Stress, dropouts, suicides: Unravelling IIT’s casteism problem

‘Reservation kids have come’. Every year, marginalised students battle casteism on IIT campuses.

WrittenBy:Sumedha Mittal
Darshan Solanki (left) and Aniket Ambhore. Both died by suicide while studying at IIT.

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“Chaar din sapna hai, jisse jeene aaye ho, Baaki saari duniya ko tum peeche choro.” You have come to live a four-day dream. Leave the world behind.

It was late December 2012 and a concert night at IIT Bombay’s signature festival Mood Indigo. The crowd roared as a singer on stage hummed these lines, chosen as the festival anthem at India’s premier educational institute.

It was not the usual A-lister performer on stage but Aniket Ambhore, an 18-year-old second-year electrical engineering student, presenting a number he’d written and composed himself. Two years later, he died by suicide on campus. 

“Throughout his school, he never scored below 90 percent. But at IIT, his confidence and mental health was deteriorating,” said his father Sanjay Ambhore. “He was failing in a couple of subjects.” 

By the end of Aniket’s second year, his father alleged, he told his parents he wanted to retake IIT’s Joint Entrance Examination. “He said he wanted to get into IIT through the general category,” said Sanjay. “He carried guilt that he didn’t fulfil the college’s meritocracy requirements.”

Two months after Aniket’s death, IIT Bombay’s internal committee submitted a report after investigating his death. It concluded that “it does not seem that there is an overt environment of discrimination or anti-reservation in IIT-B”. (Emphasis added)

A similar report was tabled 10 years later on March 2, 2023, after Darshan Solanki, a first-year chemical engineering student at IIT Bombay, died by suicide. Again, IIT Bombay concluded there was “no specific evidence of direct caste-based discrimination”. (Emphasis added) 

But current and former students of IIT Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Kanpur and Kharagpur we spoke to state that this is how these issues are brushed under the carpet. 

Newslaundry sent questionnaires to all the IITs; this report will be updated if they respond.

Suicides may be ‘much higher’

India currently has 23 IITs; the first was set up in Kharagpur in 1951 and the latest in Goa in 2016. These institutes get a huge chunk of the education budget – about eight percent this year, amounting to Rs 9,600 crore. Fifty two percent of seats are reserved for SC, ST and OBC students across courses.

But the education ministry’s response to an RTI filed by Chintabar, an independent student body at IIT Madras, indicates that in 2021, of the total PhD seats for ST students at the IITs, only 2.5 percent were filled despite 3,000 eligible applicants. Less than 10 percent of PhD seats were filled for SC students too.

Over the years, suicides by students has become a pressing issue. The union education ministry estimates at least four suicides a year from 2014 to 2023 at the IITs – around 34 suicides in total until 2021 of which over half were students from SC and OBC backgrounds. But student groups at IIT Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur and Madras told Newslaundry the actual numbers are “much higher”. 

For instance, the education ministry says “no suicides” were reported among IIT students from ST or minority backgrounds. But in 2019, Fathima Lateef, a Muslim student from IIT Madras, died by suicide on campus. Her case is not included in the ministry’s data.

“Every time any suicide or student’s death occurs, the institute sends a common email saying an accident has happened – hiding the name of the student,” said a third-year student of IIT Madras. “The institute itself does not accept that caste suicides take place. This makes it difficult for student activists to identify the victim and the reality that surrounded them.”

And these official emails aren’t always sent, the student added. “A year ago, a student’s partially burned body was found in the IIT Madras campus. The case was all over the media. But the institute did not discuss it at all or send an email.” IIT Madras had issued a statement to the press but students allege there were no details given to them internally.

In Darshan’s case, Subhasis Chaudhari, director at IIT Bombay, sent an email to all students and faculty members on February 12 saying “we regret to inform you the loss of a first year student in a tragic incident this afternoon”. 

Despite the clean chit from the investigating committee, Darshan’s family had told Newslaundry that he had faced harassment before his death. Yesterday, the Mumbai police’s SIT that is investigating his death told the media a “suicide note” had been recovered from Darshan’s room. The note allegedly names a student for harassing him.

“Initially, we believed that Solanki jumped to his death due to poor performance in the semester exams. However, the suicide note, which we suspect he wrote minutes before ending his life, indicates that he was harassed,” a police officer told Indian Express.

‘There is no scope to get justice’

Aniket never trained to be a singer or composer. He casually picked up these skills while learning guitar in his teens. “He was brilliant in academics as well,” said his father Sanjay. “Throughout his school, he never scored below 90 percent.” 

Aniket was in the top one percent in JEE too, but he was weighed down by guilt.

“I remember meeting his professor H Narayan with Aniket,” Sanjay said. “He told us, ‘You know how you got into IIT. Any student not in the top 0.3 percent of ranks is a waste.’ He said it to our faces. I didn’t have the courage to counter him.” Newslaundry sent Narayan an email asking for comment. 

