ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Another ‘Institutional Murder’

Payal Tadvi’s death was the result of the institutional neglect of social discrimination in higher education.

The death of Payal Tadvi, a 26-year-old resident doctor at Mumbai’s BYL Nair Hospital, has exposed yet again the insidious nature of discrimination and casteism against Scheduled Caste (SC)/Scheduled Tribe (ST) students in medical colleges. Tadvi belonged to the Bhil Muslim community, recognised as an ST group. She had reportedly been suffering harassment at the hands of three senior resident doctors in Topiwala National Medical (TNM) College, attached to BYL Nair Hospital, which allegedly led her to commit suicide. Her family had made formal complaints to the college administration about her being subjected to “casteist” slurs and being unfairly admonished, but to no avail.

It was only after Tadvi’s death that the institutional machinery sprung into action, suspending the three doctors and the head of her unit, and the anti-ragging committee started its investigations. A week after her death, the committee has found that Tadvi indeed faced “extreme harassment” and was subjected to discrimination and slurs for having belonged to an ST community and having procured admission into the college through the SC/ST quota. In the wake of her death, many doctors belonging to SC/ST communities have come forward and recounted similar experiences of discrimination they faced while they were in medical college.

In the face of all this, representatives of the Indian Medical Association seem to hold the opinion that caste-based discrimination does not exist at all in the medical field, or that the level of caste-based discrimination does not warrant any attention from them. In fact, caste-based discrimination and resentment from upper-caste students and faculty is common in the high-pressure environment of medical colleges, as well as in other higher educational institutes in the country. The 2007 report by the Thorat Committee has shown how rampant and varied the caste-based discrimination practices were in AIIMS, the country’s premier medical college. It has been more than 10 years since this report came out, and Tadvi’s case only goes to show that there have been no learnings, and the institutional neglect of caste-based discrimination practices continues to haunt educational institutions.

Another facet of this institutional apathy is reflected in the very working and structure of and the concentration of power within such institutions that allows for and even encourages practices like ragging and hazing by senior students. That harassment of students and juniors is even a possibility, is par for the course, and will not attract any reprimand in these institutions reveals how power structures allow for the creation and perpetuation of the kind of thought and environment that can corrode human behaviour. The University Grants Commission (UGC) had received 3,022 complaints of ragging by students between 2013 and 2017. Further, there would be many more instances that have not been reported or reached the public eye. This was also revealed by a UGC report stating that 84.3% of students do not register complaints about experiencing ragging at the hands of their seniors in college for various reasons, prime among them being lack of trust in college authorities to follow up on their complaint and the fear of causing harm to their career, of being boycotted on campus, and of being beaten up by seniors.

Further, the fear of being found out that they belong to an SC/ST community and procured admission through a quota, can dissuade students from making a complaint in the first place, especially in the presence of the resentment from upper-caste students and faculty. Despite Tadvi and her parents having complained to the college authorities multiple times, there was no acknowledgement made, let alone any action taken by them. In fact, it has been reported that the anti-ragging committee of the TNM College had not even met in the last one and a half years. Further, according to her family, the harassment only worsened after they complained to the college. With such complaints not being taken seriously and inaction on the part of the institution, SC/ST students would be further dissuaded from registering complaints. Many would instead choose to suffer silently, drop out of college, or in extreme cases be driven to take their own lives, worsening an already dismal representation of SCs/STs in higher education. In the absence of a college administration and faculty that has sufficient representation from SC/ST communities or is sensitised by and discerning of caste-based discrimination, the trivialising of discrimination and ragging complaints, and the resulting inaction on the part of the college, as in Tadvi’s case, is a story that repeats itself institution after institution.

One is also reminded of the death of Rohith Vemula, the Dalit student pursuing his PhD at the University of Hyderabad, whose suicide was described as “institutional murder.” His death and the ensuing events led to the demand for the legislation of a “Rohith Act” that would provide protection to students belonging to marginalised communities. However, such a legislation will only be effective when institutions and the people within it realise and acknowledge the perils of social discrimination. Starting from the most “innocuous” of ragging practices to “extreme harassment,” such discriminatory behaviour in fact constitutes violence and is an assault on the human rights of a person that prevents them from leading their lives with dignity and obtaining an education. It is only in recognising this that we can move towards attaining justice for Tadvi, Vemula, and the thousands of students suffering in silence.

Updated On : 13th Oct, 2020
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