POSTED ON MAY 22, 2020

Their clothes were not blood-stained, their hands didn’t yield weapons and they are not the type to plot physical attacks. In this picture, the three women stand close together, arms around each other. Two of them are wearing their white coats and holding their stethoscopes as they all smile widely to the camera. It is an ordinary picture. As starkly normal as they come.

What Dr Hema Ahuja, Dr Bhakti Mehere and Dr Ankita Khandelwal did was utter words, or merely words, as someone put it. It is just that there were enough words said enough number of times to push a young, aspiring, dedicated medical student like Dr Payal Tadvi to take her own life on the morning of May 22, 2019. As far as pictures go, there was a lot wrong with this one. This was a picture of a world that had normalised discrimination, harassment, brutality and oppression – and gave it happy, smiling, regular faces.

The three accused in the case

Today, it will be one year since Abeda Tadvi bid farewell to her 26-year-old daughter who was pursuing a Masters in Obstetrics and Gynecology from the Topiwala National Medical College and was working at BYL Nair Hospital. In the days leading up to her death, the mother and daughter often discussed what Payal was going through. Abeda will perhaps never forget how sometimes the young doctor would call her in tears. “I wanted to give a written statement to the dean but Payal was worried. She was scared that if the complaint was in a written form everyone would know it was her. And I knew that, from my point of view, I would give the complaint and come back but she would have to stay and endure the consequences,” Abeda says with regret.

Ever since her death, the Tadvi family has run from pillar to post, trying to ensure that their daughter gets justice. “We have to stay on in Mumbai for days at a time, living at our relatives’ houses, running all over to get documents or meet people. It takes time, money and all our energy. We’ve not had the time to grieve, we even had to ask our relatives to perform her last rituals since we had to be in court,” the mother says. If the grief of losing her daughter in such a frightfully jarring manner wasn’t traumatic enough, she continues to battle cancer while fighting a legal battle to ensure the education system doesn’t allow what happened to Payal to kill more dreams. Or lives.

The long and winding road

The words that were used against Payal were made in an environment that promised them impunity, normalised, bred casteism and fed it young Dalit and Adivasi lives. Thus, Dr Payal Tadvi became yet another name on a long list of students who were pushed to kill themselves because they simply weren’t able to find a way out. Unlike COVID, which has risen to levels of notoriety swiftly, the caste pandemic has long ruled our lives in a way that is unparalleled and would remain unprecedented till date. A vaccine, though, has not been found.

But the problem of caste-driven discrimination driving marginalised students or those from lower castes to extreme depression isn’t new by any long shot. Between 2007 and 2012, 19 students who have been admitted to colleges under the SC, ST category committed suicide due to caste discrimination, according to activist and educationist Anoop Kumar’s research in Insight, a Dalit student magazine.

What is truly worrisome is this: the number of convictions in these cases is almost nil.

In 2006, after a number of cases of caste discrimination at AIIMS made its way to the newspapers, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh constituted a committee to conduct an enquiry. Sukhadeo Thorat, former chairman of the UGC, chaired this committee and the team came out with some very significant statistics that should have ideally made a huge impact. But as history shows, nothing really happened.

AIIMS has had a lot of issues in the past

When the Thorat committee first launched their investigation, they didn’t find too many respondents from the SC, ST categories. They later found that the students had been unaware of the enquiry since the administration had conveniently not done anything to get the word out. Reports even record how the committee had to get students to speak as they left their exam rooms. Many were scared to speak to the committee despite it being a central government initiative and would do so only anonymously.

The findings, though, left very little room for ambiguity. The committee found that the marginalised students were discriminated against at almost every level of their education. From social isolation to discrimination in classes, evaluation and lack of opportunity in extra curricular activites, a significant 88 percent of the students said they felt socially isolated, 84 percent had experienced violence,76 percent were discriminated against in the mess halls, 88 percent complained of not getting a chance to participate in games, only 32 percent of the students said they participated in AIIMS’ annual cultural fest but about 80 percent of them were only observers and volunteers. The committee also found that the SC, ST students were pushed to occupy just two floors of the hostel on campus, even more so, after the major anti-quota agitation that broke out on campus.

