How many lives will it take before India acknowledges dominant caste hegemony in educational institutes? CJP reviews anti-discriminatory guidelines failing Dalit-Adivasi students, costing precious lives like those of Darshan Solanki and Rohith Vemula

09, Mar 2023 | Tanya Arora

“Please give us poison at the time of admission itself instead of humiliating us like this”

– Late Rohith Vemula in a letter to Vice Chancellor Appa Rao a month before he took his own life

On February 26, the Chief Justice of India, D Y Chandrachud, addressed the issue of ostracisation and harassment that a student belonging to the Dalit or Adivasi community faces in top institutions of India. He was speaking at the National Academy of Legal Studies. He said that he was disturbed by incidents of students from marginalised communities taking their lives in top institutions, and that there was a pattern in Dalit and Adivasi students dying by suicide that needs to be questioned. 

The CJI had further said that the time had come to have a model of education that had empathy at its core rather than excellence. Talking about the suicides of a Dalit student at IIT Bombay, Darshan Solanki, and a tribal student at PG Anaesthesia in Kakatiya Medical College, he had said that these numbers are not just statistics, these are stories that embody centuries old struggles. The first step, he pointed out, is to acknowledge and recognise the problem.

This is neither the first time that a student belonging to the Dalit or Adivasi community has committed suicide due to systematic callousness failures, nor the first time that words of anguish over such an act have been uttered. 

Educational institutions, especially institutions of higher learning, have been consistently identified as sites of caste-based discrimination and violence [1]. According to the report by the All India Survey of Higher Education in 2019-2020, students from among the Scheduled Castes (SCs) constitute only 14.7% and those from Scheduled Tribes (STs) 5.6% of all enrolments in higher education. The gross enrolment ratio in higher education [2] for SC students is 23.4% and that for ST students is 18.0%; where the national average in India is 27.1%.

Even though the Indian Constitution contains numerous safeguards and provisions for the protection of people belonging to marginalised communities, Dalits and Adivasis have continued to face discrimination and exclusion within universities and such higher learning institutes. The Constitution of India contains provisions promoting the rights and interests of the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), in the form of both Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles for State Policies (DPSP). In addition to this, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) contains sections that provide punishments for those who commit crimes against the SC/ST community. Special laws have been passed, such as the Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1955 and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 (amended in 2015), both of which prescribe harsher punishments for crimes against Dalits than the IPC. Special courts have been established in major states to expedite the trial of cases registered solely under these Acts. The SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, which was passed by Parliament in December 2015, made several critical changes. New offenses are added to the list. Among them are prohibitions on Dalits using common property resources, entering places of public worship, and entering educational institutions.

While these laws remain largely on paper, the reality is chilling. Dalit students face discrimination from the inception of their academic careers. While discrimination might be more visible at the university level than it is in primary schools, this, however begins these and happens on a daily basis. Students from Dalit communities who strive to enter the competitive educational system are squeezed out by systemic (and often, violent) caste-based discrimination. Daily caste prejudice that they then experience, drives some of the most exploited to commit suicide. Time and again these issues have been brought to the forefront, typically after a young person belonging to the Dalit or Adivasi community loses her or his life. 

This struggle against institutional casteism is not new, and the existing constitutional and legal legislations, stated-above, have not been successful in fully protecting either Dalit and Adivasi students. Caste is embedded in the social and cultural construct of our universities. It is not simply just a law-and-order issue. There is a popular and commonly held misconception that universities are caste-neutral. Casteism in fact is structural and rooted however, manifest in how the institute itself, department heads, institution heads, or management conduct themselves and respond. Especially when it comes to the specific othering and discrimination faced by students from these sections Typically, the determinants of caste can be read through language, the “command over English”, submissiveness, articulation, mode of dress, and colour of the complexion. While most students overlook individual bigotry, others are driven to the brink by systemic ridicule. Most non-Dalits regard those belonging to the marginalised communities as sub-humans, and frequently verbally abuse, demean, and ostracise them. 

Through this legal resource, we are going to scrutinise the guidelines and safeguards that have been put in place to protect and support the Dalit and Adivasi students, and analyse whether these guidelines have been at all successful in doing so.

