Despite breaking stereotypes, Dalit doctors’ experiences are a reminder of their painful past

Ponnusamy* is the first doctor from Tamil Nadu’s Pudukottai village. Returning to practice there after he obtained his degree, he learned that there was one disease he could not cure: Casteism, which afflicted both his patients and his colleagues in the medical community.

Some of the earliest memories that Ponnusamy has, are of Dalits in his village being treated like slaves. “We were not allowed to wear shirts and slippers. We were not allowed to have a vehicle of our own. When we travelled in buses, we had to give up our seats for higher caste people,” Ponnusamy says.

Later, during his three-year stint at a government hospital in Pudukottai, dealing with a new patient became traumatic.

“First, patients ask your name. Then, your caste. I’m scared to say that I’m a Dalit, because I know what will happen. But even if I don’t answer, they will know what my caste is,” he says the 46-year-old doctor.

After patients have established his caste, the second phase of trauma begins. “No patient directly says anything, but you know that everyone wonders how a person from a lower caste can become a doctor.”

The situation was slightly different when he obtained his degree. His degree was cause for celebration among fellow Dalits of the village; they were proud and happy that one of them had become a doctor. In contrast, even though no one said anything outright, there was a palpable mix of scepticism and resentment among upper caste people of the village that a Dalit man had become a doctor.

Within the medical community, the discrimination is subtle, says Arulraj*, a successful orthopaedic doctor.
Ponnusamy gives an example. “I’m an anaesthetist. When on call, surgeons first contact people of their own caste. Only if they do not answer, doctors of other castes are called in.”

Tired of it all, Ponnusamy and his family decided to embrace Buddhism on Sunday along with 46 other doctors at an event organised in Chennai by Makkal Medical Team. “We feel accepted in a religion like Buddhism. Moreover, we do not have to lie about our caste for anything. We feel more free,” Ponnusamy said.

The ceremony was a re-enactment of the 60th anniversary of BR Ambedkar’s mass conversion in Nagpur in 1956. It was carefully arranged over social media as an attempt to uplift and restore the esteem of those who took part, and set an example for those who didn’t.

For Arulraj, an orthopaedic doctor, embracing Buddhism was the culmination of a long journey of growing up unequal, and beginning to question that inequality.

As a 14-year-old, he witnessed caste showdowns in village. When he studied medicine in college, there was considerable animosity among the upper castes.

Their attitude was one of ‘Oh he’s trying to come to our level’, and the anger that a Dalit youth had dared to study medicine was always simmering and threatening to spill over, Arulraj says.

“My biodata is an ordinary piece of paper, but all the scrutiny over it (because it says I am SC) makes it clear that my place in society (as a doctor) is being challenged. To date, we are not allowed to enter the temple in my village. Be it school or college, your caste identity looms over you.”

Caught up with completing the course and later providing for his family never gave much scope for thought about religion.
“My parents didn’t know about Ambedkar’s works and neither did I. But I realized over time, that we are not Hindus by birth. The idea of diversity among Hindus, Muslims, and Christians only came out 150 years ago, but we still remain oppressed and hardwired with the idea that Hinduism is our birth religion,” Arulraj says.

What he found most appealing was there was no god in Buddhism whom he had to please or beg to. “Your mind is the master. Explore your mind and find the right path. That is the essence. Also, Hinduism was never inclusive for us. Where were we? What was our place in it?” he asks. “I am going back to my native religion. It is like going back home.”

*Name changed on request