In small villages across Jalgaon, every day since Payal Tadvi’s death, there have been spontaneous protests, prayer meetings and candle marches. At one such march in Lohara village in Raver taluka, as Sana, 8, says “there cannot be more Payal didis”, and that she too wants to become a doctor like her, there are loud cheers.
In Jalgaon, they know Payal as the medical officer who spoke their language Bhili and, encouraged by whom, Adivasi women started visiting the Primary Health Centre (PHC) at Dhanora village in Chopda taluka where she was posted. They also remember the 26-year-old as “strong” and “bold”.
Which is why the news of her suicide at a hospital in Mumbai on May 22, allegedly due to harassment by colleagues for her Scheduled Tribe status, has hit Jalgaon hard — both those who knew her, and those who are getting to know her now. Payal was the first among her Tadvi Bhil community to enrol for postgraduation in medicine.
The Tadvi Bhils
Given ST status, the Tadvi Bhils are found in small pockets in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. They are a sub-caste of the larger Bhil ethnic group. While many of them are Muslims, they retain many aspects of Hindu culture still. Most are employed with anything related to forest, while others do farm labour. Payal Tadvi was the first among them to enrol for a postgraduation in medicine.
Ashabai Tadvi, who has just returned from a day’s work in the fields in Lohara, says most of them end up as farm labourers or collect forest produce for a living, earning
Rs 100-odd a day. “With few options, our children either work with us or balance school and work. Some are in ashram schools, where education is bad. Through these odds, when one of us tries to make it big, she is treated this way. What’s the use then?”
Among the districts with the highest tribal population in Maharashtra, Jalgaon has around six lakh tribals. Among them, the Tadvi Bhils are a sub-caste of the larger Bhil ethnic group. When Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb visited Burhanpur, an important Mughal outpost (in modern day Madhya Pradesh), in 17th century, several Tadvi Bhils had converted to Islam. Centuries later, though Muslims, they continue to retain aspects of Hindu culture, like bowing before idols.
District Collector Avinash Dhakne says Jalgaon has 17 government ashram schools for tribals, and 42 grant-in aid schools. “There is also a programme under which 2,700 children are sent to residential schools within the state. These schools are filled below capacity. We have to plan special programmes to bring them to school,” Dhakne admits.
The literacy rate in Jalgaon is 78.2%, compared to the state average of 82.3%. Former Jalgaon MLA Shirish Chaudhary says only 50% Tadvi Bhil children study up to Class 12.
Payal studied till Class 10 at a private Progressive English Medium School, 10 minutes from her home in Jalgaon city. With summer vacations on, there is minimal staff at the school these days. The principal, who joined after Payal left, doesn’t know about her or her death. But administrator Mangale Dunakhe, who used to be the principal of the school’s Marathi wing, remembers her clearly as “a quiet, obedient girl”.
In the staff room, a mention of Payal starts a discussion on caste. As a teacher says any kind of discrimination is “unforgivable”, another says, “I wrote on my WhatsApp how another girl from a Scheduled Tribe had lost her life due to institutional failures. Nobody responded, though over 90 people saw it.”
After their son Ritesh was born with a defect that left him disabled in both legs, Abeda and husband Salim thought long and hard before having another child. “We were scared the second child would also have a birth anomaly. So we didn’t plan one for four years. Later a doctor encouraged us,” says Abeda.
Once Payal was born, the parents waited with bated birth for her to start walking. She was nine months old when she took her first steps. “The doctor had said that seeing a sibling walk would encourage Ritesh, and it did. He started attempting to stand. Payal was a gift of god,” Abeda says.
Growing up, Payal remained protective of her brother. “She knew we were both busy with Ritesh so she would not bother us much. Once when she was two, she soiled herself, and dragged a cloth herself to clean the floor,” laughs Abeda.
She was interested in swimming, would participate in every school marathon but her passion lay in dancing. While in school, she participated in auditions of TV reality show Dance India Dance. Salim remained unemployed for most of her childhood, sometimes getting work as a daily wager. Abeda worked as a clerk with the zila parishad. With finances low, Payal helped out by doing the cooking, laundry and cleaning.
Despite all this, in her Class 10th exams, Payal scored 87%, and after Class 12, sat for multiple exams for engineering and medical. Ritesh believes his health problems prompted Payal’s desire to become a doctor. “She saw me going to sadhus, doctors, and decided she wanted to help people.”
