Mumbai: A thick layer of dust has gathered on the furniture and unattended clothes in hostel room number 807.
The Mumbai police had sealed this 20×20 feet room on the seventh floor of the BYL Nair Hospital in south Mumbai on May 22, soon after Payal Tadvi, a second-year MD student, hung herself from one of the room’s two ceiling fans. The fan looks slightly tilted to one side; the bed she had last stood on is pulled slightly ahead. Her clothes, stethoscope and medical books are strewn around the room.
Payal, a 26-year-old postgraduate resident doctor, was subjected to a sustained humiliation and torture by her three caste Hindu seniors and finally, on May 22, she ended her life.
Four months after her death, on September 24, her mother Abeda Tadvi travelled over 400 km to claim her belongings, which were lying untouched in the hospital’s seventh-floor hostel room. As soon as Abeda entered the room, she collapsed. She went straight to her daughter’s single bed and wept inconsolably. “Why did I not take you along that day? Why did I leave you here to die?” she asked.
Then she frantically looked for her child’s stethoscope and white doctor’s apron, and clutched on to them tightly. “I am very proud of you, my child. I won’t let your death go in vain,” she kept repeating, as her husband Salim tried to console her.
Payal, a doctor belonging to the Bhil (of the Tadvi sub-caste) tribal community, was perhaps the first woman from her community to have studied medicine. After completing her undergraduate degree from a medical school in Jalgaon, she had moved to Mumbai to pursue a post-graduation in gynaecology. But at the hostel, she was allegedly treated badly and taunted for having secured admission under reservation.
Three seniors – Hema Ahuja, Bhakti Mehare and Ankita Khandelwal – had allegedly subjected her to acute mental torture and used casteist language to address her. “They would come and wipe their feet on this bed,” says Abeda, pointing at the bed. Salman, Payal’s husband who is also a doctor, stood there crying feebly.
Abeda, a cancer patient, says the only other time she had entered this hostel room was when Payal had told her about the torture she was facing on campus. “I had come here on May 13, just a week before Payal killed herself. I had submitted a handwritten letter to the dean (Dr Ramesh Namdeo Bharmal) about Payal’s ordeal,” Abeda recalls.
On the day of the visit, Abeda had high fever and was feeling weak. But she had dreamt of her daughter a few days before. “She kept asking me when I would come to see her. I couldn’t stop myself. I just wanted to come and gather her memories from this room.”
Payal, like any other women her age, was full of life, her mother recalls. “Just look at her clothes, her make up. She loved to dress up. She loved herself,” Abeda says, collecting her belongings. There are unopened packets of clothes and cosmetics purchased online. Payal’s parents and Salman came to the hostel after completing legal formalities to take back her belongings. A few other Mumbai-based relatives had also accompanied them, to help with the process.
As a part of the legal procedure, a person’s belongings from a crime scene are handed over only after the police completes investigations. In Payal’s case, the police have already filed an exhaustive chargesheet against Ahuja, Mehare and Khandelwal, who have been booked under sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Prevention of Atrocities (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) Act for discrimination, mental torture, ragging and abetting Payal’s death by suicide.
All three accused have spent over two months in jail and have now been released on bail. Their medical licences have been suspended till the conclusion of the trial.
Despite her failing health, Abeda is resolved to fight for justice. She and Radhika Vemula have moved the Supreme Court seeking its intervention to ensure no other young Adivasis and Dalits entering university spaces face what their children had to. The Tadvis have been actively pursuing the criminal case in Mumbai and have been travelling to the city for each court hearing. Abeda says, “We don’t want to leave any stone unturned here. My child has died. No other child should ever have to go through what Payal was made to suffer.”
Since Payal’s death, a lot has changed in Nair hospital. When Abeda and her family reached the hospital on September 24, Bharmal was convening a meeting of the anti-ragging committee, as stipulated under the law. Across each floor, big posters have been put up. “Ragging is a punishable offence,” reads a poster right outside Payal’s hostel room. The anti-ragging committee now meets every month and has been looking into the issue more seriously, a senior doctor says.
“These are all new additions. A few months too late,” says Salman. He says he has been coming to the hospital for several years, and more often since Payal joined the PG course here, but has not seen any signs of serious engagement with the topics of ragging and harassment. “I am glad to see that anti-ragging posters have come up and also to know that the college is now forced to act on cases of harassment. But Payal had to die for them (college management) to wake up,” he adds.
The seventh floor of the building is where at least 100 female PG medical students live. Around Payal’s room, business continues as usual. A janitor assigned to the floor says that while students have been trying to return to their routine, they skip past Payal’s room. “Her room and the neighbouring two rooms have been locked ever since. Students avoid this space,” she adds.
Payal had two roommates and one of them, Dr Snehal Shinde, was a close friend. Shinde is one of the prime witnesses in the case. Along with Payal, Shinde too had been allegedly tortured and abused for being a “quota student”. Abeda said she has not been able to speak to her since the incident. “She must have been under tremendous stress. I have her mobile number, which the police have seized for investigations. I hope to meet her someday.”
Since the police sealed the hostel room, Shinde too has not been able to access her belongings. As the Tadvis waited for the police to arrange for their entry into the room, the police called Shinde on her phone and asked if she would want to come and claim her belongings, too. Shinde said she would. However, she did not turn up till the time the Tadvis left campus. “I can’t even imagine how she must be coping with all this. They were so close and had suffered similar humiliation. My heart aches thinking about all this,” Abeda told The Wire.
At 5 pm, when the family had boxed all her belongings and shifted them to the hospital’s gate, Abeda stood there and said, “I was so proud that my child was studying to become a specialised doctor at such a big institute. And today, instead of her, I am returning with her clothes and books.” Payal’s husband Salman added, “This is the last time I am stepping into this hospital. I have lost my life here, there is nothing more left to lose.”