In his victory speech at the BJP headquarters following the enormous Lok Sabha mandate, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that there are only two castes in India now — the poor and those who will alleviate poverty. Even before the reverberations of his words died down, a young doctor from Mumbai, Payal Tadvi of the BYL Nair Hospital committed suicide. She was allegedly facing persistent caste-based harassment from her seniors at the hospital. Tadvi had taken admission in the MD gynaecology course in May 2018 through the caste-based quota. Despite what the PM says, caste continues to be the horrific reality of Indian society.
Casteism spills over into our offices, hospitals, factories, business establishments and even educational institutions. Tadvi joins a host of underprivileged scholars who have committed suicide for exactly the same reason — Madari Venkatesh, Rohith Vemula, Senthil Kumar and Pulyala Raju to name just a few. Caste-based discrimination in institutions of higher education needs to be addressed urgently. In March 2010, an MBBS student, Bal Mukund Bharti, a Dalit from UP and a student of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, committed suicide following casteist slurs. Another AIIMS MBBS student, Anil Kumar Meena committed suicide in March 2012 because he felt harassed for his backward background. We are told that Bharti was the first Dalit from his village in 50 years to enter an elite institute like AIIMS. The problem of caste-based discrimination was so acute in AIIMS that, in 2007, a committee was formed under the chairmanship of Sukhadeo Thorat to look into the harassment of Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) students.
The Thorat Committee report eventually served as a milestone in efforts to identify caste-based discrimination in higher educational institutes. It revealed that about 69 per cent of the SC/ST students reported that they did not receive adequate support from teachers and about half of them cited inaccessibility and indifference as reasons for less contact with teachers. About one-third gave caste background as reason for avoidance by the teachers, and 72 per cent of SC/ST students mentioned some kind of discrimination during teaching sessions. About 76 per cent of students mentioned that their papers were not examined properly and 88 per cent mentioned that they got fewer marks than they expected. About 84 per cent of these students mentioned that evaluation in practical and viva was unfair and 85 per cent of them mentioned that the SC students didn’t receive enough time with the examiners, as compared to higher caste students. Besides, a large chunk of SC/ST students experienced social isolation and discrimination during their stay in the hostels at AIIMS. The report also delineated the discrimination felt by SC/ST faculty members employed at AIIMS, Delhi.
Adjacent to AIIMS is another important teaching hospital, the Vardhman Mahavir Medical College (part of the Safdarjung Hospital). Here, caste-based discrimination was reported by 25 SC students who were failed en masse in physiology. The matter was investigated by the Mungekar Committee in 2012. The committee submitted its report to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) stating that the hostility of the college authorities towards SC/ST students was so strong that the latter always had to approach the information commission with applications under the Right to Information (RTI). The committee recommended a compensation of Rs 10 lakh for the harassed students, besides recommending suspension of the concerned faculty and administrative staff.
Educational institutions have been the preserves of the upper caste and the rich. With affirmative action in the form of caste-based reservations, this hegemony has been challenged to a significant extent, and hence the urgency to bring back “order” through harassment, disgrace and coercion. Besides legislative orders and punitive action against the perpetrators, a long-term solution would be to capture the social space for more affirmative measures.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 29, 2019 under the title ‘The Shadow of Caste ’. The writer is professor of orthopaedics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi