Suicide of Dr Payal Tadvi, a 26 yeas old gynecologist at BYL Nair hospital in Mumbai, due to extreme caste based discrimination and harassment by her seniors, has yet again brought forth the insidiousness of caste based oppression and violence, especially in institutions.
Payal belonged to the Muslim Adivasi Bhil community from Jalgaon village and was the first doctor in her family. The harassment had been continuous with constant casteist slurs prompting her mother to submit a written complaint in December 2018 against three doctors who were harassing her. However no action was taken. The abusers, who were her room mates would wipe their feet on her mattress and litter it. They also made fun of her for being a tribal in WhatsApp groups and said that they would not allow her in the operation theatres to do deliveries.
The three accused – Ankita, Bhakti and Hema – have now been booked under Sections 306 (abetment of suicide) of the India Penal Code, Prevention of SC/ST Atrocities Act, Maharashtra Prohibition of Ragging Act, and IT Act. However they have denied caste discrimination. In a letter to Maharashtra Association of Resident Doctors they argued that it was case of work stress suggesting that Payal shirked her responsibilities. Similar denial has come from Indian Medical Association. Conversations on Twitter and on other social media have tried to downplay the caste angle, suggesting that it was either a case of routine ragging or Payal’s inability to handle pressure.
Such conversations are routine, mainly in the upper caste sections. Systemic and entrenched caste based discrimination is routinely denied. Suicide of Rohith Vemula in 2015, a Dalit and, a PhD student of University of Hyderabad due to harassment from his university that had stopped paying him scholarship after he raised issues under Ambedkar Students Association is another such incident. In his letter he termed his birth “a fatal accident” and signed off with “Jai Bheem”. However, his caste was routinely denied and it was alleged by politicians and administration that Rohith was not a Dalit.
Caste based discrimination is rampant and routine in society, despite laws, but manifests in particularly sinister forms in institutions. Any sort of affirmative action, especially reservation is vehemently opposed and arguments about “merit” are thrown about. Privilege is never questioned or reflected upon. The fact that “merit” never exists in isolation but is supported by structures of money, power, and social networks is never realized. Under such circumstances, not just students, but even faculty and staff become complicit in perpetuating caste-based discrimination.
It is vital to recognize the reason for Dr Payal’s suicide as what it is – an instance of caste based violence. Terming it ragging or a mental health issue (both important issues in their own right although unrelated to this instance) – will be grave injustice. Moreover there need to institutional mechanisms – perhaps in the form of grievance cells for SC and ST communities – to address and counter such discrimination and harassment. Apart from institutional mechanisms, greater understanding of ways in which caste based discrimination operates and reflexivity about systems of privilege is essential.
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