History of Caste Discrimination in Higher Institutions: 2007 Thorat Committee Report

In 2007, the then prime-minister Manmohan Singh had set up the Thorat Committee following grave and widespread allegations of differential treatment and discrimination against students belonging to Dalit and Adivasi communities. This decision had come after the Dalit and Adivasi students complained of direct and subtle forms of discrimination that were painstakingly documented by the Committee. 

The committee was headed by professor SK Thorat (chairperson), and consisted of Dr. K.M. Shyamprasadand Dr. R.K. Srivastava as members. It was set up with the objective of “enquiring into allegations of differential treatment of SC/ST students in the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMMS).”

In the 77 pages report, it was revealed that 76% of the students were asked about their caste directly or indirectly during evaluations, while 84% of the students claimed that their grades were affected owing to their caste. The report had further provided that students belonging to the marginalised communities were forced to live in isolation in hostel rooms, faced discrimination in the mess (where students ate their food), faced abuse and violence by dominant castes and external examiners that were invited for the viva (oral interviews) of SC/ST students. The report had also provided that SC/ST students experienced discrimination in various forms, from avoidance, contempt, non- cooperation, and discouragement and differential treatment by teachers towards these students.

A deeper analysis of the report can be read here.

Sixteen years have since this report was passed but the situation is only gotten worse. In 2019, while speaking the New India Express, Professor Sukhdeo Thorat had said that “Nearly 25-30 students in top educational institutes have died in the last decade or so but the subsequent governments have failed to take any concrete policy decision to end caste discrimination in educational institutes.”

Initiatives to prevent discrimination in Higher Education by the UGC

  1. In order to check discrimination and harassment of any section of students and to strengthen the grievance redressal mechanism, the University Grants Commission (Grievance Redressal) Regulations, 2012 has been formulated. These regulations had intended to give effect in letter and spirit to the provisions of the Constitution and other statutory provisions and policies for prevention of discrimination on the grounds of caste and to safeguards the interests of the students belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The regulations also sought to provide for advancement of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students through setting up of Equal Opportunity Cells in each Higher Educational Institution.
  2. The UGC had also approved the establishment of SC/ST Cells in various Universities with a view to safeguard the interests of SC/ST students.
  3. In order to make the universities/colleges more responsive to the needs and constraints of the disadvantaged social groups, the UGC is giving financial assistance to all eligible Colleges/Universities to establish Equal Opportunity Centres. The aim and objective of this Scheme is to oversee the effective implementation of policies and programmes for disadvantaged groups, to provide guidance and counselling with respect to academic, financial, social and other matters and to enhance the diversity within the campus.
  4. Other initiatives included provisions of Anti Discriminatory faculty advisors for SC/ST students who look into their problems and advise accordingly, appointment of Student Counsellors to address personal, academic, psychological and family related problems, providing sports and extra-curricular activities, setting up counselling centres, provision of anxiety helpline, and setting up disciplinary action committee to take urgent action in case of any complaints of reported ragging, discrimination based on caste, creed, religion and gender etc [3].

As had been provided by the Union Minister for Human Resource Development, Dr. Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ in a written reply in the Lok Sabha in the year 2019, the UGC has issued several instructions from time to time to all State Governments and Centrally Funded Education Institutions to curb discrimination of any kind in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs)/Universities. 

In June 2019, UGC had advised all the Vice-Chancellor of all Universities to constitute a committee to look into the discrimination complaints received from the SC/ST/OBC Students/Teachers and non-teaching staff [4].

In September 2020, had issued an advisory against caste-based discrimination in higher education institutions. It had asked institutions to look into such cases seriously to avoid discrimination against students from the historically marginalised Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC and ST) on grounds of their backgrounds [5].

The UGC has issued a notice stating that the officials and faculty members of educational institutions should “desist from any act of discrimination against SC/ST students on grounds of their social origin”.

It had also urged the institutions to create a page on their website for lodging such complaints by SC, ST students and also place a complaint register in the registrar or principal office for the purpose. 

In February 2021, the UGC had asked all the higher educational institutions to ensure that no official and faculty members indulge in any form of caste discrimination against Schedule Caste (SC) and Schedule Tribe (ST) students. The Commission had also directed the institutions to develop a page on their website for lodging complaints of caste discrimination and to ensure prompt action against erring official and faculty members, re-iterating the direction they had issued in the previous year’s advisory note too [6].

Furthermore, the UGC also sought the constitution of a committee to look into discrimination complaints received from the SC/ST/OBC students and teachers and non-teaching staff. It added that faculty members and officials of colleges/universities must be advised to be more sensitive while dealing with incidents of caste discrimination.

