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Caste In Campus: From Rohith Vemula To Darshan Solanki, Caste Discrimination Linked To Student Suicides

Despite constitutional and legal assurances of equality, caste-based discrimination remains a social reality and educational campuses are not immune to it.

Police action during a protest over Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula's death by suicide
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The suicide of 18-year-old Darshan Solanki at Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT Bombay) has been linked to caste discrimination on the campus.

A students collective alleged after Solanki's death that he faced caste discrimination on campus. However, an internal inquiry by IIT Bombay refuted it.

The death of Solanki is not the first case of a student's death being linked to alleged caste discrimination. From the well-known case of Rohith Vemula to Solanki's death, several students died by suicides after allegedly facing caste discrimination on campuses.

Here we retraces cast discrimination in campuses and cases of student suicides linked to it.

Caste discrimination in India

Caste discrimination remains a social reality despite constitutional and legal assurances of equality. 

Caste discrimination refers to the unequal treatment and historical marginalisation and discrimination faced by certain social groups because of belonging to so-called lower castes. In caste system, there is a birth-based hierarchy of social groups called castes. These castes are divided into higher and lower. 

Despite constitutional assurance of equality, there exists caste dicrimination in the society and reports document it from time to time. This societal reality also reflects in educational campuses where students from these historically discriminated and marginalised communities have faced discriminatory and hateful behaviour.

Even after all these years of social progress, Pew Research shows only mixed findings as caste-based segregation and discrimination remain prevalent.

"Caste segregation remains prevalent in India. For example, a substantial share of Brahmins say they would not be willing to accept a person who belongs to a Scheduled Caste as a neighbor. But most Indians do not feel there is a lot of caste discrimination in the country, and two-thirds of those who identify with Scheduled Castes or Tribes say there is not widespread discrimination against their respective groups. This feeling may reflect personal experience: 82 per cent of Indians say they have not personally faced discrimination based on their caste in the year prior to taking the survey," notes a Pew report.

Caste discrimination in education

Despite affirmative action and reservation, reports say that educational institutions are dominated by upper caste teachers and students. Lower caste students often face issues in such conditions, say reports.

An Oxfam India report notes, "Official data indicate that across India, four out of five female teachers and three out of four male teachers belong to the three caste groups where practice of untouchability is the highest – Brahmin, forward castes and other backward classes...There are instances where teachers discourage hard work among Dalit and Adivasi (Tribal) students, either unfairly stereotyping them as beneficiaries of reservations or questioning the value of education for such children -- who they presume will only undertake menial, traditional, caste-based occupations later in life."

In his book Caste Discrimination and Exclusion in Indian Universities: A Critical Reflection, Dr N Sukumar notes that education is very often the only way of upward social mobility for marginalised students of lower castes and poor treatment at these very mediums of upliftment sets them back. 

Citing his research, Sukumar notes, "The data from the field bears ample testimony to the deep-rooted prejudices against SC [Scheduled Castes] students on campuses and the embedded casteplaining, which is normalised."

Sukumar further notes, "What is important to note here is that the marginalised students from rural areas are deeply committed to the transformation wrought by higher education. Metropolitan students who don't succeed simply find another job, start a business, or recuperate and start again somewhere else. For these marginalised students, this opportunity [to study] is the only one."

Such a condition when these students are denied the only way of upliftment can also lead to suicides, notes Sukumar further.

He notes, "The expected disgrace of having to live a life in the town or village in minor occupations closes off any return options. Many students felt that this loss of status and face was simply not a viable option, and it is likely the students who committed suicide chose death as the only remaining alternative." 

Cases of student suicides linked to suicides

Over the years, several incidents of students dying by suicides have been linked to caste discrimination and abuse.

Observers have alarmingly noted that these cases have occured at some of the most leading institutions such as IITs and campuses perceived to be liberal such as leading central universities. 

Here we list some of the cases in recent years.

Darshan Solanki

Darshan Solanki, 18, died by suicide on February 12 at IIT Bombay. He was a first year student of chemical engineering. He jumped from the building's seventh floor.

Following his death, a students collective alleged he faced discrimination over caste that was the cause of him dying by suicide. Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) at IIT Bombay said "this is not a personal/individualised issue, but an institutional murder", as per Hindustan Times.