Recalling Payal’s promise to “look after Ritesh all her life if needed”, Abeda adds, “She never told us she wanted to become a doctor until the common entrance test result came.”
To admit her in Government Medical College in Miraj in 2011, her parents took a loan. Her father had by then got a job as a clerk in the same office as Abeda’s. “Due to my condition, I do not work. She would have been the sole bread-earner for the family after my parents retire in a few years,” Ritesh says.
Several in the family were not as keen about Payal’s career choice, advising the Tadvis to get her married off. “But we were the happiest parents in Jalgaon when our daughter told us she wanted to become a doctor,” Abeda says, wiping her tears.
Still, with girls her age getting married, the mother was worried. “I didn’t want people to say we planned to live off our daughter’s money,” Abeda says.
In June 2014, when Payal was 21, her family introduced her to Salman during a wedding in Raver, Jalgaon. She was in her third year of MBBS at the time. He was smitten, Salman, a native of Raver, recalls. “She told me she was not ready for marriage. (But) I thought even I was a doctor, so things would work out.” He told her to think about the proposal and they exchanged mobile numbers.
Two months later, on August 20, on Salman’s birthday, she rang him. “She said she was ready for marriage. It was my happiest day,” he says. They got engaged in December, and married after her graduation, in February 2016. “She wanted to go to Kerela for honeymoon, but I insisted on the Ajmer Sharif dargah to seek blessings,” he says.
After marriage, Salman returned to Mumbai, where he was a PG student of anaesthesia at KEM Hospital. Payal joined Sangli Medical College to serve out the year-long compulsory bond MBBS students have to with government hospitals.
In 2017, she took up work as medical officer at the Dhanora PHC, while preparing for the post-graduation entrance exam.
The same year, Salman finished his PG and moved to Aurangabad to be close to her. “In our two years of marriage, we lived together for only those six months,” he says.
In 2018, Salman got a job as a lecturer at Mumbai’s Dr R N Cooper Hospital, and Payal got admission for post-graduation in the gynaecology department of Mumbai’s T N Topiwala National Medical College. With work load high as a resident doctor, Payal could hardly leave the hospital and hence moved into a hostel. Salman would meet her once in two-three days, sometimes bringing dinner he cooked for her. Both would eat in the gynaecology ward’s side room, sharing an hour of quiet, as patients slept.
Cousin Tanuja, 30, says one of the reasons Payal chose her own taluka when she started work as a medical officer was that she wanted to work with tribals, many of whom remain apprehensive about formal medical care. So, every day, she would travel over 30 km from home to Dhanora (sometimes in a state transport bus, often riding her scooter), and drop in at Tanuja’s home for lunch.
“She would discuss work as she was passionate about it,” says Tanuja, also remarking on Payal’s “strong will”, making it difficult to accept what has happened.
At the PHC, they vividly remember Payal, especially for one incident. A Tadvi Bhil woman in her final trimester of pregnancy had been brought to the centre for a check-up. The doctors realised she was severely anaemic. While they wanted to do immediate blood transfusion, the family was reluctant. “We attempted to convince them, but they did not agree. I asked Payal to intervene,” says Dr Ajit Wadekar, the medical officer at the centre. Payal along with an Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) headed to the family’s village. Bharti Sonawane, the ANM who accompanied Payal, says Payal spoke to the family, explaining to them in Bhili about the woman’s condition. “Eventually, the woman was rushed to the Civil Hospital in Jalgaon.”
Dr Wadekar says the woman had a successful delivery and she and her son continue to visit the PHC for check-ups. In fact, he adds, during Payal’s stint, the number of Adivasi patients coming to the centre rose substantially. She also went with polio teams to villages for immunisation drives.
“The impact of her work can be felt till today,” Dr Wadekar says.
At T N Topiwala National Medical College though, she could sense the difference, Abeda says. “Payal had immense self-control, I never saw her get angry. But she changed after she started PG, got disturbed.”
Initially, Payal shared a hostel room with Dr Bhakti Mehare, now an accused in the case. “Bhakti had a cot, while Payal slept on the floor. Bhakti would wipe her feet on her mattress, so Payal started sleeping in a side room of the ward to avoid her,” Abeda claims.
