Challenging caste on campuses
Alienation, discrimination, and humiliation, combined with administrative dismissal of these experiences, have driven too many Dalit students to take their own lives. This is why the suicides of Dalit students are called institutional murders
On February 12, Darshan Solanki, a first-year BTech student at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Bombay took his own life. His passing marks the tragic loss of another Dalit student whose aspirations were cut short. As with the suicides of Rohith Vemula and Aniket Ambhore, Solanki’s death has been called an “institutional murder” by student peers and anti-caste activists.
Why are the suicides of Dalit students called institutional murders?
A good place to start is with the founding of the IITs. The IITs were founded as institutions of national importance, standing at the uppermost tier of a stratified structure of post-Independence higher education. Their outsized funding was justified as the necessary financial cost for producing an elite cadre of engineers. Exempting the IITs from reservations was the social cost. Equity, the government argued, would have to be sacrificed to merit.
This notion of merit obscured the inherited advantages enjoyed by the IITs’ student bodies. From the 1960s through the 2000s, the institutions were heavily weighted toward upper-caste urbanites with family histories of higher education and professional employment. Despite the unmistakable role of caste inheritances in determining admissions, the ideology of meritocracy prevailed. Upper-caste students were seen as uniquely meritorious individuals whose innate intelligence and hard work had paid off.
Assumptions about the individual merit of upper caste students were reinforced with the implementation of reservations. Quotas were intended to address historical inequities in educational access. Paradoxically, the policy has been used to further marginalise its beneficiaries and reinforce upper caste claims to merit. This is due, in part, to the reservation system’s method of classification; by limiting caste markers to those who are eligible for the reserved category, it erases the caste basis of the general category. This distinction between the seemingly casteless general category and the caste-based reserved category has allowed upper castes to argue that their dominance of elite higher education has nothing to do with inherited collective advantages.
Opposition to reservations is expressed through routine slights and indignities aimed at Dalit students. After having overcome the steep structural barriers of caste to attend the IITs, they arrive only to be stigmatised once again, this time as “quota students.” They are accused of stealing seats that would have gone to the truly deserving. Despite the accomplishments of many Dalit IITians, they are presumed to be intellectually inferior and incapable of success. That expectation of failure haunts these students throughout their time at IITs, making them feel like imposters and severely undermining their confidence. The hostility they experience can be shockingly blatant. In 2021, an IIT Kharagpur professor assigned to teach Dalit and Adivasi students in a preparatory course was recorded verbally abusing them as “shameless creatures,” threatening to fail them, and daring them to complain about her behaviour.
By contrast, upper-caste students speak of IIT campuses as spaces where caste does not matter. Here, they insist, “we’re all just IITians.” They accuse those who are trying to address caste at the IITs of politicising the campuses by bringing caste into caste-free spaces. When those who have borne the brunt of caste discrimination expose structural inequality and demand redress, they are charged with casteism. They are accused of being divisive, hateful, and anti-egalitarian for naming the unspoken status quo. But the disavowal of caste by those who enjoy its benefits must be understood for what it is: The comfortable inhabitation of the status quo by upper castes who do not bear the stigma of difference.
More recently, the IITs have been transformed by the rapidly expanding JEE coaching industry and the 2006 OBC reservations. The entry of more students from lower-caste and rural backgrounds has contributed to an emerging campus counterculture. They have forged their own organisations, such as IIT Bombay’s Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, to advance anti-caste and other critical perspectives and to bear witness to the stigmatisation of reserved category students. At the same time, some students and faculty invested in maintaining an upper caste status quo have aligned themselves more openly with Hindu nationalism and the war on dissent. This alignment comes with grave risks. In the current climate, some students who question casteism or Hindu nationalism are met with police violence and incarceration without due process. Despite such risks, a critical mass of students at the IITs is willing to challenge the upper-caste culture of these campuses. They have called for administrators to properly implement mandated quotes, to put in place mechanisms of vigilance and accountability, and to investigate the circumstances surrounding student suicides. Thus far, these efforts have largely been in vain. Some administrators deny the systemic workings of caste while others institute superficial protective and investigative mechanisms that are intended to fail. In IIT-Bombay, an internal panel has ruled out casteism as the reason for Darshan Solanki’s death, and pointed to poor academic performance instead.
Alienation, discrimination, and humiliation, combined with administrative dismissal of these experiences, have driven too many Dalit students to take their own lives. When the climate of a campus is not just hostile but deadly to its most vulnerable students, it is reasonable to call a suicide an institutional murder.
Ajantha Subramanian is Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies, professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies, Harvard University
The views expressed are personal