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"Despite our complaints the institute did not care to make the space inclusive and safe for dalit bahujan adivasi students. First-year students face the most harassment in terms of anti-reservation sentiments and taunts of non-deserving and non- meritorious. There is a lack of representation of faculty and counsellors from the marginalized," HT reported APPSC as saying.

However, in a statement on Instagram, APPSC noted that it's not known for sure caste issues were behind the death.

"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...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," said the statement.

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However, report of an internal IIT Bombay investigation ruled out caste discrimination and noted Solanki had poor academic performance and suggested it could have been behind the suicide.

Rohith Vemula

The suicide of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad in 2016 is the most well known such case in recent past. 

Vemula, 26, was found dead hanging in a hostel room at University of Hyderabad. 

Before being found dead, Vemula and some others had been suspended from their hostel. Fellow students blamed caste oppression for the death.

"Students sat with Rohith's body all night and raised slogans, alleging that he was the victim of social boycott...Rohith and four other research scholars had been living in a tent outside the campus gate since they were thrown out of the hostel on December 21 and asked to stay away from the mess and other common areas," reported NDTV at the time.

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The report adds that Vemula and other suspended students were part of an Ambedkarite organisation and were accused of attacking a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)

The report said, "The five students, all members of the Ambedkar union, had been accused of attacking an activist of the BJP's student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in August...The university cleared them in an initial inquiry, but reversed its decision in December. Students alleged that it is part of the larger discrimination of Dalit students and also blamed union minister Bandaru Dattatreya's letter to Education Minister Smriti Irani alleging that the university had become a 'den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics'."

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There was also controversy over Vemula's caste. Some sections argued he was not actually a Dalit but an OBC. 

Vemula's death was discussed and reported widely and led to widespread protests and calls for social justice at the time.

"Rohith’s suicide is the symbol of systemic oppression, institutionalised discrimination and criminal negligence by the University of Hyderabad. His death became a quick impetus for a nationwide mobilisation demanding ‘Justice for Rohith’ and brought to the forefront the apathy, hatred and discrimination that the Dalit students face in institutions of higher learning," notes an article in The Wire.

Payal Tadvi

Payal Tadvi died by suicide in a room at BYL Nair Hospital in south Mumbai in May 2019. She was a postgraduate medical student there and caste abuse by fellow students was linked to her death.

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Payal belonged to the Tadvi Bhil tribal community that practices Islam. Those accused of abusing her were upper caste Hindus.

"Tadvi, a doctor belonging to the Bhil (of the Tadvi sub-caste) tribal community was allegedly tortured for over a year by three senior doctors – Hema Ahuja, Bhakti Mehare and Ankita Khandelwal – who hurled casteist slurs at her and kept her away from important jobs," reported The Wire, citing the police charge sheet in the case.

The family complained to hospital authorities but the abuse continued, according to report, which eventually led to the suicide.

The Wire further reported, "On May 13, her family had complained against the three accused to Dr Yi Ching Ling, head of the obstetrics-gynaecology department. Dr Ling, in her statement, has claimed that she had reprimanded the three female doctors. But according to a witness statement, Tadvi’s torture had only increased since the complaint."

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Senthil Kumar

PhD scholar Senthil Kumar died by suicide in 2008 at University of Hyderabad, the same university as Vemula. The suicide was linked to caste abuse.

The HT reported that he died after consuming poison. He belonged to the lower caste of paniyandis.

"The Vinod Pavarala committee, which investigated the circumstances that led to his suicide, found that discrimination against students from marginalised sections of society was one of the main reasons for the drastic step," reported HT.

P Raju

P Raju died by suicide in 2013 at the University of Hyderabad. He belonged to the Dalit community.

Though the police and university initially ruled the death as a case of "love failure", a fact finding report later noted that in the case of Raju and others, caste and financial background had a strong role to play.

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"The report, which took cognisance of at least 24 reported suicides in various colleges in Hyderabad till 2013, concluded that caste and financial background of students had a strong role to play in feelings of alienation among them," reported Scroll.

Scroll further quoted the report as saying: "Most of these students belong to marginalised classes and communities: i.e., SC, ST, OBC and Muslims. The presence of this factor in the perception of mainstream culture is an unmitigated disadvantage to these students, who are seen as an ‘atrocious presence’, ‘irritants’ and as undeserved beneficiaries of state generosity."

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