An overwhelming 80 percent of the students said that they were not allowed to become class representatives, be part of class trips or cultural activities.

The ‘social distancing’ way of life

Ten years after the committee came out with its findings and recommendations, University of Hyderabad student activist and scholar Rohith Vemula was ‘institutionally murdered’. Vemula ended his life after writing a suicide note about what he called the institutional abuse that led him to end his life, that shook the entire country – and brought the varsity (and several others) to a standstill for over two weeks. His case is often credited for reigniting the student movement in India.

Radhika Vemula with a portrait of her son

But before him, similar high profile cases such as those of Madari Venkatesh and Senthil Kumar, both from the University of Hyderabad, also pointed to this deep rooted malaise. Senthil’s body was discovered two days after he had committed suicide showing how the campus had ‘socially distanced’ itself from the student. Senthil was the first from the Panniyandi community to enter the gates of higher education. He was enrolled as a PhD student in the Physics department and he was the only student from the 2007 batch to not be assigned a supervisor. The student, hailing from Tamil Nadu, failed a subject in his coursework and despite the fact that the fellowship was not linked to coursework performance, had his fellowship revoked by his department citing this as cause. They also put up his name on the notice board claiming his failure as the reason for losing the fellowship. For most Dalit students, the meagre fellowship is the only means of income for their families. After the students protested, the department was forced to follow the University guidelines and therefore, revoked their decision. However, the change was not conveyed to Senthil, who ended up taking his own life a few days later. That was 2008.

In Madari Venkatesh’s case, the Justice Ramaswamy Committee Report found that he had also been trying for two and a half years to get a guide for his PhD. In those years, not a single one of the many professors in the department of Chemistry wanted to be his supervisor. In its report, the committee said Venkatesh had made ‘ceaseless efforts’ to get a supervisor, “Though six faculty members from the School of Chemistry were available, not one was ready to supervise his research. Two teachers initially agreed and then backed out. Later, he needed the supervisor’s signature to become eligible to renew his PhD and no one would sign the document. It is the consequence of institutional discrimination and systematic exercise of exclusive and oppressive behavior of the Institution and the faculty of the School of Chemistry that resulted in his death,” the Committee said in its report. That was 2013.

In 2016, the UGC, which was managed by Smriti Irani (who was at the helm of affairs when Vemula died, called his body a ‘political tool’ and the Vemula family accused the Ministry and the Ministry of fabricating lies about his death), released a ‘reminder’ in March (two months after Vemula’s death) with the following directions – that officials/faculty members should desist from any act of discrimination against SC/ST students on grounds of their social origin, the University/lnstitute/College may develop a page on their website for lodging such complaints of caste discrimination by SC/ST students and also place a complaint in the Registrar/Principal’s Office for the purpose. lf any such incident comes to the notice of the authorities, action should be taken against the erring official faculty members promptly, the university and colleges should ensure that no official/faculty members indulge in any kind of discrimination against any community or category of students.

 Strong words. Sound logic, right? Wrong. Dead wrong.

Senthil Kumar

In 2019, a student from Kerala called Fathima Lateef was found dead in her hostel room at IIT Madras. She left notes that linked a certain professor to her suicide alleging similar discrimination, except on religious more than social lines this time around. And while the police (and subsequently the CBI) conducted its enquiry, the professor was allowed to continue his work on campus. Eight months later, the noise has disappeared, the protestors have moved on and IIT Madras continues to remain on top of India’s academic rankings.

Nothing had changed.

Generational oppression? Fine. But do you deserve the seat?

Last year, Radhika Vemula and Abeda Tadvi decided to take the matter to the Supreme Court – they’ve filed a petition that seeks for an adequate, rigorous and accountable mechanism in place for students who are facing various degrees of caste discrimination on campuses that the UGC has failed to ensure so far. The advocate who drafted their petition was Disha Wadekar, a Pune-based advocate who has worked with senior advocate Indira Jaising, and for her, this petition was personal. “There was simply no support group for me when I entered college. I’ve pursued two degrees and it was only when I entered higher education that I realised what my caste was. There was humiliation, micro aggression and structural discrimination – and it starts from the time you fill an admission form. Especially when you have to apply for opportunities like fellowships,” she said.

