The recent suicide of a Dalit student in IIT Bombay followed a drearily familiar trajectory. Accusations of ‘institutional murder’ by Dalit student groups, strenuous denials by management—none of which will change an entrenched culture that equates caste with merit. Also: who decided Brahmin boys make excellent engineers? Or that Dalits—who were once the masters of technical skill—have no ‘merit’? We look at the colonial history of engineering for some answers.
Yet another IIT suicide: The same old story
On February 12, Darshan Solanki—an 18-year-old student studying to be a chemical engineer—jumped off the seventh floor of his hostel in IIT-Bombay. He was the first to attend college in his family. His father Rameshbhai is a plumber—and mother Tarlikaben is a domestic worker. The university sent out a message “deeply mourning” his loss—but did not mention him by name. Later, student groups would point out this strange anomaly:
I was so disturbed to see the director’s email that I went back to see other condolence notes issued by the institute over the past few years. Notes issued on the deaths of cats and dogs too mentioned their names. They denied Darshan a dignified farewell even at his death.
Family vs IIT-B: The university has been very firm in denying any role of caste discrimination in his death: “While no steps can be 100% effective, discrimination by students, if at all it occurs, is an exception”—and there is “no indication that the student faced any such discrimination.”
But his family has no doubts about what drove Solanki to take his life:
When he came last month, he told me, and mom-dad, that there's caste discrimination happening there. His friends came to know that he belongs to a scheduled caste, so their behaviour towards him changed. They stopped talking to him, they stopped hanging out with him.
His mother insists: "He was in distress, he was being tortured”—emotionally, if not physically. The Dalit students group on campus tweeted: “We must understand that this is not a personal/individualised issue, but an institutional murder.”
Where we are now: Student groups have demanded the resignation of the director. Management has convened a panel to investigate the death—which includes members of the university’s Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe student cell. The family is demanding a special investigation into his death—claiming that Solanki left a suicide note—which has been refuted by the police.
Point to note: We now know that the university conducted two campus-wide surveys in 2022 to assess the level of casteism. Around 20% of SC/ST students participated in the first survey, which showed the following:
According to the personal experiences of SC/ST students… the most common way of caste discrimination within the institute manifested in the form of anti-reservation sentiment. This came in the form of SC/ST students being made fun of and being looked down upon for their reserved category status, faculty “blaming” them for lowering the quality of IITs, and not many mechanisms to address these issues.
We also know that the university had many ‘plans’ to help support lower caste students—including a sensitisation course, a more effective mentoring program and hiring SC/ST counsellors.
IIT-B’s dismal record: These good intentions don’t signify very much—given IIT-B’s history. In 2014, when a Dalit student died by suicide, the committee investigating his death admitted it was caused by a “discriminative atmosphere.” And yet it took the university seven years to set up an SC/ST student cell. Last May, the cell went public with the fact that they had not been allotted any office space—even though the administration cleared 4000+ sq ft space for a gaushala. FYI: the student cell learned of Solanki’s death from the local newspaper.
Beyond Bombay: An IIT disease
A litany of tragedies: There is no shortage of suicides involving lower or backward caste students on IIT campuses.
- Between 2014 and 2021, there were 34 cases of suicide on IIT campuses—of which 18 involved students from SC or Other Backward Castes. That’s around 58% of the cases.
- There were three reported cases of suicides in IIT-Kharagpur between 2014-2019—all of them from lower castes.
- Two students in IIT-Delhi committed suicide in 2021.
- But that pales in comparison to IIT-Madras’ record. The campus witnessed four suicides in 2019—including Fathima Lateef who was being harassed by three professors because of her religion.
- In 2022, police lurched into action after two years to arrest four men involved in the harassment and rape of a Dalit PhD student.
- In 2021, an assistant professor resigned because he was being harassed: “The discrimination came from individuals in positions of power irrespective of their claimed political affiliations and gender.”
Data points to note: While suicide may be an extreme outcome, the persistent and crippling bias has other serious consequences. For example, 63% of students who drop out of the seven IITs belong to backward castes. Also: discrimination is not limited to students. An RTI inquiry by Hindustan Times revealed these depressing statistics about the IIT faculty:
None of the 22 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have more than six teachers belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (ST) community, while 18 of them have 10 or less candidates from the Scheduled Castes (SC) category on their faculty rolls. Seven IITs had 10 or less faculty members from the other backward classes (OBC) community.
The colonial roots of IIT’s ‘meritocracy’
The entire structure of caste discrimination in IIT rests on a spurious definition of ‘merit’. The C-word is rarely spelled out—instead it is thinly disguised as a debate over reservations. This also allows upper caste management to accuse lower caste students of “poisoning” the atmosphere with divisive talk of casteism. However, this equation of engineering ability and upper caste merit is not a post-independence invention—but is deeply rooted in our colonial history.
The gentleman engineer: In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, engineering was considered a trade associated with guilds—not to be taught in the classroom but on the shop floor. But by the early 20th century, engineering became the preserve of the privileged—associated with the prestige of science and mathematics. This move to the ‘gentleman engineer’ was accelerated in India for a more pressing reason. The colonial administration was worried that the working class Englishman would not be able to lord it over well-educated upper caste Indians—threatening the racial order.
Hence, the college set up in 1870 to train students for the Indian engineering service had admission requirements that had very little to do with technical aptitude:
In addition to being of “sound constitution and of good moral character,” applicants had to pass a test covering mathematics; natural science; Latin; Greek; French; German; the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson, Scott, and Byron; and English history from 1688 to 1756. In effect, it was a test of gentlemanliness.”
