Caste On Campus: Dalit Students Face Exclusion, Alienation In India’s Higher Education Institutions

04 Apr 2023 18 min read  Share

A majority of students who died by suicide in IITs, IIMs and medical schools were Dalit, tribal, Muslim or from other underprivileged communities. Subtle, everyday caste discrimination that goes unacknowledged is common, and bias affects interactions with other students, teachers, administrators. Cultural differences, students told us, leave them feeling inferior. Official recommendations for redress have remained poorly implemented and ineffective.


Mumbai: A former student at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, Vaibhav Jadhav, tweeted in February 2023 about being cornered by a group of seniors during his freshman year. 

“Seeing that I was not one to fall in line, one of them asked me my rank,” wrote Jadhav. “I gave my SC (scheduled caste) category rank, to which he replied "Sala SC hone ke baad bhi itna attitude dikhata hai!  (Showing so much attitude despite being an SC).” 

Jadhav further said humiliation based on his case continued throughout his five years at what is one of India’s premier educational institutions. 

Jadhav is one of dozens of students admitted to top educational institutes across India who have spoken out in recent months about enduring caste-based discrimination. 

Another alumnus recounted a professor’s comment that he did not deserve to be at the prestigious IIT, and had been accepted only due to the quota for candidates from SCs and scheduled tribes (ST). 

Apeksha Priyadarshini, 31, a PhD scholar at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), said faculty members tended to make “subtle observations” on reserved category students’ performance, even though no overt casteist comments were made. 

“Nonetheless, you can detect the faculty's consistent treatment of students from marginalised communities,” said Priyadarshini. 

In December 2021, student-protestors at JNU alleged that PhD candidates from SC, ST and other backward classes (OBC) categories were repeatedly given low grades. The university categorically rejected the allegations.

When first year IIT-Bombay BTech student Darshan Solanki died by suicide on 12 February, the institute’s Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC), a students’ collective, sought to draw attention once again to “structural issues” and “everyday discrimination” that students of SC/ST communities face. 

An investigation by an IIT-Bombay inquiry committee found no evidence that Solanki’s “deteriorating academic performance” was connected to  caste-based discrimination.

There were 61 student suicides in the IITs, National Institutes of Technology (NITs), and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) between 2018 and March 2023, with contributing factors including academic stress, family reasons, personal reasons, mental health issues, and more, according to data provided by the union ministry of education to the Rajya Sabha on 15 March 2023.

Thirty-three of these were in the IITs, one every second month over the previous 63 months.  

Of 122 student suicides in top institutions and central universities between 2014 and 2021, according to government data, 68 were from backward communities, or 55%.

Former chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) Sukhadeo Thorat, who in 2007 led the first-ever government-appointed panel to study caste discrimination in higher education, said the high incidence of suicide among Dalit students points to continuing discrimination, exclusion and humiliation. 

“Caste discrimination in higher education is unquestionably a problem,” Thorat told Article 14, adding that this could be reflected in practices among students, between students and teachers and by the administration.  


Subtle Taunts Attack Students’ Dignity

Former and current students and research scholars said the suicides did not accurately reflect the extent of prejudice and bias, and that subtle forms of discrimination, concealed from public view, were rampant. 

Victims face subtly critical comments about academic performance, isolation by peers, discrimination in faculty-hiring practices and discrimination in admissions, leading to isolation and alienation, often translating into difficulties in coping with the academic pressure, they said. 

A former PhD applicant to JNU from a minority community who requested that his identity not be disclosed recounted that a supervisor prohibited him from even discussing his research proposal during his viva.

The supervisor reportedly told him he should have attended Jamia Millia Islamia instead “because I am a Muslim”. The 28-year-old independent researcher from Aligarh in western Uttar Pradesh said the supervisor did not look at his research proposal, asking only for the title. 

“After telling me that my thinking was highly colonial, he forbade me from explaining my research,” said the student. “He was rude.”

The viva did not last even four minutes, the former aspiring JNU research scholar said. 

“A Muslim applicant scored only one mark in the viva. A hijabi (wearing the head-dress) Muslim applicant was questioned about Prophet Mohammed by the supervisor,” he added. 

A BTech student from IIT-Ropar described being forced to reveal their IIT-Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) rank by the senior students.

“I could tell that some students were reluctant to disclose their rank yet felt under pressure to do so,” they said. “Anxiety caused one of the girls to start crying.”

An acquaintance told him about SC students being made the subject of jokes, and being told that reserved category students were studying and eating for free in the IITs.

