Darshan Solanki, a first-year BTech student at IIT Bombay (who joined the institute three months ago), made his regular “Sunday call” to his parents. In the video call that lasted a few minutes, Solanki shared what his day had been like and his plan to visit his friends on campus. Solanki’s father, Rameshbhai, had even transferred Rs 3,000 into his account – a rare indulgence – because the father wanted the son to enjoy a weekend outing. Less than 45 minutes later, Solanki had died by suicide. Solanki did not leave a note behind, and neither had he shared his state of mind with his family.

He was a first-generation Dalit student, studying at India’s premier institute. His father, Rameshbhai, works as a plumber; his mother, Tarlikaben, is a domestic worker in Maninagar, Ahmedabad.

My heart sank while reading this article. Without saying a word and without sharing his feelings and thoughts with others, he just vanished. I can only imagine how baffled his parents and sister must be feeling right now.

Was he too afraid of being judged by others for sharing his feelings? Were his friends and family unapproachable, leaving him without support? Did he feel overwhelmed in trying to live up to the image of all children for whom he stood as an inspiration? How much discrimination and judgement did he endure to think that there was no hope left in life? Why didn’t any institutional mechanisms prevent his death? All these questions were whirling in my mind. One part of the above article that caught my attention in particular was what a PhD scholar told The Wire:

“Even before the student could introduce himself or make friends, he is asked for his JEE scores (a common entrance test to secure admissions in IITs and other engineering colleges in the country). The score gives away too much information – the student’s academic standing, caste location, their social vulnerabilities.” “You are soon negated as a “quota student”, a student undeserving of the space,” another student pursuing her MTech degree said. 

As an IIT graduate myself and a teacher who has been dealing with IIT & NEET coaching for more than a decade, I am well aware of the practice of asking and knowing the JEE/NEET scores of fellow students. The underlying reason for this practice is to gauge how smart or intelligent one is. The student who has a better rank/score is labelled as a topper or padhaku, while the other one may feel inferior.

The impact of this labeling is much stronger if the student is from a reservation quota due to the stark difference in average qualifying marks of a general category student and a quota student. The reserved quota candidate immediately feels unworthy and undeserving of their place in the premier institute and is sent on a guilt trip for being there.

As a teacher who has spent years during the preparation stages of these so-called “toppers,” I want to clarify a few things.

Dear “Topper”,

Remember me? I am the teacher who taught you the most difficult subject you had to master: Physics. I taught you from class 8 onwards until you got selected for IIT/NEET.

I am sure you are still basking in the glory of your JEE score and rank, and still believe that you are the smartest among your peers. Let me burst your bubble and tell you that you are not as intelligent as you think. Let me prove it to you.

You spent 4-5 years on an exam that was supposed to be cleared in 1-2 years while you were attending regular school. You achieved this by skipping most of your school work and only studying Physics, Chemistry, and Math/Bio at a coaching institute, without opening your books on Social Sciences, Hindi, and Language textbooks during the entire preparation phase. Spending 4-5 years on a task that is supposed to be accomplished in 1-2 years does not sound like a mark of intelligence to me.

When I first asked you to solve problems from HCV after teaching you the concepts, you struggled. You were overwhelmed when you encountered differentiation and integration. I am sure you still remember the feeling you had when you had to solve differential equations. You could only do these because they were spoon-fed to you and revised again and again by me. Even then, you mastered these only because your algebra was decent to begin with. Most of the credit for that goes to the good teachers and schools you attended in your lower classes, your parents or tutors who patiently sat with you and made you good at math. Because of this advantage, combined with the way the coaching system works, we spent more time teaching and clarifying your doubts. You were constantly motivated because you wanted to be like that bhayya/didi or some family member who already made it to IIT or such premier institutes. You have benefited a lot from such motivation or their direct/indirect mentorship.

There is no doubt that you worked hard, and I am not taking that away from you. But that makes you a hard worker and not a super-intelligent being, as you would like to believe. A large share of your success is because you have benefited from the support system you had: your parents, tutors, earlier school teachers, online subscriptions, your family members who served as mentors, and teachers like me who gave you special attention.

Now, I want you to consider this: A student from the reserved classes is often a first-generation student in their family. Their math skills in lower classes are often weak to begin with. When they first sat in the same class with you, I noticed that they still struggled with multiplication tables greater than 10, which made them score less in the weekend tests due to their poor calculation speed. They still had some issues with solving quadratic equations because they didn’t attend a good school like you did, nor were they tutored by tutors or parents or any other family members. The concepts that confused you absolutely mystified them. In most cases, they didn’t have any mentorship or inspiration from anyone in their family to instill confidence and motivation into their minds. They needed a little more hand-holding, some more motivation, and more of my time with them to perform as well as you did.

And guess what? On top of all of this, because coaching classes were mostly filled with Upper Class/General Category students, every time a discussion came up about Reservations, the dominant voice was that “they” were undeserving because they were intellectually inferior. Their confidence has always been taking a hit all throughout their early adulthood, and they were hiding their quota identity for fear of judgment.

Yet, without complaining, they did their best and worked as hard as you did to overcome their own challenges and sit alongside you in the premier institute where you are studying. For that, they had to work as much as you did. You are a hard worker, and so are they. You both merely had different start lines in the race, and that is why the final mark was different.

Lastly, I want to clear up one misconception, as I usually do in Physics. You think they are undeserving because they stole that position from someone who scored more marks than them, right? Let me remind you that all the premier institutes are run by taxpayers’ money, which includes their money too. They are merely enjoying their fair share of it, proportional to their population. It is a right granted to them by the Constitution of India.