The circular is as follows:

Norms framed by AICTE to prohibit discriminatory incidents in technical institutions:

  1. For protection against harassment and discrimination of Scheduled Castes in AICTE Approved Institutions, it is essential for all AICTE approved institutions to Establish Committee for SC/ ST (As per the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, No. 33 of 1989, dated 11.09.1989).
  2. As per AICTE norms each (AICTE approved) Institution shall upload the number of complaints and grievances received and action taken on their Web site and update AICTB through the monthly online status report.
  3. In case of receipt of any complaint(s) about an Institution, the same shall be processed by Public Grievance Redressal Cell (PGRC) of AICTE established to dispose of the complaint cases.
  4. AICTE takes action against such institutions (AICTE Approved) for violation of AICTE norms as mentioned in Chapter VII of the Approval Process Handbook (APH) of year concerned and punishes them as appropriate [7].

Are these Special Cells in Higher University actually working?

The Case of Indian Institute of Technology

According to Ministry of Education data, the IITs recorded 34 suicides from 2014 to 2021, with 18 from the SC and OBC communities losing their life [8]. Dalit rights activist Anoop Kumar had stated in the 2011 documentary named ‘Death of Merit’ that a significant portion of those who committed suicide in the IITs between 2007 and 2011 were Dalits [9].

A survey cited in the Economic & Political Weekly investigated how caste influenced students’ perceptions at IIT-Banaras Hindu University. Thirteen percent of students in the SC/ST category reported that their teachers’ attitudes toward them were hostile [10]. When asked about the perceived academic ability of students in the SC/ST category, 61 percent of the respondents in the general category felt that it was ‘less than others’ [11]. In comparison, 46 percent of SC/ST category students also thought it was ‘less than others’. 

In the year 2020, a panel of IIT directors and some government officials had submitted a report to the Ministry of Education suggesting that IITs should be exempted from reservation in appointments as they are ‘institutes of national importance’ [12].  They had further said that to preserve the ‘higher merit’ of these institutions, reservation policy shall be barred.  In a subtle way, this report had argued that candidates chosen through the reservation policy are unqualified, and thus may jeopardise the ‘efficiency’ criterion.

According to the testimony given by the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) of IIT Bombay, it was a long struggle to get the IIT institutes to establish a SC/ST cell in the IITs. A struggle which had begun in September 2014, after Aniket Ambhore, a 22 year old fourth year B. Tech student of IIT Bombay, died from falling from a hostel building on the campus at IIT Bombay [13]. As per their narrative, it was due to their consistent struggles that a special cell was established in IITs. It took them 7 years to set up the SC/ST Cell on the campus. These SC/ST Students Cell are supposed to addresses academic and non-academic issues and complaints received from students belonging to the SC and ST birth categories, which could be scholarship issues, opportunity issues or any other guidance.

But the struggle had only just officially started. Even though many IITs have counselling and mental health services, they are only designed to meet the needs of Savarna (upper caste) students. Furthermore, these counsellors are not trained to understand the social realities of caste that affect students from SC/ST communities, making them ineffective in providing support and, at times, exacerbating students’ problems. Furthermore, IITs do not hire Dalit Bahujan Adivasi (DBA) mental health experts as counsellors, exacerbating the situation.

In 2022, the APPSC had complained to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) that the head counsellor at the Student Wellness Centre (SWC) on the Mumbai campus had signed a public petition to end caste-based reservation and posted about it on social media [14]. The students highlighted that this revelation significantly discouraged SC/ST students from visiting the SWC.  

The institute, responding to the NCST’s investigation, had said the counsellor had been warned about avoiding any such posts on social media and immediately asked to take down the post in question. It had added that the counsellor continued to work with the SC/ST Cell of the institute and the SWC. 

Pursuant to the latest case of suicide of the 18-year-old Darshan Solanki at IIT Bombay, prompted by the culture of hegemony and institutionalised caste discrimination, the NCST, one year after the filing of the complaint, took charge and asked the IIT-B as to why it had allowed a counsellor with “casteist sentiment” to continue working with the SC/ST Cell on campus. As the NCST panel continues its investigation into complaints of the institute lacking mental health support for SC/ST students, the institute has been defending charges that it was the alleged failure to create safe spaces for marginalised students led to the suicide on February 12. 