Their case also details how the rot sets in well before there is ever actionable abuse on campus. In small, indiscernible ways.

It starts for the students from the minute they put their pens to paper while applying for admissions, Prof N Sukumar tells us. Sukumar is one of the founding members of the Ambedkar Students Association in the University of Hyderabad, one of the oldest and most prominent student groups. He is now a professor in the deparment of Political Science at Delhi University and has spent over 15 years researching and studying caste discrimination on campuses. One of the many research projects that Sukumar has conducted was a survey covering 10 universities in the country, “I collected about 600 samples from SC students across disciplines. These universities were quite old and didn’t include the IITs, IIMs, medical institutes. I developed a questionnaire to trace the patterns of discrimination, stigma, general attitudes and interpersonal relationships that the students had with the others on campus from the time of admission till the time they get their degrees,” Sukumar explained.

What he found was scientific proof of what we probably always suspected, but never really acknowledged. “In my years of work, I have found that the discrimination by the upper castes is deeply rooted in the fact that marginalised students are provided caste-based reservation or what they would call in the west, affirmative action,” he explained.

And it manifests at all levels. “The students are made to feel that the reserved seat is a burden and are not allowed to view it as a right and an opportunity they have rightfully earned because of the historical injustices meted to the marginalised. From the administration to the teachers to their peers, they have to face casteist slurs and comments over and over again,” Wadekar opines.

At an anti-reservation protest

In many colleges, the SC/ST students are called ‘quota’ students, all their failures and achievements are attributed to their caste, they are constantly taunted for ‘getting a free pass’ to an education, for being unworthy of their seat, overlooked when it comes to opportunities, their questions in class go answered, ostracised in mess halls, and hostel rooms, the list is endless.

 And, lest we forget, patently depressing.

The Viva – no answers, just questions

One of the major opportunities for the administration or faculty to discriminate against students is during a viva or an interview. Students from SC, ST backgrounds sometimes struggle with their communication in English and are discriminated against on this basis despite the fact that they do exceptionally well in their written exams. In the Thorat Committee report, the survey found that 89 percent of the students felt they would benefit from English classes, even though technically, they should have already been provided with this facility. The committee report also found that 69 percent of students felt that they received inadequate support from the teachers during classes, 72 percent felt they experienced discrimination in teaching, 76 percent said they had not been evaluated fairly. In vivas, 84 percent of the students felt they weren’t treated fairly, 85 percent felt they did not get enough time with the examiner, 40 percent felt that they were asked more difficult questions than the other students and 84 percent of the students told the committee that their grades were affected because of their caste. For all the talk about caste being a ‘way of life’ only in the villages, in the prime locales of the country’s capital city, the committee found that 76 percent of the students were asked what their caste was during their viva.

Having been deprived of the privilege of education for so many generations, students from rural and backward backgrounds find it hard to grasp the language and this reflects in their viva. Paul Divakar, the General Secretary of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights says, “As a first generation learner in the English medium, I understand that when a student enters an intimidating atmosphere, they need some support and some handholding, but Dalit students lack that kind of support. They get no institutional support to groom them,” he added. “The teachers are unwilling to help out students, they feel they don’t need to put in that extra effort to understand the struggle of a student from a marginalised community,” Sukumar adds.

But it isn’t just about English, internal exams are subjectively evaluated so the students don’t have any way of protesting a bad grade. “When they attend a viva, the students come face to face with the examiner. In one case, a student got the highest rank in his entire batch in the written exam and got two marks out of 25 on his viva,” Sukumar recalled. The professor also narrated an incident from his own life when he was given only four marks in his viva while he was studying at the University of Hyderabad. “And look at me now, I’m a professor at DU,” he laughs.

The question of how many others could have gone on to succeed in the same way, is one that is best left unanswered.

A protest in solidarity with Dr Tadvi

Where is the accountability?

