Tuesday, May 28, 2024

How many more Darshans and Anikets need to die?

A day after an 18-year-old Dalit student of IIT Bombay, Darshan Solanki, allegedly died by suicide due to discrimination, the APPSC (Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle) IIT Bombay, stated Darshan’s death is not a suicide, but an institutional murder.

Read the full text of APPSC’s statement:

We mourn yet another student suicide on this campus. Darshan Solanki, an 18-year-old Dalit student jumped off from his hostel building on Sunday, February 12. A life of dreams and ambitions came to an abrupt end.

The family and community of the young man would forever wonder what went wrong with their bright child and a premier institute. There will be explanations of how he could not survive the competition, that the academic pressure is ruthless, and the |IT-dream is only for the strong-willed. We do not know what pushed him to this end: caste discrimination or unendurable stress. What we know for sure is this is an institutional issue. Let us stop looking at student suicides across campuses as isolated incidents.

For those who come from non-urban, non-English-speaking backgrounds, oppressed castes, and low-income families, what does these institutes offer in terms of assurance, support, and care? The resources here seem to have different priorities altogether. How often does this institute concern itself with the social and mental well-being of its students?

It is no hidden fact that students from the SC/ST community face immense harassment and discrimination on the campus from students, faculties, and employees. These institutional and casual ways of casteism cause mental and psychological stress on students, but ITs lack any mechanisms to help them.

We have been raising the issue of the lack of mental health support for our students, especially for those coming from marginalized social backgrounds, with the IIT administration as well as other forums like the National Commission for SC/STs. In our earlier complaints regarding this issue, we had pointed out that the counselors in IT Bombay are not sensitized to understand the social realities of caste that affect students from SC/ST/OBC communities, rendering them inadequate to offer support or, at times, aggravating students’ troubles. Also, there is no SC/ST counselor in the Student Wellness Centre (SWC). Despite these efforts from our side, the institute has only been choosing to either ignore the issue or downplay it. In the light of this tragic incident, we demand that the working of the SWC in the institute should be thoroughly reviewed again, the institute should immediately address the issue of inclusivity in the SWC and the center should be made better accessible to the students coming from all backgrounds.

In September 2014, Aniket Ambhore, a 22-year-old fourth year B. Tech student of IT Bombay, died after falling from a hostel building on the campus at IT Bombay. Aniket had taken admission in IT Bombay from the SC category quota and had faced derogatory comments in the institute about his academic ability. It looked like a case of suicide, but one which had resulted out of an ‘atmosphere of discrimination’ on the IT Bombay campus which severely affects the mental state and motivation of the reserved category students. Despite being neck deep in grief, his parents prepared testimony of the problems they faced when seeking guidance and support from IIT Bombay for Aniket. In it they wrote about the insensitive attitude of faculty members relating to Aniket’s identity as a ‘category student’ and the general atmosphere in IT Bombay campus where reservations are equated with lack of merit.

The committee (A K Suresh Committee) constituted to investigate the case of Aniket, accepted that Aniket was made to feel guilty about being admitted to the institute through reservations. It also made a series of recommendations relating to setting up of a Diversity cell, campus sensitization about caste-based discrimination, setting up support systems, counseling, and more representation in the mentorship program for SC/ST students, encouraging more students from the SC/ST communities to pursue academics in order to improve the representation of these communities in the pool of the faculty members. Even after so many years, the report of this officially constituted committee was never made public and many of its recommendations have never got consideration. While we have our reservations about the report of this committee, we demand that it should be put in the public domain and should be made open for more deliberations.

After sustained efforts by the student groups on the campus including us, the SC/ST cell was finally established in the institute in 2017, but it started doing student outreach events only last year. It still took months of effort to get basic facilities like an office space for the cell, mentorship training, sensitization talks etc. A detailed mandate, describing powers and responsibilities of the SC/ST cell, has been prepared with the efforts of many students and the functionaries of the cell. However, the institute has been extremely hesitant on implementing the mandate. Without a clear mandate, the cell still struggles to find its appropriate place in the functioning of the institute. We see no other reason but an intention of keeping the cell as a hollow showpiece structure, behind the delay in passing the mandate. We demand immediate action in this regard from the institute and passing of the mandate.

We have also been raising the issue of severe lack of representation of SC/ST faculty members in IT Bombay. Without having a more inclusive faculty pool, the students from the marginalized communities will continue to feel alienated in institutions like these. We submit that the blatant violation of reservation norms in faculty recruitment, delay in implementation and functioning of SC/ST cell, the lack of proper mental health and academic support are some of the major structural factors that cause such incidents to happen.

We must understand that suicide of a student, a Dalit student in this case, is not a personal/individualized end, but something that is intimately related to the institutional structures that make some of us feel alienated, that fail to accommodate some, hence we call it an institutional murder.

We owe a collective responsibility towards the family of the deceased. We are answerable to the many who aspire to be in this great institute with a dream to uplift themselves and their people. As a society, as an institution, what do we enable and celebrate, and therefore, what do we sideline and marginalize? How many more Darshans and Anikets need to die?

On the night of 12th February, only after pressure from the student community, did the director call for a condolence meeting for Darshan Solanki. The email from the director, informing about the incident, did not even name Darshan, the apathy of the institute even in the light of this grave incident is lost on the student community. We demand that the institute thoroughly investigate Darshan’s death and come up with a public report.

We stand in solidarity with the family of Darshan.

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