And we still ask if caste discrimination exists

Updated: Jun 02, 2019, 12:38 IST | Yashica Dutt

Perhaps that's why after months of rebukes from 'upper' caste seniors, she confessed to a friend over WhatsApp that her parents worried that 'she might try to kill herself'

And we still ask if caste discrimination exists

Yashica DuttDr Payal Tadvi, an Adivasi Muslim doctor from the Bhil Tadvi community, was forced to commit suicide after persistent caste-based harassment by seniors at the BYL Nair Medical College. That yet another institution failed to protect its dalit/adivasi student is hardly surprising. As a society that has seen at least a dozen 'quota students', including Rohith Vermula, Bal Mukund Bharti, Anil Kumar Meena and Senthil Kumar take their lives because of casteist harassment, we have no business being surprised when one more name is added to the list. In fact, the impunity with which Indian colleges, universities and supervisors tend to ignore complaints of caste-based discrimination and the reckless humiliation that 'upper' caste students practice against their dalit and adivasi peers, we should half expect it. Tadvi probably did. Perhaps that’s why after months of rebukes from 'upper' caste seniors, she confessed to a friend over WhatsApp that her parents worried that 'she might try to kill herself'.

When she did allegedly take her life. it was probably because the trauma of daily humiliation and threats to her career that had escalated in the last year, became too much to endure. The discrimination against Tadvi started soon after she joined the hospital for an MD degree in gynaecology and shared a room with two 'upper' caste seniors. According to reports, Tadvi's mother said they would use her mattress to wipe their dirty feet after using the bathroom and litter around her sleeping area. Since her death, the evidently 'upper' caste women have claimed that they knew nothing about her caste. But their bullying, which fits into textbook casteist harassment, reeks of 'upper' caste superiority challenged by a 'lower' caste woman behaving as their equal. They wanted to show Tadvi, an Adivasi Muslim woman who had sought admission through the SC/ST category, her 'rightful' place, which for them existed somewhere between the bathroom and the bin. 

This specific kind of bullying that hinges on reiterating to SC/ST students that they don’t belong in an educational institute with a majority of 'upper' caste students is neither new or novel. In 2007, the Thorat Committee report described how 'upper' caste seniors would make the 'quota' students sit on the floor and recite, Ten Reasons Why I Don’t Deserve to be in AIIMS, and physically and verbally abuse them if they didn't. The Anti-Ragging Committee at BYL has described Tadvi’s sustained, casteist harassment and subsequent death as a 'clear cut case of ragging'. But neither how the 'upper' caste students behaved at AIIMS, nor caste-based bullying by the three 'upper' caste doctors at BYL can be labeled as plain ragging. That behavior is a result of thousands of years of religious, social and cultural indoctrination that teaches people that their caste is not only superior to Dalits and adivasis, but that they can resort to bullying, harassment, even violence and get away with it. How else would Hema Ahuja, Bhakti Mehare, and Ankita Khandelwal continue to threaten Tadvi to 'not let her complete the year', and still have no action taken against them. Or why would the department head, Dr Yi Ching Ling refuse to intervene despite a verbal complaint of harassment by Tadvi's husband, Dr Salman, made just 10 days before she was found dead. 

For Dalits and Adivasis, caste is a reality that impacts almost every decision we take in our personal and professional lives. Living in a small town through the late 90s to early 2000, there were no careers more coveted or respectable than medicine and engineering. But as a Dalit student who was growing up learning how to hide her caste, those career choices were neither easy nor accessible for me. Regardless of whether I would successfully clear the entrance exams, I knew going to a medical or engineering college wouldn't be the same for me as my 'upper' caste classmates. Not only would I blow my cover and reveal my caste as a 'quota student' (if I decided to avail reservation), I was almost certain that I would face extreme harassment and discrimination when people discovered that I was ‘bhangi’. Hearing the bone-chilling stories of brutal ragging that the 'quota students'  faced was enough to forget those career options. But I'm hardly the only one to have done this. Many medical and engineering students who reached out to me through the Tumblr Documents of Dalit Discrimination and even through email and Facebook have talked about how they often quit medical and engineering colleges because of caste-based humiliation, also giving up on career paths they had worked hard on for years. And those, who like Tadvi don't quit, are forced to give up their lives.

Based on the anti-ragging committee report by the BYL medical college, there is no denying that caste-based harassment led to her death. But even the testimony of 30 people including her parents, colleagues and college staff is not enough to shake off the denial of the accused, who asked: Do we make friends, listen to our seniors, juniors, and colleagues on the basis of caste? Are we really allotted work on the basis of our caste?. They perhaps genuinely believe that there was nothing casteist about their actions. In a society where Dalit and Adivasi students die almost every term, where young Dalits are chased and killed for an Ambedkar ringtone, where caste controls every aspect of institutional, structural and social behavior and still sees people wonder if caste discrimination exists, why wouldn't they? 

The writer is a New York-based journalist and author of the just released Coming Out As Dalit: A Memoir published by Aleph

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