Mumbai: On May 29, in a jam-packed courtroom in Mumbai, as lawyers began to defend three female doctors – accused of harassing Payal Tadvi, a doctor belonging to Adivasi community, and pushing her to commit suicide – they used every trick in the book to shift the burden of crime onto the deceased.
The three senior doctors – Ankita Khandelwal, Hema Ahuja and Bhakti Mehere – were taken into police custody, but not before their legal representatives questioned Dr Tadvi’s “capacity” to deal with academic pressure. The lawyers then promptly moved ahead to argue that her “unstable mental health” and the alleged “marital discord” were the “real cause” for her death. This despite the college’s anti-ragging committee finding evidence that Tadvi was subjected to “extreme harassment” by three defendants.
One defence lawyer, Sandeep Bali, questioned why Tadvi had opted to stay in the college hostel when her husband Salman Tadvi, also a doctor, was an assistant professor in the same BYL Nair Hospital, and lived nearby. Another lawyer, Abad Ponda, claimed that the senior doctors had only reprimanded Tadvi for “not doing her job properly”. All this transpired as Tadvi’s brother Ritesh and other relatives stood before the court quietly, with no scope to interject.
As in other cases involving caste violence, arguments advanced in the courtroom by counsel representing the accused fit the predictable yet painful pattern of the victim – in this case a dead person – being blamed and their character tarnished. Experts say that it is not only the accused individuals but also the state and the media who willingly contribute to this troubling atmosphere.
Sheetal Kamble, a PhD scholar from Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, has been studying cases of caste violence, particularly against women, in the state. She says a clear pattern emerges from these cases.
“Take the case of Khairlanji massacre. A woman, her college-going daughter and three sons were publicly tortured and murder. The media, and the caste society, assassinated the character of the women. Whether the deceased woman had a romantic relationship outside her marriage or not was the primary focus of every discussion. The perpetrators and the police leaked baseless stories about their “faulty characters” and the media readily lapped it up,” Kamble points out. The focus, she says, was shifted from the criminals to the characters of the victims.
The Khairlanji massacre of 2006 was a watershed moment for the anti-caste movement in Maharashtra, and only when Dalit and other Bahujan activists poured into the streets did the state government agree to look into it. Media also began reporting the massacre only a few weeks later.
Sanjay Khobragade, a Buddhist activist from Gondia’s Kawalewada village, was allegedly set ablaze by caste Hindus in 2014 for resisting their attempt to usurp land allocated for a Buddha Vihara in the village. Despite a dying declaration narrating the entire incident and the conspiracy, the police nevertheless accused his 50-year-old wife of an “extramarital affair” with another Dalit man.
In a spine-chilling case from 2013, three young girls – 6, 8 and 11-years old – were allegedly raped and then killed and dumped in a well in Chandrapur. The police’s initial investigation pointed at sexual assault, but after facing pressure from the locals, the girls’ mother and her mother-in-law were made prime suspects.
Similar efforts were made to prove that a Dalit woman was a “thief” when she was publicly stripped and beaten up in Buldhana in June 2016.
Kamble says in the past year, she has studied over a dozen cases just in Maharashtra, and each of them reveal well-concerted efforts to malign the victims. “Once that is achieved, it is easy to negate the role of caste in the violence. These cases eventually fail before the court,” she adds.
Elaborating on Kamble’s point, Nitish Navasagare, an assistant professor at the Indian Law Society in Pune and the founding member of Dalit Adivasi Adhikar Andolan, says the state’s role in atrocity cases is not probed. “Tadvi was being ragged for a long period. She complained to the authorities, but action was not taken. In fact, most medical schools in the state don’t have an anti-ragging cell, a mandatory body meant to check this menace. It is not just the three women doctors who pushed her to take her life, the system too failed her.”
Kamble’s analysis is substantiated by the poor conviction rate in cases registered under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocity) Act. According to the NCRB’s 2016 report, a negligible 8-10% of these cases in Maharashtra result in conviction. The State Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes commission’s chairperson, retired sessions court judge C.L. Thool, says acquittal doesn’t mean the cases registered were false. “Police investigation in most cases is shoddy and the aspect of caste-violence is seldom investigated. If the accused belongs to an influential family, the investigation automatically gets watered down,” Thool explains.
In Tadvi’s case too, Thool says, a disproportionate focus has been on “proving” her alleged failing mental health. “But very little gets spoken about the inadequate police investigation or the judge’s inefficiency to appreciate the evidence and send the accused to further custody (After the two-day police custody, the sessions court sent the three accused to judicial custody, even when the case was handed over to the crime branch a day before they were produced in court.),” Thool adds. He feels the disproportionate focus on the actual crime and lopsided discourse dilute the reality that caste atrocities are rampant.
Rewat Kaninde, former president of the Dr. Ambedkar Medico’s Association currently working in JJ Hospital, says over the past week, the media has shown a sudden interest in Bahujan students. “They want to know how Bahujan students cope with academic pressure in medical colleges. While this aspect needs careful attention and intervention, the toxic atmosphere and the casteist behavior that such educational spaces breed should be studied,” Kaninde points out.
He feels, “Unless the socialisation of savarna students and their casteist behavior in educational spaces is brought into focus, the present discourse only causes more harm to Bahujan students. You can’t cure a disease by focussing on its symptoms. You have to target its cause.”