The suicide of Payal Tadvi, a second-year MD student at Mumbai’s TN Topivala National Medical College (TNMC), has sent ripples across the country, putting the spotlight on the issue of caste discrimination and harassment plaguing college campuses.

Seven months before she hanged herself, Tadvi, 26, had confided in a friend that seniors were troubling her, even joking that everyone feared she might commit suicide. “Perhaps that was her way of coping with it then," recalls Romil Kakad, a friend of Tadvi’s from her MBBS course.

Months later, on 22 May, Tadvi’s ordeal of harassment, humiliation and punishment would culminate in her committing suicide in her college hostel room. She belonged to the Tadvi Bhil Muslim community, a Scheduled Tribe.

Her death is tragically reminiscent of the suicide in 2016 of Rohith Vemula, who was also 26 when he hanged himself in his dormitory room, alleging caste discrimination at the hands of the college administration.

Three of Tadvi’s senior colleagues, Ankita Khandelwal (27), Hema Ahuja (28) and Bhakti Mehare (26), have been arrested for allegedly tormenting her about her caste, and abetting her suicide. They were remanded to judicial custody till 10 June. On 4 June, a special court adjourned the hearing of the bail plea to 10 June. Tadvi’s family has accused the college of inaction in spite of verbal and written complaints by them. The family claims Tadvi was prevented from conducting surgeries—a critical part of her training as a gynaecologist—and humiliated over her caste. “My daughter grew up in an environment where no one discriminated against her on the basis of caste or religion. She could never imagine someone would have a problem with her background. She was an optimist," says Tadvi’s mother, Abeda.

Payal Tadvi’s mother Abeda (in the background).
Payal Tadvi’s mother Abeda (in the background). (Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

The weight of oppression

Students from Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Other Backward Class (OBC) backgrounds at medical colleges face caste prejudices in hidden and obvious ways. “When you enter (college), the first thing they ask is your Neet (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) ranking," says Tushar Pawar, a first-year MBBS student at the Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Medical College in Mumbai.

“From that, they can deduce who has come from the reserved quota. Once they find out, they become extremely resentful. They don’t know, or care to know, that our parents are farmers or labourers. They don’t see how difficult it was for us, first- generation learners, to get in," he adds.

Another student from the same college, V.D., showed me a meme shared by a fellow student. The meme, comparing the seat tally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (303) and the Congress (52) in the recent general election, likened the numbers to the marks needed by a student from the general and reserved categories, respectively, to gain entrance to a medical college.

“They taunt us by saying you stole this seat from a deserving candidate. They ask us if we will put up a caste certificate in our clinics when we start practice," V.D. says. “But when we ask why they don’t demand more seats and colleges from the government, they have no response."

For these students, the idea of merit, which dominates any argument about reservation, rings hollow. Even for backward-caste students, they contend, the selection is based on merit, as only the top scorers gain admission.

“When the highest-scoring reserved- category student gets 85%, and the lowest-scoring general-category student gets 75%, how can you make an argument for merit?" V.D. asks.

Tadvi’s ordeal started in June 2018, when she had to share a room with Ahuja and Khandelwal for two months before being allotted a room of her own. The seniors had beds, while Tadvi slept on a mattress on the floor. Abeda remembers her daughter’s complaint that the two would wipe their feet on her mattress when they returned from the bathroom.

Her seniors would allegedly abuse her in front of other doctors and patients, and threaten to get her suspended. “I always asked her what exactly they were saying, but Payal could never repeat it. She said I would feel ashamed," Abeda says.

L.P., a second-year MBBS student at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial Hospital, explains that their families had warned them about the comments and abuses. “They told us if anyone makes a remark, just silently suffer it. But I think Payal was a sensitive person. If anyone was tortured like her for over a year, they would do the same thing."

A public health officer with the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation says, on condition of anonymity, that growing up in a city like Mumbai prepared him for certain kinds of caste bigotry. “We learnt to ignore it. But a person like Payal, coming from a more insulated community, may not have had such prior encounters," the doctor adds.

