Panic at a job interview, beaten down confidence levels in a classroom over broken English or a sense of alienation upon finding nothing familiar in a new cultural context – students and young professionals form Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe communities are discussing these afresh in the aftermath of Dr Payal Tadvi’s suicide.
While on the one hand, these discussions reiterate that discrimination takes multiple forms, on the other hand, some are also drawing attention to the need for accessible and affordable mental health care for those suffering distress associated with subtle and unsubtle casteism.
“Humiliation and rejection are daily experiences for Dalit students and professionals, and those from other marginalised communities. Even if it’s not overtly casteist remarks, deep psychological distress is caused to young people from such communities when a comment is made about, for example, their skin colour or the way they speak English,” said Dr Rewat Kaninde, former president of the Ambedkar Medicos Association that works in medical colleges across the state.
Currently working at JJ Hospital in Mumbai, Dr Kaninde said the absence of SC/ST cells in Maharashtra’s medical colleges despite UGC directives adds to the lack of support for SC/ST students thrown into a new cultural milieu. “The work load in medical colleges is already immense, and then when your credibility is questioned as it was in Dr Payal’s case — she appeared to have been called a bhagodi or shirker — it can shatter your confidence and lead to mental health issues,” he added.
A former student at a prestigious Mumbai college remembers losing friends in college, and in a top Pune college, where he completed his undergraduate studies, after the first couple of months. “I had lots of friends until I spoke up on issues from a Dalit perspective. After that, I was always left with friends from my own background,” he said, adding that others also saw new romances collapse abruptly.
Discrimination in big cities is insidious and covert, he said, and often carelessly insensitive rather than deliberate. A seemingly innocuous comment from a professor asking them to work with Dalits and tribals and “get their hands dirty” or a class conversation about the latest TV series could both be deeply alienating experiences, he added. A Marathwada native belonging to the Chamar caste, the sense of frustration at taunts directed at his father back in their village, deepened into a loss of confidence in the big city college.
Psychological distress could arise from students’ status as reserved category candidates too, such as last year’s protests when the Government of India Post-Matric Scholarship was withdrawn. Students were suddenly under pressure to raise funds for tuition fee or hostel fees or face the humiliation of not getting degrees. SC/ST students, who compete in the open category, are also often conversely told they’re occupying a seat ostensibly meant for other groups.
Facilitating affordable counselling and therapy for members of all Bahujan communities, The Blue Dawn is a mental healthcare support group formed last year. “We started as WhatsApp and Google groups, as a support group for Bahujans where we connected those who needed help with a network of therapists and counsellors across India. Several therapists signed up with us, others can help by sponsoring counselling sessions too. Not a lot of us can afford mental health facilities that cost Rs 1,000 – Rs 1,500 per session,” said Pranjali Kureel, a student and one of the four core members of The Blue Dawn.
Kureel and founder-journalist Divya Kandukuri, Kiran Valake and Christopher Nag intend to also form support groups for SC, ST and NT and all other Bahujan students in colleges.
“The general view in colleges is that we get it easy due to reservations. That results in a lot of anxiety,” Kureel said.
The 100-odd mostly young Bahujans, who have reached out to The Blue Dawn, have reported several common experiences, such as panic at an interview so much so they are unable to speak, lack of support at workplaces where there is little or no representation for their community and stress from gaslighting or the popular denial of their experience of segregation.
Psychiatrist and former president of Maharashtra Association of Resident Doctors, Dr Sagar Mundada, however, cautioned against looking at the issue of stress among resident doctors through the caste prism alone. “I do not deny that discrimination happens, but it is neither the only cause nor is casteism rampant in medical colleges.”
Currently treating over 20 doctors, including many residents completing their specialisation or super specialisation, he called it tragic that Tadvi was not referred to a mental health practitioner. “But 99 per cent of seniors troubling juniors is not about caste or even their background. Seniors have no choice but to be very strict or else patients could die. Junior resident doctors are seeing about 200 patients a day instead of 10 or 20. They go without sleeping or showering sometimes, and workplace tensions and stress are a big reality among them,” he said.
While students from small towns or villages also experience adjustment issues regardless of caste, it’s only a minuscule percentage that experiences casteism, he added. “The larger issue is of mental health of doctors.”