Enter, the brahmin engineer: The staggering costs of training English engineers for the colonies finally forced a change by the early 1900s. And Indianization began in earnest by 1919. Unsurprisingly, the upper caste male was viewed as the suitable replacement for the English gentleman engineer. The engineering route also offered the added benefit of diverting him from more pesky disciplines:
For colonial officials like Lord George Hamilton, the secretary of state, there was an immediate political reason to direct Indians away from literature and philosophy. As he put it peevishly, literary education, “joy of the Babu and anglicized Brahmin… produces a wholesale mass of discontented individuals who, if they cannot find government employment spend their time in abusing the government which has educated them.”
Very big point to note: The decision to groom upper caste Indians as engineers was absurd for a variety of reasons. For starters: the brahmanical aversion to manual labour—which was associated with the lowest castes. As Caravan notes:
The great engineers of medieval India were mainly Shudras… Sometimes called the Vishwakarma community, these artisans and craftsmen worked in hereditary guilds. They studied structural design, mathematics, material science and the artistic conventions of the day. Commissioned by kings, merchants and Brahmins—who disdained all manual labour themselves—the Shudras, aided by the labour of those considered “untouchable” and outside the varna hierarchy, built all of India’s engineering marvels, including its grand temple towns, magnificent cities such as Vijayanagar and medieval fort-palaces.
The Brahmins instead had to be cajoled into engineering—by associating the discipline with prestigious colleges and social mingling with English sahibs: “As a result by the early twentieth century, public works had become a gentlemanly affair conducted between white and brown elites.”
The post-independence era: Soon after independence, engineering colleges became modern “temples” of India—and upper caste Indians soon became their high priests. Jawaharlal Nehru declared the engineer as the new “nation builder”—even describing it as a vehicle for “the Brahminic spirit of service”—but carefully delinked from the actual messy work of building this new India:
By 1947… engineering, anchored in civil-services jobs, had become “a coveted, high-status profession best suited to the high-born” and seen as integral to nation-building—a feat “intimately linked to its disassociation from the ‘tainted’ technical labour of the lower castes” that now powered the new industries.
The diaspora upgrade: In the late 1960s, IIT graduates—led by Tamil Brahmins— started leaving India for more lucrative jobs overseas—especially the United States. The engineering degree acquired the added lustre of becoming the passport to the West. Namit Arora writes:
Eighty percent of the students in my department went abroad, most settling down in suburbia with Silicon Valley jobs and thriving in the structured hierarchies of corporate America. I too was part of this exodus. India lacked opportunities to utilise their talent, the IITians shrugged on their way out. “Brain drain is better than brain in the drain,” was the popular claim.
Fifty years later, the IIT has become synonymous with India’s claim to technological excellence in the US. Its graduates are positioned as humble brown folks who made it in America by the dint of hard work and talent—happily erasing the caste/class privilege that made it possible for them to migrate.
The reservation era: In 1973, the government instituted the first quotas for SC/ST students in educational institutions. The initial number: 22.5%. By the early 1980s, lower caste students started trickling into IIT campuses. But it did little to add diversity to the campuses:
The quota allowed a five-percent relaxation in qualifying marks for SC/ST candidates and went largely unfilled in most years… This was because very few Dalit and Adivasi candidates were reaching high school to even qualify for the entrance exam, let alone do well in it, partly because primary education remained callously neglected.
But the status quo was rudely rocked in 2006 by the Supreme Court—which issued a ruling requiring 27% reservation of seats for OBCs in all central government institutions. This intervention set off a furore on campuses:
By the 1980s, the IITians almost entirely aspired to either the Indian private sector or migration abroad. So only reservations in the IITs angered them—and the students and alumni raised a big stink worldwide in 2006, signing fiery petitions and organising protest events, such as a human-chain rally in Delhi supported by PanIIT, the alumni organisation representing all IITs.
Where we are now: Setting aside the debate as to whether reservations work or not, quotas have now become a club to bludgeon lower caste students. Reservations introduced a distinction between “caste-based” reserved category and the “merit-based” general category—which is viewed as caste-free. Not accidentally, the general category is also dominated by upper caste kids—who have access to better schooling, resources and support. All of which reinforces the idea that upper caste students are inherently talented—compared to the ‘meritless’ lower castes.
And that brings us full circle, back to Solanki, whose family claims that he became a social pariah the moment his friends learned of his caste. His aunt says:
One month ago when he came here, he was saying that many students don't like that I am studying for free. People are jealous, they ask 'why are you studying for free while we are spending a lot of money'. 'Many students are jealous of me,' he told me.
Survey after survey across IIT campuses shows us Solanki is hardly an exception. The toxic equation of caste with merit enables the daily persecution of SC/ST students—who are repeatedly shamed and ostracised until they either drop out or choose suicide.
The bottomline: Equality is one of the core values of a democracy. And education is the singlemost powerful engine of social mobility. Ergo: if we can’t afford the most marginalised Indians a safe space to learn, aspire and rise, we have failed as a democracy.
The Wire has the most details on Solanki’s suicide. There is very little scholarly work on the colonial roots of Indian engineering other than Ajantha Subramanian’s book ‘The Caste of Merit’. You can read excerpts in The Print—and her essay in Open Magazine. You can also read a balanced critique of her work over at Scroll. This study in Economic and Political Weekly lays out the results of a survey in IIT-Banaras. Also interesting: This reported piece in IIT-Kanpur’s campus magazine. Nature has lots of data and charts on the exclusion of lower castes from PhD programmes and faculty positions.