It is when discrimination gets overt and so difficult to ignore that people start to recognise it. Sukumar’s research has found that SC, ST students are forced to do physical chores and that Dalit female students are also sexually harassed by their supervisors, “The students need signatures from their supervisors for their fellowships and this is when the supervisors take advantage of the students,” he told us. If the student happens to have an Ambedkarite ideology, then that brings with it another category of discrimination, he claims.

 For most marginalised students, there is no space to voice their issues, and no support system to ensure they are not penalised for raising their voice. Wadekar points out the irony in the fact that while we are all aware and encouraging of sexual harassment cells, albeit only for the last few years, as a society, we have never thought to give caste discrimination the same importance. While most institutions have cells to address SC/ST discrimination on paper, that is where they almost exclusively remain according to the lawsuit filed by Vemula and Tadvi.

In a sexual harassment case, the victimisation starts from the first time the student becomes aware of it. “The same must be applied to a case of discrimination. The victimisation doesn’t start from the time they file a complaint or approach a cell, it has to start from the time they became aware of a discriminating action or remark being made,” Wadekar explained.

Wadekar credits the Thorat Committee for doing a lot of work to bring caste discrimination to the foreground but believes we can’t compare it to the work done to implement anti-ragging or sexual harassment rules and regulations. “There was also a framing of the ‘Equity Guidelines’ but our research found that it was an initiative that was bound to fail because it wasn’t as strong as the anti-ragging rules or the sexual harassment prevention guidelines,” she pointed out. The advocate also explains that a violation of the mandated rules in these cells essentially invites the cancellation of sanctions from the government, which is why they are effectively being implemented. “The colleges are also named and shamed if they are not following rules, only these methods will ensure institutes strictly follow the no caste discrimination policy. It is shocking that even the Parliament has not introduced a single Bill to tackle the issue,” she adds.

The Tadvis after they lost their daughter

Every year, the UGC seeks every institute’s action report on SC, ST complaints that they received, and every year, the reports seem the same. In the petition, Wadekar mentions that almost 50 percent of the colleges don’t have the SC/ST cell mentioned on their websites, “The few campuses that do send in their reports claiming that a few complaints were filed submit that they solved the problem by sending the students to counselling. What is going to come out of that? Most campuses say they don’t have any complaints at all. Even some major universities don’t send their action reports,” she added.

No complaints, No problems, No cry

An RTI filed by Kushal Nandwani with the UGC revealed that from the 880 Universities recognised by the UGC, only 419 universities have filed action taken reports for the year 2017-18. And only 27 universities have received complaints of caste discrimination on campus during the year 2017-18, which means 393 universities have reported that they did not receive a single complaint of caste discrimination during the given period and the 91 out of the 419 Universities that responded, do not have a separate website for the SC,ST Cell.

Consequently it became important for the Vemulas and the Tadvis to take their petition to court, “Some people have criticised the petition because they believe that the cases must be tried under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act but I feel that for a student, it is difficult to pursue a case in court. It puts immense pressure on them and their studies, which was why it is necessary to have a petition like this to ensure better implementation of rules on campuses,” Wadekar said.

‘Freedom is never given by the oppressor’

When it comes to the administration in most colleges, he believes, there continues to be lack of representation of SC/ST faculty. So if a student does want to take up a matter with the SC/ST cells or the Equal Opportunities cell, there is no promise of a fair trial, since most of these panels are manned by people from the upper castes, “Only serious action, like the one taken in Payal Tadvi’s case is going to force institutes and oppressors to stop the harassment of students. Those accused in the Vemula case must go behind bars. Institutes must be penalised, degrees must be revoked and the matters must be pursued legally. That’s the only way to send a strong message,” Sukumar believes.

“What is of utmost importance, however, is for the government to bring an Act that is specific to discrimination in education,” the DU professor states, echoing Wadekar’s point about the Parliament failing to bring about a Bill on the matter.

It is believed that infrastructural development always leads to the development of a country’s people as well. “It is the opposite in our country though, the development of the country is directly proportional to the increasing spaces and opportunities to practice untouchability. Now there is untouchability in classrooms, workspaces, the public, corporate sector, markets – everywhere. If you submit a CV for a job, they’ll look past all your accomplishments and try to figure out your caste in your name,” points out Paul Diwakar.