Importantly, Darshan’s contemporaries told similar stories – how his roommate allegedly cut down their interactions after asking Darshan his rank in JEE.

In February 2011, Manish Kumar, a third-year Dalit student at IIT Roorkee, died by suicide on campus. Three years before, Prashant Kumar Kureel, a final-year student at IIT Kanpur, was found dead in his room. Their stories are part of a database prepared by the makers of the documentary Death of Merit, produced by the Insight Foundation. 

The documentary quoted Manish’s uncle as saying students would “hurl caste slurs at him” and that he was “harassed too much”. “Sometimes, he would become very emotional,” the uncle added, “and ask what was his mistake if he was born into this caste.” Manish’s parents allegedly filed a complaint against the students who had harassed him, but no action was taken.

On Prashant, one of the documentary filmmakers, who did not want to be identified, said his family did not have “even one percent doubt” that it was a “caste suicide”.

“They were sure,” they added. “But there is no scope to get justice in these matters. FIRs are not filed. The IITs are led by upper caste people. They have their own stakes in not accepting caste discrimination behind the deteriorating mental health of a student.”

Manish and Prashant’s deaths were not investigated by internal committees at their respective institutes. A member of the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, a student body at IIT Bombay, told Newslaundry that committees had only investigated Aniket and Darshan’s deaths because “students protested and raised caste allegations”.

“Therefore, they came up with a report to hogwash these allegations,” the student said. “But they do not prepare these reports in cases where there is no outrage.”

There are also no standard guidelines governing these internal committees, or rules on the basis of which they’re formed. In Darshan’s case, IIT Bombay’s internal committee comprised faculty members, wardens and a doctor who works on campus. It did not include an external member or a mental health expert.

Cases and outcomes 

In April 2021, during the Covid lockdown, a series of videos went viral on social media. They showed Seema Singh, an English associate professor at IIT Kharagpur, making casteist remarks about SC/ST students during online classes.

“You can go to the ministry of women and child,” she said in the video. “Go to the ministry of SC, ST and minorities. Nothing can prevent me from doing what I have to do to you.”

Singh was temporarily suspended eight months later. IIT Kharagpur formed a committee in 2021 to conduct an investigation but it hasn’t filed its report yet even though two years have passed. When Nagsen Sonare, president of the Babasaheb Ambedkar National Association of Engineers – an organisation of engineers from backward classes – contacted IIT Kharagpur director VK Tewari about the result of the investigation, he received an email saying the matter was “still under enquiry”.

“What are they still investigating?” Nagsen asked Newslaundry. “It’s been three years now. Seema Singh was caught abusing the students openly. These are the kind of abuses that crushes students from oppressed sections. Is it a CBI enquiry or an Interpol enquiry?”

A similar incident took place in IIT Kanpur over 20 years ago, when a mechanical engineering professor put up a notice referring to “born back loggers” – referring to students from oppressed castes. An internal committee concluded that professor BP Singh had “hurt sentiments” of students but was not guilty of caste discrimination.

Dheeraj Singh, who had been a student representative on that committee, told Newslaundry there were student testimonies about the professor’s “casteist” behaviour. “He would ask students to stand in different queues on the basis of their castes. We found he would openly make disrespectful remarks to oppressed students.” 

Despite these testimonies, Dheeraj said, the committee did not find BP Singh’s behaviour casteist. Singh eventually retired.

Former students say casteism on campus today is “more sophisticated” and also harder to prove. Darshan, for instance, was asked about his JEE rank, the implication being that his rank was “very low” and therefore he got into IIT Bombay through reservation.

This was repeated by a student who graduated from IIT Kanpur in 2022.

“In the first interaction among students, they ask your JEE rank,” said the former student on condition of anonymity. “Through it, they learn your caste and start repelling you. When the friends I made in first-year learned about my caste, they started behaving differently with me. During a quiz or academic discussion, they would pass comments like, ‘What would you know about this topic? You have come from reservation.’”

Comments like these have lasting impact, the ex-student said. “I started questioning myself on whether I deserve to be at an IIT or not. It affected me terribly in my first year. My academic scores also dropped. As a result, outside my wing, I started lying about my identity just to stop people repelling me away.”

A Dalit student at IIT Madras said the “most problematic” thing about caste discrimination on campus is that it’s “systematic”.

“It’s obvious that in the beginning, students from backward communities won’t be able to compete with students from the general category because they have not gone to the same coaching institutes or, in most cases, could not afford to go to one,” he said. “Unlike other universities, IITs start conducting exams from the first month of joining. So, students from marginalised communities would score two out of 20 because they aren’t as prepared.”