Maharashtra-based activist and teacher Anoop Kumar whose students appear for entrance exams to higher educational institutions such as the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, wrote in his 2016 essay titled The Story of Caste and Indian Campuses:“There is something in-built in these spaces which takes away the dignity of our students and makes them feel very left out and unwelcome.”

‘We Are Immune To Suicides By Dalit Students’

In May 2019, Payal Tadvi, an MD student belonging to the tribal Muslim community of Tadvi Bhils, died by suicide due to alleged casteist abuse from upper caste seniors. She had been the first woman in her community to pursue an MD. 

In the wake of her death, in September 2021, a collective of four organisations released a report titled ‘The Steady Drumbeat of Institutional Casteism’ based on caste discrimination in medical education, and attempting to throw light on the experiences of various groups of students and staff members with relation to caste.

The report found that many of those surveyed believed that students admitted through reservations lack the aptitude to successfully complete these professional programmes. According to the report, there was a culture on campus that did not acknowledge discrimination.

 “Candidates from marginalised communities who get admission through reservation are accused of securing special favours from the government and the authorities,” said the report. The report surveyed 19 students, including 10 from marginalised communities, two Muslims, one OBC and six dominant castes, all doctors, nurses and hospital staff. 

In 2007, the Thorat committee under Sukhadeo Thorat investigated claims of unfair treatment of students enrolled through reservations in the All India Institute Of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi. 

According to its report, 72% of SC/ST students said they encountered caste discrimination at some point in the classroom; nearly 85% said SC students don’t receive enough time with examiners in comparison to higher caste students; nearly 40% said questions put to them were generally more difficult; 69% of SC/ST students stated that their teachers did not provide enough help; and about 50% cited accessibility issues.

These experiences indicated that discrimination took the form of “avoidance, contempt, non-cooperation, and discouragement and differential treatment by teachers”, the report said.

The Thorat committee’s recommendations included remedial coaching for SC/ ST students to strengthen their language skills, and remedial courses in basic courses. The committee also suggested that the governing body of AIIMS form a committee to determine the nature of these programmes, in close consultation with SC/ST students. It said AIIMS must take steps to make faculty members more sensitive to problems faced by SC/ST students.

The recommendations, issued in the year 2011, eight years before Tadvi’s suicide at a top medical education institute in Mumbai, were never implemented. 

"The AIIMS executive body was taken aback by the recommendations,” Thorat told Article 14. “They felt they were being accused of discrimination, so they rejected the majority of the recommendations.” 

In an earlier article, Throat wrote: “It is almost as if we have become immune to these frequent instances of suicide mainly by Dalit students.” 

Professor Thorat told Article 14 that even though there are UGC norms against caste discrimination in higher education, these are not actually practised.

Nearly a decade before Tadvi, Jaspreet Singh, a final year MBBS student at Government Medical College and Hospital in Chandigarh, died by suicide in 2010, allegedly due to harassment related to caste.

As in Tadvi’s case, senior students were among those investigated for caste-based abuse.  


Suicides In Top Institutes: Most From Marginalised Communities 

Between 2014 and 2021, according to reports,122 students died by suicide in central government-run higher educational institutes, including the IITs and IIMs.  

In 2021, then Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan said in a written response to Lok Sabha that among these, 24 were from SC communities,  three belonged to the ST category, and 41 were from OBCs. 

Central universities accounted for the highest number of suicides among these, at 37. 

Also, the majority of suicides by students occurred in the IITs, IIMs and medical schools, and the majority of the victims were Dalit, tribal, Muslim, or belonged to other underprivileged communities. 

“The government of India and the University Grants Commission have taken several initiatives to check the incidents of harassment and discrimination of students,” the minister told Parliament, and cited the UGC’s Redressal of Grievances of Students) Regulations, 2019.

The 2019 UGC guidelines had a precursor, the UGC Promotion of Equity in Higher Educational Institutions Regulations of 2012. Under these regulations,    "anti-discrimination" officers were to investigate student complaints of discrimination, and “protect student interests without regard to their caste, creed, religion, language, ethnicity, gender, or disability”.

Despite the 2012 and 2019 guidelines, students and students’ union members told Article 14, reserved category students continued to be taunted for getting scholarships, for paying lower fees, or for being able to avail a higher number of books from the library.

"Students are made to feel like they don't belong on campus,” said a PhD student from IIT-B. “If the reserved category student asks any question, they are reprimanded for asking it and are dubbed quota students.”

On 4 September 2014, IIT-B student Aniket Ambhore died after falling from his hostel building. It was unclear if it was a suicide or an accident, but media reports said Ambhore was struggling in class.   