V.D., who is from Nanded district, agrees, “We also ignore such taunts, but when you have a heavy workload, it can lead to a lot of stress."

A photograph of Tadvi and her parents.
A photograph of Tadvi and her parents. ( Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

A systemic rot

A heavy workload is a reality in medical colleges. In postgraduate departments attached to government hospitals, a junior doctor can be responsible for taking care of up to 100 patients. In such a scenario, caste discrimination just adds to the stress. In Tadvi’s case too, the accused chalked up her suicide to workload pressure. They also claimed to be in the dark about her caste.

Bhalchandra Mungekar, a Rajya Sabha member and former vice-chancellor of Mumbai University, claims Tadvi’s case has all the characteristics of caste denial and issue deflection typical of authorities or the accused. “Heavy workload," he says, “is often an excuse on the part of institutions to deflect criticism in the wake of suicides such as Tadvi’s or Vemula’s."

He cites the example of Balmukund Bharti, a Dalit student at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (Aiims), Delhi, who hanged himself in March 2010 after alleging abuse, humiliation and violence at the hands of faculty and peers.

Bharti had told his parents that a professor would openly abuse him and call him a “quota" student. He even changed his name to shed his caste identity. But after his death, a statement from Aiims pinned the blame on his “inability to cope with the rigorous academic environment of Aiims".

Just three years before Bharti’s suicide, in 2007, the Thorat committee report had flagged distressing instances of caste-based discrimination at Aiims. The report found that 69% of SC/ST students were not getting adequate support from teachers. Around 76% mentioned that their papers were not examined properly. Eighty-four per cent claimed their evaluation in viva was unfair. Seventy-six per cent mentioned they were asked about their caste directly or indirectly, while 84% claimed their grades were affected owing to their caste. The report also noted segregation in the hostels and private mess on caste lines.

“The other aspect, caste denial, is resorted to in order to avoid criminal charges under the Prevention of Atrocities Act," Mungekar adds. In January 2018, M. Mariraj, a postgraduate student at Ahmedabad’s BJ Medical College and son of a Dalit daily-wage labourer, attempted suicide. In a video, Mariraj claimed the faculty was humiliating him and not allowing him to conduct surgeries. One professor had forced him to serve tea to 35 people during a pre-university exam. When the allegations surfaced, the professor claimed he had no idea that Mariraj was Dalit.

In December, Tadvi and her husband, Salman Tadvi, approached the head of department, B.S. Shirodkar, to seek a transfer. “By then, Payal had started panicking because the seniors had not been letting her perform any deliveries for around six-seven months. Not having learnt anything had become frustrating for her," Salman says.

Following the complaint, Shirodkar put her on an allied posting to a separate ward for two months. In February, however, she was sent back to her original unit, where the harassment continued.

For the majority of medical students approached for this story, the reservation route led to invisible baggage that could not be shed. Vidyasagar Sonkamble, an MBBS graduate from the Rural Medical College in Loni, Ahmednagar, says that even when he passed the yearly exams with top marks, he was seen as undeserving. “Reservation is only to get in, but they don’t realize we have to work equally hard to pass the exams," he says.

Besides academics, students get targeted for their skin colour or complexion, attire, language skills, even body language. Rewat Kaninde, who works in Mumbai’s JJ Hospital, recounts his experience as president of the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Medicos Association while a student at Grant Medical College (GMC) in 2005: “Once a junior came to me crying, asking if there was a solution, as he was sick of jibes from fellow students about his dark complexion."

Prejudice against SC/ST and OBC candidates is not the preserve of students alone. Ramratan Dhumal, writing in the Economic And Political Weekly (“Caste Discrimination In Higher Education", July 2018), points out that caste discrimination in higher learning institutes takes place on three axes: between general-category and SC/ST/OBC students, between faculty and SC/ST/OBC students, and between administration and SC/ST/OBC students.

Though many media reports have billed Tadvi’s case as an instance of ragging, Dhumal writes that caste is often the intent behind such ragging.