At least 14 students, past and present, from the IITs told Newslaundry that IIT students from oppressed castes often could not afford to go to coaching classes. Writer Yashica Dutt wrote about this in her book Coming Out As Dalit, adding that SC, ST and OBC students also “lack other support structures”.

Shainal, a PhD student at IIT Delhi and the student representative of its SC/ST cell, told Newslaundry that marginalised students face comments like “reservation kids have come, Bhim Army has come”. 

IITs also have special positions called “positions of responsibility” where a BTech student is selected to organise cultural and sports activities for interested students. “Since forever, a general category student is chosen for it,” Shainal said. “How is this possible every single time? Moreover, it’s not easy for us to claim our identity, that too inside a higher education institute that is so brahminical. But they don’t understand that it’s important for us to assert our identity because out students have the highest dropout and suicide rates.”

Faculty members are targets too. In 2021, an assistant professor at IIT Madras resigned citing the “caste discrimination” he faced on campus. He described his experiences in detail to the Wire. In 2019, an associate professor at IIT Kanpur told Newslaundry he had faced caste-based discrimination too, with some colleagues saying his appointment was “wrong”.

No safeguards for students

Shainal’s comment on “highest dropout” rates is rooted in fact. In 2021, the education ministry told the Rajya Sabha that 63 percent of undergraduate students who dropped out of the top seven IITs were from reserved categories. In some of these institutes, the dropout rate of SC/ST students was as high as 72 percent. IIT Guwahati had the worst record, with 88 percent of dropouts coming from reserved categories.

IIT Bombay conducted its own analysis afterAniket’s death based on students’ cumulative performance index, which measures their academic scores. Its data showed that 70 percent of students with a CPI below 5 were from SC/ST backgrounds. The CPI for most general category and OBC students ranged between 6 and 9.

Madhusudan, a Scheduled Caste MTech student, dropped out of IIT Roorkee in 2011. He told Newslaundry that if he’d stayed longer, “I would have been another Rohit Vemula or Darshan Solanki”.

“Coming from a poor financial background, it was my childhood dream to study at IIT. But I dropped out within the same month,” he said. “The casteist atmosphere at IIT is so depressing. The moment you get admission, professors indicate you came through reservation. They are not as approachable to SC/ST students in comparison to general category students.”

Other students would also “tease you for reservation”, he added. “When you enter the canteen, you’ll find them conversing in English. And if you are not like them, you are treated like an untouchable.”

Students told Newslaundry they struggle to get help. Only three – Bombay, Roorkee and Delhi – of the 23 IITs have an active SC/ST cell, and Delhi only started it this month. The others have SC/ST cells on paper but they are defunct, with no funds allocated, no events conducted, and even no room to function from.

“It took six months of labour and Darshan’s death to set up this cell,” said cell representative Shainal. “After Darshan’s condolence meeting, the director called all SC/ST students. One hundred and fifty students turned up. He finally agreed to it. Now, he has promised to accept our demand to recognise our Ambedkar Student Collective.”

According to the Council of Indian Institute of Technologies, every IIT is supposed to have a student wellness centre to counsel students – a decision taken in 2017 after concerns over suicides on campus. At least 10 SC/ST students from the IITs in  Delhi, Kanpur, Kharagpur and Madras told Newslaundry these centres are not accessible to them.

“IIT Madras’s centre is run by upper caste people,” said a Dalit student. “None of them are from marginalised backgrounds. So we do not feel safe to share our problems with them. Moreover, the wellness centre is inside the dean’s office or students’ office. If anyone visits, everyone knows which student is suffering from mental health issues...Hence we are hesitant to approach them.”

Newslaundry telephoned the wellness centres at IIT Delhi and IIT Madras but was informed that they were not allowed to speak to the media. We emailed questionnaires to both institutes instead; this report will be updated if they respond.

Update on March 28: Aniket was a student of electrical engineering, not chemical engineering. This has been corrected.

If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, we urge you to seek help. Please call one of the helpline numbers listed here or contact a mental health professional.

Update at 12.20 pm, April 10: The Mumbai Police SIT probing Darshan Solanki’s death has arrested his batchmate Arman Khatri, who lived on the same floor of the IIT hostel. This comes a month after the SIT recovered a note in Solanki’s room which allegedly blamed a student for his death.

Khatri allegedly threatened Solanki with a cutter after the latter made communal remarks, according to an Indian Express report quoting a police officer. The officer claimed that a caste discrimination angle, as alleged by Solanki’s family, has not been found in the probe so far.

Update at 12 pm, June 10: This report has been clarified to note that only three IITs have active SC/ST cells; the cells in other institutes are not functional.

Also see
article imageSuicides in IITs: Students blame academic pressure and discrimination based on caste, religion
article imageProfessor files over 300 RTIs to reveal corruption at IIT Guwahati. IIT forces him into ‘compulsory retirement’


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