On May 22, 26-year-old doctor Payal Tadvi allegedly committed suicide in her hostel room in Mumbai, sparking a wave of protests over the events leading up to her death that the autopsy claims could have involved foul play.
While media reports initially depicted the event as ragging-gone-horribly-wrong, the college’s anti-ragging committee’s report held that Dr Tadvi killed herself after allegedly being harassed by three upper-caste colleagues, who were arrested on Wednesday.
The report submitted Tuesday was based on statements from 30 people including Payal’s family, colleagues, and staff who witnessed her harassment first-hand or were privy of the toll it took on her.
Her traumatic experience as an Adivasi medical student in one of the city’s most prestigious hospitals shines a light on rampant institutional casteism across the country.
Tadvi’s suicide was “institutional murder”
A first generation learner hailing from Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district and a Bhil-Muslim (Scheduled Tribe) family, Payal was a second-year PG student of Gynaecology and Obstetrics at the BYL Nair Hospital, run by the Topiwala National Medical College.
After finishing MBBS from Government Medical College, Miraj, she enrolled for the postgraduation course.
Scattered across Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, the Tadvi Bhil-Muslim community has poor health outreach, low literacy rates, and are said to be among the last to benefit from government schemes and reservation quotas.
Payal is, in fact, the first gynaecologist in their nomadic community and broke the glass ceiling by becoming the first person to pursue a Doctorate in Medicine.
She’d dreamt of opening a hospital with her husband in her village and serving the needs of rural women someday. What could have been an example of the success story of India’s affirmative action, was eventually used against her.
As report after report seems to suggest, Payal faced continuous harassment at the medical college owing to her caste ranging from casteist slurs to emotional torture.
The FIR states that her seniors often threatened her, saying she wouldn’t be allowed into operation theatres or allowed to perform deliveries. She was also mocked for being a tribal on WhatsApp groups.
Here’s what happened
On May 22, hours before she committed suicide by hanging herself, Tadvi was allegedly humiliated in the operation theatre in front of other staff and patients, and was seen crying as she left.
Tadvi reportedly called her mother at around 4 PM on May 22 to say she could no longer bear the torture. Her family promised to visit her the next day, but she was dead by 7.30 PM.
In the days leading up to her tragic and untimely death, Payal reportedly faced “extreme harassment” from three senior resident doctors – Drs Hema Ahuja, Ankita Khandelwal and Bhakti Mehare.
They had probably come to know of the complaint lodged by Payal’s husband Salman Tadvi, associate professor at Dr R N Cooper Hospital, before the gynaecology unit head at the TN Topiwala National Medical College in Mumbai. Payal’s mother too had filed a complaint to the Nair Hospital on May 10.
The trio had been absconding and denying all charges when their names first came to light, but were eventually suspended as pressure mounted on the hospital to take immediate action. They even filed a written request to the law enforcement and hospital authorities to conduct “a fair investigation.”
They were finally arrested on Wednesday and placed in two-day custody.
Payal’s prosecutors, meanwhile, seek directions for the crime to be treated as murder, after the post-mortem report revealed evidence of a ligature mark on her neck. A suicide note has also not surfaced yet.
This is not an isolated incident where the perpetrators of caste atrocity were upper caste women. Just yesterday, two Dalit PhD scholars of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) accused a female professor of forcing them to clean a toilet and passing casteist remarks.
When doctors take their lives
While Tadvi’s story resonates with the woeful injustice against minorities and the intergenerational burden they carry, it also highlights a very specific problem of caste-based harassment at the workplace or college campuses, especially in the healthcare sector.
In early 2010, Balmukund Bharti, a Dalit MMBS student at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences, was found hanging in his room.
In March 2012, another AIIMS student from the Adivasi community, Anil Kumar Meena, killed himself; his friends and family alleged that Meena was discriminated against because he came from a village and did not speak English fluently.
In January 2018, Dr Mariraj, a Dalit postgraduate medical student from Tamil Nadu attempted to take his life, after facing acute caste-based discrimination at the BJ Medical College in Ahmedabad. In a viral video, he recounted how professors and peers shunned him from the ward, abused him in Gujarati in front of everyone, made him serve tea and kept him from performing surgeries.
Four months before his suicide attempt, Mariraj’s father had filed a complaint before with the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (NCSC) saying, “If any bad events happen to my son then Dr JV Parikh, Dr Parth Dalal, Dr Pankaj R Modi, Present Head of Department of Surgery, Enquiry Committee and BJ Medical College, Ahmedabad are responsible.”
The case which shook up the nation, however, was Hyderabad-based research scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide, who left a note highlighting the psychological impact of growing up in society divided along class lines, and identified the gaps in the existing body of work around mental health from the perspective of marginalised castes.
What can be done
Payal’s demise has shaken up grassroots workers, political parties, academics and activists across Maharashtra. They have demanded Payal’s murderers be tried under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is proven guilty. Punitive action must also be taken against officials who ignored the repeated complaints and cries for help.
“We asked if the college had an SC/ST cell to address complaints of caste-based harassment as mandated by the University Grants Commission, but it does not,” said Rekha Thakur, a spokesperson for the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, which organised a protest at the college demanding action against the accused on May 27.
In light of recent events, every workplace and campus must ensure a safe space and equal opportunities. Often, professors and mentors are complicit in perpetuating caste discrimination — from differential treatment, reluctance to help, to failing students belonging to a backward class.
It is, therefore, imperative that resident doctors and the faculty at Nair Hospital go through caste sensitisation programmes conducted by an SC/ST/OBC-led institution.
Speaking more generally, we need more support groups like The Blue Dawn to address mental health issues among marginalised communities and to offer a safe space wherein victims of everyday casteism can negotiate the impact and find a voice.
But above all casual casteism must go
Tadvi’s death has opened a debate on the entrenched problem of resentment over reservations of seats in educational institutions and jobs for people from marginalised groups.
Caste discrimination in medical institutes and higher education largely flows from upper caste students’ resentment over reservations and the idea that it goes against the idea of merit, concluded the Sukhdeo Thorat committee set up in 2007 to look into the social epidemic.
Abhishek Royal who works at the National Institute of Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases, Delhi, recounts to Scroll.in: “When I was applying for a medical seat I would hear comments like ‘You just have to get the pass percentage and you will get selected for medicine’ despite the fact that I was always good at my studies and always a topper.” He hails from the Valmiki-Dalit community.
Anti-quota rhetoric must not only be discouraged, but upper-class Indians might also want to check their privilege more often, before saying casteism no longer exists.
We are talking about a nation where Dalits are lynched and strung up inside the Panchayat office for plucking mangoes in 2019, seven decades after independence.
If there’s anything that undercuts the dire need for reservation, it is its inadequacy in bridging the caste lines after so many years of implementation.
Also read: A historical gash called caste
The onus to alleviate caste-based differences, after all, is not on the marginalised alone. It requires an unequivocal admission from upper castes that their privilege is oppressive to others, a recognition that change can come by means of constructive dialogue and the willingness to cede space for those who have been silenced for centuries.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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