Caste discrimination on campuses is claiming lives, smashing dreams

Ashraf Engineer

October 14, 2023


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

Let me take a few names and you think of what’s common between them all. Rohith Vemula. Aniket Ambhore. Payal Tadvi. Darshan Solanki. If they ring a bell, here’s why. They were all young people from the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe community, better known as SC/ST. And they all committed suicide because of caste discrimination on campus. Such harassment on Indian campuses, even on those of our elite institutions, is a cause for great concern. Earlier this year, Chief Justice DY Chandrachud said: “Incidents of suicides of students from marginalised communities are becoming common. These numbers are not just statistics. They are stories of centuries of struggle.” And it’s not just students; even faculty members from marginalised communities are being targeted.


Chief Justice Chandrachud mentioned the suicide of Solanki, a student of IIT Bombay, who died after allegedly jumping off the seventh floor of his hostel.

Much earlier, Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan told the Lok Sabha that between 2014 and 2021, 122 students died by suicide at our IITs, IIMs, NITs and other central universities. Of these, 68 were from reserved categories.

According to a report presented to the Rajya Sabha, “It is often seen that these (SC/ST) students have performed very well in theory but were marked as failed in practical exams.”

The SC/ST Welfare Committee report also confirmed that candidates applying for faculty positions face caste discrimination. According to Ministry of Education data last December, more than 11,000 professor posts were vacant in central universities, IITs and IIMs across India. So, the government’s claims of filling SC/ST faculty seats in central universities under mission mode were shown to be hollow with only 30% of the vacant posts filled.

Of 45 central universities, 33 had 1,097 vacancies in the SC/ST category. But, only 212 were filled. So, it would seem, Constitutional assurances of equality and protection have remained on paper.

This social discrimination is, ironically, rampant on campuses where you would expect more enlightenment. But, historically, students from lower castes have faced not just discrimination but also hate.

A Pew Research report said: “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 neighbour.” So, it’s not surprising that students say their experiences on campus can be suffocating and alienating. But it’s only when there is a suicide that the societal fissures exposed.

Because of their underprivileged backgrounds, lower caste students often lack finesse and language skills. Because of this, they are also kept out of extracurricular activities. It is the soft skills that dictate how teachers treat you, whether they are willing to write recommendations for you and it even affects placements.

The alienation, many have noted, starts early. And, no matter how much a Dalit student progresses, they can’t ever become part of sought after social groups.

When a student commits suicide, it’s their caste that often decides how the tragedy is viewed. An upper caste suicide leads to conversations around mental health but, when a lower caste student commits suicide, they are often termed as weak performers who couldn’t handle the academic pressure. This is how caste discrimination is swept under the carpet.

India does have affirmative action in the form of reservations but institutions are dominated by upper caste teachers and students. An Oxfam India report said: “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.”

Education is often the only path to upward social mobility for students of lower castes and discrimination on campuses sets them back significantly. Various research studies have noted deep-rooted prejudices against SC students, which is normalised.

I want to list some student suicides linked to caste discrimination.

Darshan Solanki. On February 12 this year, Solanki, a first-year BTech student at IIT Bombay, made a routine call to his parents. He told them what his day had been like. His father had transferred Rs 3,000 into his account so that Solanki could enjoy a weekend outing. Less than 45 minutes later, Solanki had committed suicide. He was 18 years old, a first-generation Dalit student at India’s premier technology institute. His father was a plumber and his mother a domestic worker.

Solanki left no suicide note behind but fellow students termed his death an “institutional murder”. A students’ collective alleged he faced caste discrimination. The Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle at IIT Bombay said: “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 marginalised.”

Meanwhile, an internal IIT Bombay investigation ruled out caste discrimination and said Solanki’s academic performance was poor, suggesting that was what led to the suicide.

Let’s talk now about the Rohith Vemula case, perhaps the most covered caste-related student suicide. Vemula was a PhD scholar in Hyderabad in 2016 and was found dead, hanging in a hostel room at the University of Hyderabad. Earlier, Vemula had been suspended from the hostel and students blamed caste oppression for the suicide.

Students sat with the body all night, raising slogans and alleging he was the victim of a social boycott. After being thrown out of the hostel and barred from the mess, Rohith and four other research scholars had been living in a tent outside the campus gate.

Vemula and the other suspended students were part of an Ambedkarite organisation and were accused of attacking a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Soon after his death, apologists for caste discrimination went to the extent of alleging that Vemula was not a Dalit at all.

There were two other cases at the University of Hyderabad. PhD scholar Senthil Kumar committed suicide in 2008, again, due to alleged caste abuse, by consuming poison. He belonged to the Paniyandi caste.

P Raju, a Dalit, also committed suicide in 2013 at the university.

Now the Payal Tadvi suicide, which occurred at the BYL Nair Hospital in Mumbai in May 2019. She was a post-graduate medical student and belonged to the Tadvi Bhil tribal community. Those accused of harassing her were upper caste Hindus. It was alleged that Tadvi was tortured for over a year by three senior doctors  who hurled casteist slurs at her. A complaint was filed but the abuse continued.

Caste is one of India’s greatest curses. It’s a large, gaping gash on the fabric of society that will tear apart if we don’t repair it. It’s a monster that is claiming our young, destroying dreams and fracturing communities. Discrimination, its offspring, is running amok on our campuses.

The students are right; these weren’t suicides but murders. Unless we come together as a society to stamp out caste, we will lose a Rohith Vemula, a Darshan Solanki, a Senthil Kumar, a P Raju and a Payal Tadvi every day.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at Catch you again soon.