Thus, starting from the lack of care shown by the institutes, to the commissions put in place by the union to oversee the complaints filed against atrocities committed against the tribal communities, there is a certain level of indifference as well as failure to take appropriate steps for safeguarding the interest of the SC-ST community. 

Other colleges

A perusal of the National Law University’s website shows that NLUs, considered the top colleges for studying law, do not have SC/ST Cells, but have equal opportunity cells. On surface, these cells have a similar description as the SC/ST cells and have been set up to ensure that every student is granted equal opportunity and are not discriminated against. Many other universities, such as the Delhi University, Punjab University, Mumbai University, etc. had a page on their website showing SC/ST Cells or Equal opportunity cells. The question that arises now is: if these cells are in place, in accordance to the UGC guidelines, then why are the students belonging to the SC/ST community still facing discrimination and humiliation, to the point that they are pushed to take their own lives? 

A closer examination on the complaints registered by these cells and the quality of response needs an independent assessment and scrutiny.

Why are these guidelines not working?

The very composition of the SC/ST Cells creates a roadblock, It has been found that in the current structure, the SC/ST cells are being constituted with members belonging to the dominant castes, which decreases both the legitimacy and trust of the DBA students towards this corrective mechanism. As a result of this, people with only a superficial understanding of caste hegemony in education and academia are suddenly given the power to solve such issues that they are themselves responsible for, directly or indirectly, without having received any stringent educational sessions for the same. In fact for most persons from the dominant castes, systemic caste discrimination is barely superficially understood. This ends up creating a void, instead of a safe space for the students. It is essential to ensure that such safe spaces are actually created where one can question the structures rooted in ensuring that Dalit-Bahujan students experiencing a sense of isolation and otherness. It is equally critical to ensure independent and consistent monitoring of their functioning.

Additionally, it is crucial to note that these cells, both SC-ST Cells and Equal Opportunity Cells, are only advisory in nature. Hence, if a person belonging to the marginalised community is facing any type of discrimination, these cells do not have any power to take any punitive action. Furthermore, if the recommendations given by the aforementioned cells are not implemented or abided by, there is no mechanism or procedure to ensure compliance with recommendations. All these lacunae create a dependency of the SCST cell. The anti-ragging committees are again bodies which have largely only dominant caste members; most of the time these are not interested in taking any action over issues concerning students from marginalised communities. A major factor behind the inefficacy of the SC-ST cells is their composition, jurisdiction and lack of power.

Finally, even after having realised the criticality of having mental health counsellors for marginalised communities, SC-ST cells have no mandate to appoint such counselors from within these depressed communities (SC-ST). Only such sensitivity and diversity can help the students –through their time at university – to navigate a semi-hostile environment that privileges the elite. 


In the case of BK Pavitra and others vs Union of India and others, Justice Chandrachud has observed that “The Constitution is a transformative document. The realisation of its transformative potential rests ultimately in its ability to breathe life and meaning into its abstract concepts. For, above all, the Constitution was intended by its draftspersons to be a significant instrument of bringing about social change in a caste-based feudal society witnessed by centuries of oppression of and discrimination against the marginalised.”

Whenever cases of suicides by students belonging to the Dalit and Adivasis community have been reported, many judges and top functionaries touch upon the topic of discrimination faced by the marginalised communities in educational institutions. Why then are no concrete changes brought in? In higher institutes, anti-ragging policies are put in place, but the same are just lip-service attempts by the authorities. It is worrisome to see that even after being aware about the caste prejudices that exist in our society and the way casteism works, educational institutes have refused to adopt special safeguards towards ensuring that students from the SC/ST community do not face any bias. It is a question of acknowledgement of deep rooted and structural discrimination by and through caste.

In institutions of higher education, caste-based violence and discrimination continues to be rampant due to the upper-class dominant-caste heteronormative structures in place. Barely a day had passed since the death of Darshan Solanki, even as people were protesting his death, Dharawath Preethi, a tribal student of PG Anaesthesia in Kakatiya Medical College (KMC), Hyderabad died by suicide allegedly due to harassment by a senior student. Previous instances of violence perpetuated by both classmates and teachers has led to instances of violence, which in extreme cases has led to students committing suicide, as was in the cases of RohithVemulaMuthukrishnanJeevantham and PayalTadvi.