In 2015, a three-member interim committee formed to investigate Ambhore’s death found that Ambhore’s death was not a result of caste discrimination but on account of him battling "internal contradiction". 

In 2017, the IIT-B formed an SC/ST cell that focuses on the concerns, academic and otherwise, of students from reserved categories. The cell was one of the suggestions made by the committee formed after Ambhore’s death, as well as a demand made by the APPSC.

A member of the APPSC who requested not to be identified said this cell did not take proactive action until 2021. “... it was as good as an invisible body that nobody on campus knew about…” he said. 

According to the APPSC’s recommendations to the cell, the institution needed an equal opportunities cell for students from reserved categories, mental health support for these students, and activities to sensitise the campus.

A former member of the IIT-Bombay SC/ST cell told Article 14 that none of this was implemented. “In 2021, a new set of conveners assumed charge of the cell. In 2022 they conducted two surveys, the first to look into the challenges that SC/ST students are experiencing, and the second to check on mental health issues of the students from the reserved category,” the former member of the cell said. 

Article 14 sought comment from SC/ST cell convener professor Madhu N Belur, but did not receive a response.


Outsiders With Scarce Resources Face On-Campus Exclusion

Digambar Bagul, a 34-year-old PhD scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai, said students from the reserved category encounter difficulties at the stage of applications, admissions, and then through the duration of the course. 

“The majority of these students come from underprivileged backgrounds, but their mess/hostel fee is the same as that for students in the general category. They struggle with language, their professors ignore them, and they have difficulty socialising,” said Bagul. 

Bagul said most students at TISS and other higher educational institutions in Maharashtra wouldn’t be able to afford the annual mess and hostel fees if it was not for the Swadhar Yojana for the SC/ST student. The Maharashtra Swadhar Yojana was established for students from the state's SC/ST communities whose family income is less than Rs 2.5 lakh a year, and who wish to further their education but lack the financial means to do so.

Delays in disbursement of this scholarship money are common, he continued, and  students sometimes finish their degree and continue to await the money. According to Bagul, research students are required to pay the full fee before submitting a PhD proposal, and the delay in disbursement of the scholarship leads to many from lower income backgrounds being unable to do so.

“Where will these students get the money from, how will they submit their proposal?” said Bagul. “Isn’t this state’s fault?”

He added that most students from reserved categories come from remote parts of the country, and have limited means.

“Students from metropolitan cities speak in English, teachers speak in English, all presentations are done in English, and students from reserved category who come from remote villages are unable to understand,” he said. This leads to a social exclusion within the campus that is difficult to overcome, he added.  

In his book Caste Discrimination and Exclusion in Indian Universities: A Critical Reflection, Delhi university professor N Sukumar, PhD, highlights caste prejudices that dominate campus life and its activities that are structured in ways as to make reserved category students feel inferior. 

Sukumar told Article 14 that caste discrimination on campus needed to be acknowledged first. Administrators and teachers tended to single out students from reserved categories who come from marginalised backgrounds, he said, adding that  institutes like the IITs push these students to enrol in “preparatory classes” to get them accustomed to the IIT environment. 

“These students enter the toxic IITs, they come from a background where they lack social capital, they come from struggle, and then they face these stakeholders who are not ready to accept them,” said Sukumar. 

Caste discrimination on campus should be acknowledged and stopped just like  ragging, he said. 

 “The reason institutions do not accept caste bias on campus is that if they accept it, then they have to act on the discrimination and implement the policies,” Sukumar said. “The directors in higher institutions are anti-reservation, hence anti-Constitution.”

Having Suicidal Thoughts, Said Reserved Category Students

Article 14 obtained the results of the IIT-Bombay SC/ST cell’s February 2022 survey of 388 students from reserved categories. As many as 77 clearly stated the nature of caste harassment they had experienced on campus. 

According to the survey, 37%.1 of SC/ST students were asked by other students to share their JEE rank, apparently in order to determine their caste identity. 

According to the findings of the SC/ST cell’s second survey in March 2022, in which about 20% of the total SC/ST students participated, many said they were dealing with suicidal thoughts.

A further survey was conducted in May 2022 among SC/ST students in association with IIT-B's Student Wellness Center, with a view to better assess mental health of students from marginalised communities.  

This survey found that many SC/ST students preferred to hide their caste identity in order to escape the stigma of reservation.

“... 9 % of students (12 students) attributed caste as a substantial reason for their mental health problems. Four students (3 %) also identified professors' casteist and discriminatory attitudes as the reason for their mental health issues,” the survey report said. 