Her relative Hanif Tadvi says she stopped answering their calls. Abeda claims she suspected Payal was being harassed due to her caste, but she denied it. “Payal told me not to bring up casteism. She thought no medical student could ever discriminate over caste.”
In December 2018, Salman says, Payal broke down before him. Naming three seniors — Dr Ankita Khandelwal, Dr Hema Ahuja and Mehare — as constantly harassing her, she said she wouldn’t go to work. Salman met Payal’s department head Dr S D Shirodkar to lodge a complaint, and she transferred Payal to the paediatric ward for two months. Salman says Shirodkar, who has been issued a show-cause notice, also told him she was happy with Payal’s work.
In February this year, Payal was posted back to the old unit. Her three seniors reportedly started harassing her again, frequently scolding her over work, not allowing her to conduct deliveries and threatening that they would not let her study. “In the medical college, juniors learn from seniors and Payal didn’t want to fight. But she claimed the torture increased after she returned,” Salman says.
He says he visited the gynaecology unit head, Dr Y I Ching Ling, in May to complain. But an anti-ragging report by B Y L Nair Hospital, to which T N Topiwala Medical College is attached, states Ching Ling took no action in the matter.
Khandelwal (27), Ahuja (27) and Mehare (26), all in their final year of post-graduation, are under arrest. Denying the charges, their parents say the three worked under immense pressure and only wanted to ensure Payal did her job properly. “If my daughter was discriminating over caste, she should be punished. But she has friends from every community,” says Kailash Khandelwal, Ankita’s father.
Ahuja’s mother Kavita insists she is very sensitive. “She kept crying on the phone when she saw Payal’s body. Whenever a patient would die, she used to cry. How can she harass another student?”
Abeda denies their claim that Payal may have been pushed to the edge due to work pressure. “My daughter saw pressure during MBBS. She would work for 24-36 hours. It is not possible that she succumbed to work pressure. There was definitely harassment.”
On Friday, the Mumbai Police informed the Sessions Court that they had evidence suggesting the three had made casteist remarks against Payal.
It’s seven days since Payal’s death. At the Tadvi home in Jalgaon city’s Sai Sanskar Colony, incense sticks have been lit in a corner of the living room, next to Payal’s MBBS degree certificate, kept in a frame. Under a shamiana outside, there is a constant stream of visitors, including neighbours and friends.
Over at a freshly painted 1BHK at Byculla in Central Mumbai, that he rented a month ago, Salman sits amidst photos of him and Payal on the walls. It was in this house that the two planned to finally start a married life.
Thinking back to the signs they “missed”, Ritesh says, “Payal would say she had worked with tribal communities in backward areas and she would be able to manage in Mumbai too… When she began facing harassment, she told our mother. But she also said they are students as well and she did not want their lives spoilt by complaining against them.”
Salman talks about how Payal had forbidden him from visiting her at the hospital in the last one month, due to fear of her seniors. Salman says he dismissed it as rivalry between medical students. “There are only girls in the gynaecology department. Not everyone gets along well,” he says. “I will regret this all my life. I did not pursue the matter thinking about the career of the three of them.”
After a while, Salman adds, Payal and he planned to move back to Jalgaon to start a hospital for the Tadvi Bhils.
While that may not happen now, some change may have already started. Nasima Tadvi, a 37-year-old doctor who is a Tadvi Bhil too, and who knew of Payal through her brother, talks about the time a senior colleague harassed her during practice. “If anything went wrong, he would blame me and paint me as inferior. This is one way of subtle discrimination. Fortunately, when I complained to my senior, he took immediate action. The institutional mechanisms to prevent this are not adequate. There is fear that no one will listen to us,” Nasima says.
Through an NGO, Nasima, who works at a PHC in Yawal Taluka, now holds motivational talks for children. “This year, I want to tell them to not keep quiet, to raise their voice.”
Arifa Tadvi, a teacher who lives at Dombivali near Mumbai and is enrolled for a PhD, is hopeful. “By creating fear, they prevent us from seeking our right. There is fear that nobody will support us. Perhaps Payal feared that too. We have to change this,” Arifa, who has just returned from Jalgaon, says.
Sana, the 8-year-old who resolved to be like “Payal didi”, is her daughter.