From Kashmir to Kanyakumari: Education is a caste struggle!

Namrata Devikar
Sunday, 9 June 2019

Institutionalised caste-based discrimination continues to be rampant but unspoken at educational institutes across India.

On May 22, Dr Payal Tadvi, a second year Post Graduate student at TN Topiwala National Medical college in Mumbai committed suicide. She decided to end her life allegedly following two years of humiliating remarks about her caste and her seeking admission through reserved category by her seniors. Her family lost a loving daughter, but what did we, as a society, lose that day?

Various media reports highlight the fact that during her one year of internship at Dhanora Primary Health Centre (PHC) in Jalgaon district, the young girl spoke to tribal patients of Bhil community in Bhili and encouraged many to seek medical treatment.  A doctor from their own community, a Tadvi-Bhil herself, Payal could connect and communicate with the patients better. She is also the first person from her community to enrol for a postgraduate course in medicine. She was an inspiration and ray of hope for young girls and boys.

This is what we all lost on May 22.

The allegations in this case are yet to be proven but various accounts by her family, friends and WhatsApp messenger chats points in the direction of caste-based discrimination. Her parents recall how the higher authorities failed to act after several complaints. 

Speaking to Sakal Times, Dr Sanjay Dabhade, a health activist at Jan Abhiyan and founder member of Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch who has studied at city based BJ General Medical College said that institutionalised caste-based discrimination, is present in every institute around us.

“It can be seen by faculty members giving more opportunities to selective students or helping a select few more. Or casual remarks of, ‘you will get a seat anywhere for PG as you have reserved category’ or non-inclusion of SC/ST students in college cultural activities. It is rampant but unspoken of,” said Dabhade. He further added that is very evident by the kind of friends we have. “A student from SC/ST is made to feel alienated when he or she joins a college. Because the environment they come from is different. The challenges they face are different in terms of language barriers, financial strain to the colour of their skin. It is all different and they struggle to fit in. This reflects in the friend circle they have. Or largely speaking why the others exclude them,” said Dabhade.

He further mentioned hegemony of superiority is evident around us. “We select our friends as per our upbringing. The body language, talking style and language are all deeply rooted in our upbringing. Also, I agree that in medicine, the number of seats are less which makes the profession highly competitive. The fees is also a lot. That has to be addressed by the competent authorities. But more than this, we all should not forget that the constitution has given us the right to equality which is not yet inculcated in the society,” said Dabhade.

Dr Tadvi’s suicide brings to the forefront a need for immediate proactive action. The case of institutionalised caste-based discrimination did not stop at her nor did it start from Rohith Vemula, a young PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad who also committed suicide in 2016 because of similar treatment. 

Later, Rohith’s suicide became a symbol of systemic oppression, institutionalised discrimination and criminal negligence by the university. There has been a lot of such suicides across various educational institutes which drags our attention to ‘Why?’. In 2007, a report of the committee headed by SK Thorat, who chaired the panel then, had shocking findings on the allegation of differential treatment of SC/ST students in All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) Delhi.

It clearly outlined that there were casteist remarks passed at students in the college and differential treatment by faculty and students towards those seeking admission through reserved quota. The report also highlighted that the institute, at that time, did not have any grievance redressal system to deal with complaints of non-compliance of constitutional protections and safeguards to the SC/ST community against the incidences of discrimination.

This suicide of Dr Payal Tadvi again highlights the need for such grievances redressal systems where these students can get justice. Another student from a government medical college noted that he has seen several complaints on caste- based discrimination filed with the Anti-Ragging committee which has either been dismissed or neglected by the committee which also comprises of faculties from upper caste. 

“In such a case, what the student should do? We are advised to let it go and focus on studies. But even in studies we are targeted as repeatedly our faculty is interested in asking our background. There is no positive push that we get while studying,” said the student, on the condition of anonymity.

Echoing similar views, Dr Dabhade also added that during his time, the faculty members were all from the upper caste and so the differential treatment was seen more. “Now, because of the reservation system, there are a few teachers from SC/ST community who help the students,” added Dabhade. 
 
“That was the teaching of Dr BR Ambedkar, to de-caste with inter-caste marriages and to understand that our social values have to change. Not just in academics but also in practise, we have to inculcate equality for social justice,” he said. At last, in  Ambedkar’s own words, “Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents Hindus from co-mingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion; it is a state of the mind.” And this state of mind has to change to bring in equality for all.

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