In June 2022, SC/ST students expressed their lack of trust in the Student Wellness Center’s efforts to ameliorate mental health challenges faced by SC/ST students, citing a social media post by the head counsellor in which she said reservations were being misused.  

“How can the institute expect SC/ST students to visit a counsellor who openly expresses her contempt for reservations? How can they feel at ease with such a person?” said one PhD scholar. “This is worse than hell.”   

Despite a complaint against the head counsellor, no action was taken until she was replaced in February 2023.  

Even after the surveys, no action was forthcoming in cases of caste discrimination, and the survey reports were never shared on campus, the former cell member said.  

Article 14 emailed IIT-Bombay’s public relations officer for a comment on 28 March, but did not receive a response.

 Wellness centre members conceded that they were not very familiar with the difficulties that students from the SC/ST community experience, according to one APPSC member. The member reportedly said SC/ST students “come from ghettos” and then live on IIT campuses for free.

“Being trauma-informed is not enough, being trauma-informed with the lens of caste is important,” said an APPSC member about the failure of the wellness centre to address mental health concerns arising from caste-based discrimination on campus. 

Lack Of Diversity, Representation Among Faculty Members


Darshan Solanki, 18, who jumped from the seventh floor of his hostel building at IIT-Bombay on 12 February 2023, had joined the prestigious institute only three months earlier, in November 2022, as a BTech (Chemical Engineering) student.

A first-generation higher education aspirant from his family, Solanki’s lower income group family in Maninagar, Ahmedabad, alleged that their son had faced caste-based discrimination in the institute and that he had confided in his family. 

“Darshan said students didn't treat him well and wouldn't assist him when he needed something. He was ignored by other students,” his sister Jhanvi told Article 14

Almost a month after a special investigation team (SIT) was formed by the Maharashtra government to investigate Solanki’s death, a suicide note was reportedly found in his room, allegedly naming a classmate. 

However, according to the interim report of the 12-member committee appointed by the director of IIT-Bombay to investigate the death, Solanki might have “felt aloof probably due to various possible causes including JEE-rank differences, computer familiarity and language barrier”.

The report was submitted on 2 March, 18 days after Solanki’s suicide.

A faculty member who spoke anonymously said the absence of diversity and representation in the faculty is an important source of the challenges SC/ST  students face at IIT-Bombay. 

In 2021, the union ministry of education said in Lok Sabha that across 45 central universities, there was only one vice-chancellor from an SC community, and one from an ST community. 

This was despite the fact that 7.5% of seats in central institutions are reserved for STs, 15% for SCs, 27% for OBCs, and 10% for the economically weaker sections (EWS).  

Sukumar said one reason for the low representation of SC/ST faculty in top institutions is that if candidates from marginalised communities reach those  positions, they would “start questioning the bias” practised on campus.  

He said that SC/ST faculty do not have enough representation and those who raise their voice against discrimination fear suspension of promotions or other punitive measures. 

Professor Sukumar said 70%-80% of all IIT directors have expressed doubts about  implementing reservations on campus. He also referred to a December 2020 recommendation made by an eight-member panel of IIT directors constituted by the ministry of education, which said the IITs should be exempt from reservations because they were “institutes of national importance and are involved in research”.

“The reason these directors gave is that reservation dilutes the academic standard. If directors can say that, then it’s not surprising how students and faculty behave with quota students,” said Sukumar. 

He said a social audit should be done in IITs and IIMs on qualified applicants rejected for faculty member positions.  

Shamal Jaykar, a counselling psychologist based in Mumbai, said caste discrimination was so normalised that students often do not realise they are being discriminated against. “... they might experience some discomfort but they are unaware why it’s happening,” she said.

She cited cases of SC/ST students being told they were not worthy of attending an IIT.  “When a student is continuously told they don’t deserve to be on campus, they themselves start believing it,” she said.  

A PhD scholar from IIT-Bombay said SC/ST students could not hope for protection in a space where the hegemony of the upper caste prevails. Backward class students face a “structural alienation”, he said. 

“On campus, if a student has a rank around 8,000, it is easy to figure out that he or she belongs to a reserved category. Your social category, class, and caste are determined by your ranking,” said the scholar. Once other students find out about a student’s caste, they eventually start excluding him/her from social and academic circles.

Professor Sukumar said students from reserved categories need radical empathy, not sympathy, and institutions that are egalitarian and democratic. 

“Accepting quota students as equals is very important, people need to come together and make a change… Most importantly, a strict law should be implemented,” said Sukumar.

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(Arshi Qureshi is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)