On 22nd May, 26 year old Dr. Payal Tadvi, a Muslim tribal doctor committed suicide after having endured months of caste-based abuse and harassment from three caste Hindu doctors Hema Ahuja, Bhakti Mehere and Ankita Khandelwal. Payal had been sharing both professional and residential space with the three senior doctors, who repeatedly subjected her to torture and harassment, abusing her tribal identity, ragging her in the hostel, taunting and moral policing her on social media. At work, Ahuja, Mehere and Khandelwal would verbally abuse and humiliate Payal in front of patients. They deliberately prevented her from surgeries and from entering the operation theatre. She was repeatedly threatened with complaints to the dean and the departmental head. Forced to share a room with two of her oppressors, Payal would face harassment even in the hostel. Without a cot, she was sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Ahuja and Mehere would use her mattress to wipe their feet after using the toilet. They continued the harassment on Whatsapp groups, taunting her for her tribal background. After this, Payal was forced to sleep in the hospital where she was working. She faced casteist taunts from the seniors, “We won’t let them study. We will treat them this way. These people are from lower castes and should be treated this way”. Payal, who had joined the PG course in gynaecology at the Topiwala National Medical College in May of 2018, had been complaining about the harassment to her parents by December. They took complaints of ragging and caste abuse to the hospital administration who then chose to ignore them
In response to the suicide, the hospital as of now has formed an anti-ragging committee and the police has filed cases against Ahuja, Mehere and Khandelwal under the Atrocities Act, the Anti-Ragging Act, the IT Act and the Section 306 (abetment to suicide) of the IPC. We must remember that to reduce Payal’s death to suicide or an act of individual/personal choice is itself a grave injustice. An entire system of education and institutionalised casteism is responsible for her suicide. The institutional killing of Ambedkarite student leader Rohith Vemula on January 17th, 2016 opened our eyes to the deliberate and systemic forms of caste-based segregation, boycott, punishment and isolation that shape our spaces of learning and education.
The Sukhdeo Thorat Committee Report (2007) on the differential treatment of SC/ST students in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) showed that faculty apathy towards SC/ST students in addition to discrimination in teaching, evaluation, practical examinations was the norm. SC/ST students are ghettoized in the hostels, sometimes through official processes and often because they are forced to shift to “lower caste only” hostels and spaces after facing prolonged humiliation, abuse and violence from upper caste students. SC/ST students complained of social isolation and lack of camaraderie in their inter-personal relationships with upper caste students. Dining spaces and messes are also dominated by upper caste students and their food choices. We must also remember that cultures of ragging in colleges and universities are about disciplining not only new students but also about humiliating and marking out those from marginalized backgrounds and identities.
Since the 2007 Sukhdeo Thorat Report and its recommendations, 23 dalit students, including Rohith Vemula, have committed suicide in premier institutes of learning. Many will say that reservations are at the core of the Dalit experience in modern educational institutions. But we must also remember that reservations may have ensured greater dalit bahujan minority representation among students and faculty. However, it is largely their increased political and social mobilization and assertion in these same spaces that has invited the hateful reactions of upper caste students who now find their historical sense of entitlement to education and institutions severely challenged and limited. Over the last two decades, dalit students have increasingly consolidated their political existence in university spaces along the ideologies of Marx, Ambedkar, Phule and Periyar. They have confronted the dominance of caste Hindus in both the left and right bastions. Dalit, bahujan and minority students have taken leadership in beating back the ABVP, and not just through electoral means. They have initiated sustained social movements towards greater democratization of campuses, against Hinduisation and opposed state violence against religious and regional minorities. If in Osmania University, radical left and Ambedkarite associations have been persecuted by the police for organizing beef festivals to assert dalit food politics then Rohith Vemula and his ASA friends were subject to social boycott for organizing a protest janaza against the state killing of Yakub Memon. The state then has also intensified its crackdown on such organizations, whether it be the Ambedkar Students’ Association or the Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minority Students’ Association or the various Ambedkar-Phule Study Circles across multiple IIT campuses, accusing them of radicalization of student politics and anti-national and anti-institutional activities.
The recent constitutional amendment ensuring an additional 10% reservation for upper castes in higher education and employment not only makes a mockery of the fundamental logic of reservation for socially backward groups but strengthens caste hindu dominance in these spaces and in turn further makes vulnerable their dalit bahujan counterparts.On 20th March 2018, the Supreme Court issued a set of guidelines, protecting public servants and private individuals from “arbitrary” and immediate arrest under the Scheduled Tribes (PoA) Act. Remember that the Indian state through its various instruments such as the UGC and MHRD is making consistent efforts to make redundant any knowledge that threatens its Brahminical Hindu fascist ideological framework by initiating policies to review “irrelevant” PhD topics and thesis—both new and old.At every step, the state is rapidly moving towards the Brahminisation of our social and political lives, by diluting constitutional provisions meant to ensure equality and justice for the marginalized. We need to see the deaths of Payal Tadvi (2019), Rohith Vemula (2016), Balmukund Bharti (2010), M Venkatesh (2013), Senthil Kumar (2008), Rejani S. Anand (2004) as direct consequences of institutions and social norms that have historically been strongholds of the dominant castes and their knowledge and administrative practices.
Payal Tadvi’s death is therefore not an act of personal choice. It is an institutional killing, the result of the violent social discrimination and abuse by fellow students and peers, of both administrative apathy and complicity and of a caste mentality that is deeply rooted in our Hindu society and life. Remember that not much has changed in more than 25 years. In 1992, Chuni Kotal, the first woman graduate from the Lodha Shabar tribal community in Bengal, as old as Payal Tadvi committed suicide after years of casteist harassment and discrimination from officials and silence from the state. Remember that irrespective of the politicization and democratization that most left and ambedkarite student organizations can claim to achieve, that women of dalit, bahujan and minority groups continue to fight the most difficult of battles to be seen and heard in any given space. Remember that Hema Ahuja, Bhakti Mehere and Ankita Khandelwal represent an arrogant mainstream Hindu feminism that asserts itself by humiliating and exploiting women and men of lower castes. We must stand against the likes of Smriti Irani, Kangana Ranaut, Pragya Thakur whose saffron feminism kills and polices in the name of religion. Even as Narendra Modi claims that there are no longer any lower castes in this country, that there are only those who are poor and those who want to remove poverty; lower castes and minorities are being killed and lynched for caste, cow, and religion. Bastar Solidarity Network strongly condemns the institutional killing of Dr. Payal Tadvi and demand:
- Immediate suspension of Hema, Ankita and Bhakti
- Arrest the offending doctors under the SC/ST Atrocities Act
- Fair time-bound enquiry
- Implementation of Rohith Act
- Indian Medical Association must acknowledge the rampant casteism in their institutes