Payal Tadvi.
Payal Tadvi. (Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

A tradition of stereotyping

While cases like Tadvi’s and Bharti’s highlight the extreme forms of humiliation meted out to SC/ST/OBC students, institutional prejudice shows up in subtler forms. Sonkamble corroborates this by recounting his professor’s remarks when he appeared for his viva, or practical examination. “When I entered the room, my professor said, in front of all others, ‘Aaiye aap toh sarkar ke damaad hai,’ meaning that I was the son-in-law of the government, getting freebies. That made it difficult for me to concentrate during the viva."

On some days, he says, casteism would surface in the form of problematic stereotyping. “Most professors, on hearing my surname, would look surprised. They say I don’t look like a ‘lower-caste’ person," Sonkamble says. “But the moment they discover I am Dalit, their behaviour changes. They feel they are superior to me."

“In the US," Sonkamble observes, “people have acknowledged racism. That has led to some kind of progress for the African-American community. But here, they have never acknowledged casteism."

Author Yashica Dutt, in her memoir,Coming Out As Dalit, summed it up when she wrote: “Many upper caste professors hold that Dalit students study in Indian colleges and universities on their largesse, so they should be grateful for whatever crumbs they are thrown…"

Caste discrimination by faculty at some premier institutions, in fact, has led to the creation of academic ghettos within campuses. Sanjay Aparanti, a former Indian Police Service officer who studied MD in physiology at the GMC in 1979, explains how SC/ST students are isolated in a methodical and calculated way. “The faculty would fail the reserved quota students collectively so they would have to retake the exams six months later," he says. This group of “failed" students was pejoratively called the casual batch. Though the batch would occasionally include one-two upper-caste students, it mostly comprised SC/ST students.

“They would be taught separately, effectively segregating them from the other students, and the faculty would not engage them in ward duties," Aparanti narrates. The SC/ST students were also excluded from cultural events, a fact borne out by the Thorat committee report as well.

In 2010, 25 MBBS students at Delhi’s Vardhman Mahavir Medical College took their institute to court, claiming they were being failed repeatedly in the physiology paper. Some students had taken up to 14 attempts to clear the test. A report commissioned by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, led by Mungekar, found multiple instances of discrimination and hostility by the faculty towards the students.

On the commission’s recommendation, the Delhi high court ordered the students to retake the exams at the Army College of Medical Sciences, Delhi. The result? “Almost all of them passed," says Mungekar.

The death of a dream

When she started complaining about her seniors’ behaviour after returning from the posting, Abeda insisted that Tadvi file a written complaint stating she was being targeted for being an ST student. “But she told me no one could know she was an Adivasi student," says Abeda.

This chat, sent on WhatsApp to her mother, is being used by the accused to claim they did not know about Tadvi’s caste background.

But Abeda counters that it would have been impossible for anyone to have not known about Tadvi’s caste as there were only two students in her obstetrics/gynaecology batch. “A unit is supposed to be close, like family. There are separate special merit lists put out for general and reserved students," she adds.

Salman and Tadvi got married on 14 February 2016. They had dreamt of starting a hospital together in their home-town of Jalgaon. “She had seen women die during delivery and wanted to help. Her surgical skills and my anesthesiology practice would have made for a good team. But these are just dreams now," Salman says.

On 10 May, at the beginning of her second year, Tadvi told her mother she was being burdened with extra paperwork meant for the new batch, and prevented from doing deliveries and surgeries. The threats, abuses and humiliation had escalated.

On 13 May, Abeda and Salman took a written complaint to the TNMC, but were reportedly sent away from the dean’s office. On the day of her death, 22 May, patients and doctors witnessed Ahuja, Khandelwal and Mehare scolding Tadvi in the operating theatre. A few hours later, Abeda got a call informing her of her daughter’s suicide.

In the weeks preceding her death, Salman was attending to his father, who had undergone bypass surgery. “Perhaps because of that, she didn’t tell me what was going on in the final days. Maybe, if I had been around her, we would not be here today," he says.

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