Payal with her husband, Salman

Much like most things, sometimes you need help from outside. Diwakar says it was, and is, of utmost priority for campuses to have an external committee to deal with complaints. “There needs to be somebody from the outside the campus who can come up with a solution, otherwise the systems will continue to remain the same way – non-functioning,” he said.

And that will dent student confidence no end. Students often worry that if they speak up about their experiences, they are making themselves more vulnerable to attacks and risk a deeper ostracisation. Just like Payal did. But Praveen Thallapelli, a scholar from JNU and a member of the Ambedkarite student group, BAPSA, disagrees. He says that students are not afraid to speak up. The problem is that the burden of proof falls on the students, “How can you prove a casteist comment or behaviour? And if the student doesn’t manage to prove the incident, what will they do? How can they approach anyone for help?” he queries.

The answers may seem simple in a smartphone era where videos of everything abound at the drop of a hat, but when your academic life is on the line, it isn’t always as simple as shooting a selfie and posting it as your Instagram story.

Prove that you are a victim

The point that Praveen raised about ‘proof of evidence’ is what has left many cases stagnant in courts across the country and committees on campuses. UD Bhima Rao, the advocate on record in the Rohith Vemula case says that this ‘proof of victimisation’ is the only reason that Payal’s family was able to immediately get the three doctors convicted with jail terms. In most cases of caste discrimination – it is a student versus a faculty member who is, more often than not, backed by the administration or it is between the student and the administration. A majority of these students don’t have the resources to fight the case or they have too much to risk like their education and their future by pursuing a case legally. Or in unfortunate cases like Vemula, the student’s family takes up the case after a student has succumbed to the pressures of caste discrimination. “Rohith’s case is the best example of how difficult it becomes to prove the administration’s discriminatory actions. Usually, it’s up to the defendant to prove that they’re not guilty, but here, it falls upon the victim to prove the discrimination and that simply isn’t easy to do,” he says.

Rohith Vemula, during his glory days at UoH

In Vemula’s case, the defendants claimed first that they cannot be slapped with the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act because Vemula wasn’t a Dalit, in the first place. The UoH administration held on to this claim for years, “We had to get their caste certificate from the Revenue Department which stalled the case and then eventually it was up to the District magistrate to take a call on the issue. Only after their caste certificates are validated will the police start their investigation. The investigation will again prolong the case,” he adds. The police have to record statements, conduct their investigation and get people to depose in front of the camera, “Most people don’t know how to even speak in front of the camera and this works against them in the court of law. This is one of the reasons why the conviction rates in SC/ST cases are abysmal. In a Secunderabad court, we discovered that out of the 5000 cases that were registered under the Atrocities Act, there was a conviction in only one case. Just one single case.”

So in a case where the administration is challenged, a positive outcome is uncertain. And that’s on a good day. The only way to ensure some sort of justice is to have a better system in place, “See, only the police know how to conduct an investigation. How will the administration know how to handle it? If there is a complaint of caste atrocity, the complaint should be forwarded to the local police too,” he believes.

So where do we go from here?

Wadekar, who has been legally  campaigning for equal rights and women’s issues, feels that it is important for the marginalised students to come together and demand a solution. Dalit and Adivasi students should be given a space in student unions and groups like the Ambedkar Periyar Student Circle, Ambedkar Students Association, BAPSA and others should come together and create a nation-wide movement to demand that their lives be secured. “There should be support groups and politically inclined groups that will pressure the administration to take on casteism,” Wadekar suggests. Speaking of her life experiences, Wadekar says the only reason why she was able to cope with the casteism that was unleashed on her is because her own parents were part of the Dalit Rights Movement, and her uncle, a member of the Dr Ambedkar Medical Students Association, helped her along the journey.

