Caste bias in IITs: Somnath Waghmare’s docu seeks dignity for Dalit lives

16-minute documentary showcases that the death of Darshan Solanki, an 18-year-old Dalit student of IIT Bombay, was an institutional murder

Somnath Waghmare-anti-caste filmmaker
Somnath Waghmare, anti-caste filmmaker. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In March, a month after Darshan Solanki, an 18-year-old first year Dalit student of BTech in Chemical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay died on campus, the college released an interim report. The enquiry committee absolved the institute of any blame suggesting that Solanki’s deteriorating academic performance was the reason behind his suicide.

More specifically, the 12-member interim enquiry committee ruled out casteism as a probable cause for Solanki’s death, stating that there wasn’t any specific evidence of direct caste-based discrimination faced by him on campus that could have led to his death. As a faculty member critical of the panel’s findings stated, the institute chose to look at a case of suicide in isolation. “The committee does not spend time to consider systemic causes for the deathly prevalence of academic anxiety in this campus,” the faculty member, a professor of the institute’s Humanities and Social Sciences, wrote in her letter.

‘Not a suicide, a murder’

Exactly a month later, anti-caste filmmaker Somnath Waghmare’s There is no caste discrimination in the IITs? trains its gaze on the lives affected by the systemic abuse that extinguishes bright minds. The 16-minute documentary, which Waghmare released on YouTube on April 1, covers the protest gathering organized at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan to demand justice for Solanki.

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From the film’s very first frame to its last, Waghmare is certain about one thing — Solanki’s death was an institutional murder. “Not a suicide, a murder,” says one among several posters that protestors hold up in the opening sequence, the rage underlining the unspeakable grief that Solanki’s family will have to endure for the rest of their lives.

Somnath Waghmare

Waghmare’s camera, exacting and evocative, lets the facts tell the story. Around noon on February 12, Solanki called his parents like he did every Sunday. During the call, Solanki sounded happy and told his father Rameshbhai that his exam went well and that he was heading out with a friend to celebrate the end of the semester. Darshan was supposed to return home in two days. He died less than 45 minutes after the phone call.

Rameshbhai’s voice is at the centre of the film’s narrative — as he gets up on the podium to speak about his late son, we see the pain writ large on his face. A plumber from Ahmedabad, he speaks lovingly of his son’s studious nature and his outsized dreams, which included an education at IIT Bombay. “We didn’t know his stubbornness would lead to his death,” Rameshbai tells the audience, underlining the repercussions that face Dalit students whenever they remind society about their constitutional promise to equality.

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“I entrusted my dreams to IIT,” Rameshbhai, on the verge of tears, says in the film’s most moving moment as he talks about the loss of his only son. The hope, he says, was that IIT would turn his son, his flower, into a plant by nurturing him. Instead, he says, they crushed his flower and threw him away. As we learn in the film, the only responsibility that college authorities took upon themselves was to send him plane tickets so that he could fly down to claim his son’s dead body.

A call to locate society’s moral compass

Underscoring the institute’s historical neglect of Dalit students, the parents of Aniket Ambhore, another first-generational Dali student who died by suicide on the Bombay campus in 2014, take the stage. Taking turns, his parents speak of the superficial investigation undertaken by the college during their son’s death, the events foreshadow the institute’s stance this time around as well.

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As his father predicts that the inquiry committee would absolve itself of any responsibility in their investigation of Solanki’s death, Waghmare intercuts his words with the actual report. The bleak statistics of student deaths at government-run universities the filmmaker relies on to make his case that India is no place for Dalit students further strengthens his argument.

In that sense, There is no caste discrimination at the IITs? is urgent in its insistence to measure the cost of collective silence. What does it say about an education system that simultaneously normalizes a language of institutional murder and looks the other way when confronted about its failures? As the camera tracks photos of Dalit students, including Rohith Vermula and Payal Tadvi, whose lives ended at public universities, the question of caste-discrimination in campuses barely remains up for debate. The film’s title isn’t merely a question — it’s a call to locate a society’s moral compass.