation we have been facing ever since.”
“Most students are prejudiced when it comes to students from marginalised communities including a distorted understanding of reservation, which further forces them to feel alienated on the campus”, she added.
She further said that a lot has been said by the authorities after every incident so far, but nothing turns into practicality, “for how long we keep believing words when we see no action on grounds”, she asked.
Shainal Verma informed Maktoob that IIT-D has called SC/ST cell for a meeting with the administration on 17 July to further discuss the matter concerning Ashna’s case.
Resident students on the campus in the same hostel as Ashna’s told Maktoob that the administration has not taken any major steps so far but they are trying to check in on the students by sending counselors to the students and said, “It might be a step towards efforts they are going to take.”
Ananthu, a research scholar in humanities at IIT-D said that they have received a mail from the administration stating ‘there are experts at IIT Delhi to ensure there is someone to hear you out and help you manage all the anxiety and stresses.”
He said, “We received this mail from the administration yesterday informing us about online counseling sessions students can take if they are dealing with any mental health issues.”
The mail sent by the IIT D administration reads, “The last few days have been very difficult for all of us. You may know that IIT Delhi is taking help from Your DOST team in online counseling matters. Please see the email regarding your DOST service below. Please feel free to avail this service.”
Moreover, Ashna’s family member claimed it to be a murder, “Ashna was asked not to stay in the hostel, and the mess was not providing him with food. Therefore, Didi used to send him food from home. The warden and the Dean of Academics were troubling him. He was not so weak as to commit suicide; he was killed and hanged on a table. His body was sitting with an extension wire wrapped around his throat. The earphones were in his ears but unplugged, and the laptop was open but turned off. He was sitting in a position as if he were watching the laptop”, Bahujan Lives Matter quoted.