Dr Sanjay Dabhade, who is also from the Association, says that he had at one point contemplated suicide while he was pursuing medicine. “I was depressed during my course and the only reason that I survived is because of the Dr Ambedkar Medical Students Association, which provided me with the support that I was much in need of. Since we all came from similar backgrounds, we could understand each other and support each other,” Sanjay said. The doctor was in college back in 1998 and that time too, the problems with scholarships and fellowships haunted the marginalised students. However, since the movement in Maharashtra was strong, the institutions did to a certain extent curb their casteist actions on campus, “During my time, even a letterhead with the association’s name could have a massive impact and the victims were able to access some justice.”

From ‘quota’ to ‘government ka damaad’, the students are taunted by names and insults all through their academic careers, but solidarity tends to provide support. Especially if it is in Ambedkar’s name. “There is some hope these days of more accountability because Ambedkarite student groups are making their presence felt on campus. They are also filing RTIs, mobilising support for the students who are suffering, these are some initiatives we have to feel happy and positive about,” Sukumar adds.

Praveen feels that the amount of sensitisation that authorities in the committees like GSCASH initiate, should be initiated in equal measure for awareness on caste discrimination, “More Dalit Bahujan and Adivasi students should be elected to student bodies because only then can they hold perpetrators accountable for their actions or words,” he vociferates.

Praveen is positive about the impact of sensitisation of people who are typically and accidentally casteist too, “When Rajesh Karat was in-charge in JNU, he would call both the parties and deal with it fairly. It is important that the University have an action plan in place for these cases,” he explained. The young scholar believes that a one-off programme or discussion on caste discrimination is not going to solve any problems, “Administrations feel that if they hold one session every year on the issue, they are contributing to the solution. But that is not how it works, it needs to be constant. The awareness efforts should be carried on throughout the year. For example, during the college orientation, students are informed about the sexual harassment cell and the GSCASH, but in the same way, they should also be told about caste discrimination and inform the students that there is mechanism in place for those  who violate those rules,” he suggests.

So like in Payal’s case would it be advisable for the punishments to get stricter? “The punishment should be according to the degree of violation, maybe suspensions are a heavy punishment but I feel it is important to have a strict action plan,” the scholar feels.

Why make everything about caste? Because it is

Dr GR Ravindranath, the general secretary of the Doctors for Social Equality in Chennai has been at the forefront of protests on doctors’ issues in the state for months now. He tells us that a mere study of the number of inter-caste marriages between the doctors is enough to prove how casteist the atmosphere is. Because, in his opinion, no medical degree absolves a doctor of casteist tendencies, “Recently, a Dalit doctor from a very prominent hospital approached us. The upper caste doctors had been taunting him with comments about eating beef, among other things. This, despite the fact that beef was actually sold at their canteen, because it was an international hospital. Finally, we intervened and he received an apology. But this sort of discrimination is widespread,” the doctor said.

Dr BR Ambedkar, the leader of the human rights, anti-caste movement in India

A year ago, we contacted two Dalit doctors while pursuing a story on caste in medical colleges in Tamil Nadu. The doctors laugh when we ask them if Payal’s case had had any impact on their institutions. Had the institution held any interventions? Set up committees to tackle the issues? Held meetings or publicised the SC/ST cells – Nothing. “Things are the same. Recently, a dominant caste group held a meeting exclusively for doctors of that caste. It was quite a big event. And such events happen almost every year. So no, nothing has changed,” the student says. In many hospitals in Tamil Nadu, the students are allotted different units in the wards by picking lots. However, in some hospitals, all the SC, ST students land up in the same unit. “They’ll figure out the caste of the student by looking up their ranks and then put them all in the same group. These are all just modern forms of untouchability,” he says.

The young medical student also echoes a fact that Ravindranath brought up about inter-caste marriages, “Here in these hospitals, if two doctors of different castes are in a relationship, the senior doctors will actually intervene and manage to separate them.” The differential treatment with regard to work also continues to exist for the doctors,”Continuous duty for 36-48 hours at a stretch, depriving us of certain clinical opportunities that could help us career-wise or even with studies. There is also indirect pressure like the dominant caste administrators will make us roam all over for things that are easily accessible to the privileged students. I know a friend who tried to get help, tried to complain and nothing happened. She too resorted to suicide. There’s really no space for us to talk about what we go through,” an MBBS student says. Even if they do manage to bring up any of their issues, the student says their own friends dismiss them, “They’ll say why you’re politicising everything. Why do you make everything so hard, so problematic? So then what do you do? I think maybe in the arts colleges, people are more empowered but here in the medical colleges, nobody has any awareness and simply dismisses any opportunity for a discourse on caste or human rights,” she adds in dismay.