All of these institutional murders were a result of the failure of the system to acknowledge the existing societal iniquitous structures. PayalTadvi was constantly humiliated and discriminated against by her peers because of her caste background. The above-mentioned Professor Thorat’s committee report, which had presented the findings of bias on the AIIMS campus much before her, had highlighted that those students had felt discriminated against because of their caste background and had been ostracised by teachers and professors for it. However, instead of acknowledging the report’s findings and implementing the recommendations, the institution dismissed the report. The recommendations have yet to be put into action.

A list of Dalit and Adivasi students that have died by suicide can be read here

The Rohith movement had begun with people demanding legislation to combat the dominant caste’s naturally discriminatory system of hegemony, in which the marginalised sections are regarded as malfunctioning, unworthy of belonging within dominant caste spaces. If India wants to correct this malaise, this poison of systemic discrimination, if we want to prevent more Vemulas and Solankis succumbing to the existing casteist structure, we have to also think outside the n the framework of the system.

Education is frequently referred to as the “magic bullet” for progress. It through acquiring education that the marginalised communities can be empowered, and the gaps between the classes –dominant and marginalized– can be decreased. However, as long as caste-based discrimination exists in educational institutions, this magic bullet will be ineffective. Several structural changes must be made in order for education to fully realise its transformative and liberating potential.

Education institutions must commit to “undoing the idea of merit as a random consequence of individual ability” in order to be inclusive. Staff and faculty must recognise that their social position influences their ability. Students and teachers should be made to acknowledge that centuries old Brahmanical hegemony continues to shape our perception of capability, and that it has more to do with denying communities opportunities for advancement than with individual talent. 

Until there is a profound acknowledgement of this structural bias, it is crucial that existing legislations are put into active force and stricter guidelines are given to the universities to abide by for ensuring that no individual is discriminated against. The current mandates fall miserably short. Those commanding both acknowledgement and implementation are from the dominant castes and communities, ill-understanding the experiential realities of a person belonging to a caste minority. 

Genuine equity, dignity within a democracy requires a somber understanding of the shadows and silences behind the obvious hurdles. For our young from among the Scheduled Castes and Tribes to feel empowered within institutes of higher learning, it is they and their representatives who must be in charge and control of spaces that make this happen.

[1]India’s Universities Are Falling Terribly Short on Addressing Caste Discrimination (

[2]aishe_eng.pdf (



[5]UGC: ‘Desist’ from discriminating against SC, ST students (

[6]Higher educational institutions must ensure no discrimination against SC/ST students by officials, faculty, says UGC; calls for official website to lodge complaint of caste bias – The Leaflet

[7]Higher educational institutions must ensure no discrimination against SC/ST students by officials, faculty, says UGC; calls for official website to lodge complaint of caste bias – The Leaflet



[10]Survey at an IIT Campus Shows How Caste Affects Students’ Perceptions | Economic and Political Weekly (

[10] supra

[12]IITs Should Be Exempt from Reservation in Faculty Appointments, Centre’s Panel Suggests (

[13]The Long Struggle for an SC/ST Students Cell in IIT Bombay – Round Table India

[14]National Commission for Scheduled Tribes grills IIT-Bombay on counsellor posting – The Hindu


Image Courtesy: Siddhesh Gautam



Lessons Unlearned: Nine years after the Thorat Committee report

The Death of Merit: Dalit Suicides in institutes of higher learning

Systemic Prejudice, Absence of Grievance Redressal reasons for Dalit Suicides: Teacher Testimonies

A letter that should shake our world: Dalit scholar suicide triggers outrage

Rohith Vemula’s ‘institutional murder’: Five years on, family and friends still wait for justice

Why have India’s elite institutions sounded the death knell for Dalit Adivasi-Muslim scholars?

IITs unable to create safe spaces for students

MP: Dalit boy dies by suicide, blames teacher’s casteist remarks

REPLUG: Rohith Vemula, Your Sacrifice was Not in Vain

Student groups clash in Lucknow University on Rohith Vemula’s death anniversary

The Present Regime has Perfected Attacks on Dalit and Adivasi Scholars: Paul Divakar

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IIT-Bombay grilled on counsellor posting: NCST 

IIT Bombay Dalit student death: Dr Bhalchandra Mungekar, ex Rajya Sabha member, demands SIT probe into his death 


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