Can you take it?

Sometimes Abeda Tadvi wonders if things would have been different if Payal had silently endured the casteism and hadn’t taken it up with the management. “But she suffered in silence for an entire year, you know? How could she have continued to stay that way? Students have to be allowed to submit a complaint anonymously and still be able to get justice,” Abeda feels.

And bottling all that within you will eventually get to you. And get you. “Payal would say that she couldn’t even repeat some of things that the trio would say to her. Sometimes she would tell me they would treat women in labour ruthlessly and if she raised her voice about it, they would tell her things like ‘your children will die’. They would also tell her not to touch patients as she would make them untouchable. People who are capable of such behaviour don’t deserve to be in such a profession,” the grieving mother says.

Payal with her parents at her graduation

Sweat, blood, tears. Repeat

The pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works for the moment. “Because of the lockdown things are at a standstill (in reference to Payal’s case) but whatever happened to Payal should not happen to anyone else. Our lives are ruined now but we have to keep standing until we get justice for her. In a lot of other colleges, things have been even worse, worse than Payal’s case and these days I keep getting calls from students telling me that because we stuck on and are fighting the case, the conditions have improved in their colleges,” Abeda says.

Abeda recalls that when the family decided that Payal would pursue medicine, many people asked them why they were bothering to educate a girl who was anyway going to get married – a common dictum in conservative Indian families. But her family knew that the day their daughter would make them proud was not far, so they did whatever it took to get her there. She would go on to become the first from the Tadvi Bhil tribe to get her MBBS degree.

With her death, Abeda says she’s lost a part of her heart and she feels empty inside. When Payal worked as a medical officer at her village, everyone wanted to be treated by her, “On her last day when she resigned to pursue her Masters in Mumbai, she came back crying. She was sad because the staff and the patients at the hospital had all cried when they heard she was leaving. But I told her to be strong because she was going to get a higher education so she could come back and help them in greater ways. And Payal would often recall this incident and say I’ve worked so hard and done so much and yet I have to endure these taunts.”

“A doctor from the Adivasi community… we were so proud,” the mother says as she breaks down.

And therein lies the answer. Or does it?

The world is robbed of young, bright minds because their teachers, their administrators, their Universities and the State don’t listen. The system only empowers the oppressors, the ‘merit-holders’ and the ‘harmless name-callers’. So do the oppressed have to appeal to the oppressors to realise that they are partaking in this age-old oppression. Wadekar doesn’t think so, “It is not my burden to educate the privileged, they have all the access that they need to educate themselves. But I do feel it is the responsibility of the State to ensure safe spaces for Dalit and Adivasi students.”

When Vemula and Tadvi decided to take the matter to court, they cited the following reasons to do so, “Because it is the duty of the respondents (MHRD, UGC, NAAC)  to ensure a conducive and nurturing environment for these students to grow and attain their fullest potential. It is also their duty to ensure the protection of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution to SC, ST students, faculty and other employees in higher educational institutions. Because Article 17 Constitution of India imposes an obligation upon all persons, private, state or otherwise from indulging in or tolerating any form of untouchability. From unwholesome academic learning, academic differentiation, hostel segregation to social segregation in games and cultural events. These are nothing but untouchability practices that have adapted themselves to modern institutions and forms.”

So far though, the State has clearly failed these students but what is more unfortunate is that it seems like it’ll be a while before the State even realises that it has blood on its hands. The State and society will have to accept that caste exists in the most picture-perfect of scenarios. The victims and the perpetrators, live and move along with us, in the malls, in air-conditioned rooms of CEOs and in the wards of hospitals that are built to save lives.

Courtesy : EdexLive