The conversations around Dr Payal Tadvi’s suicide, on May 22, 2019, have been quite unsettling. That some have attributed it to work pressure or “cowardliness”, shows a lack of understanding about how caste works or how deeply pervasive it is. I can imagine what could have driven her to end her life – I experienced unapologetic casteism at university too.
I attended one of India’s elite law schools. In these spaces – unlike in medical and engineering colleges – casteism was subtle and intellectualised (perhaps because aspiring lawyers knew how to avoid a penalty under the Prevention of Atrocities Act). I could never really tell what made me feel different, lonely and marginalised.
I sensed that I didn’t think like them, share their fascination with the same cultural icons and activities, and did not behave in a manner deemed appropriate by them. All of which, I later understood through my readings, was shaped by one’s caste background.
In my first year, a faculty member proclaimed that she was Brahmin, and went on to ask other Brahmin students to raise their hands. The same lecturer asked us to make a project on our ancestors. I wasn’t comfortable sharing my ancestry, but I had to – it was to be marked for 20 marks.
The upper caste students didn’t see it as a big deal. For many of them, it was an opportunity to boast of the achievements of their forefathers and their rich ancestries, all somehow related to their social location. Some of us, who had no such histories to tell, felt ashamed when it was our turn.
The casteism of my peers was mostly implicit. Explicit references to caste were mostly stereotypical and prejudiced. Tambrams and Kayasths were the most intelligent, apparently, Rajputs valiant and emotional; Banias shrewd and money-minded, and so on. In groups dominated by savarnas, such remarks were often made, for each other in jest. It made me wonder how they’d refer to me if they knew who I was: a former untouchable.
When I tried to point out that such statements were inherently casteist, they defended themselves, saying they had a right to feel proud of their caste and that I should be proud of mine. Be proud of the fact that people from my caste were routinely humiliated, pushed into bonded labour, and beaten up when they tried to go to school? Okay.
A savarna friend once told me that I was uncultured because I was not trained in any classical dance or music. Another told me she would never forgive people who availed of SC/ST quotas because, if it weren’t for us, she would be in a better law school. Her tone made me feel like I had committed a heinous crime.
Some even rationalised the caste system as a result of genetic differences among the varnas, with Dalits and Adivasis as the most inferior. One boy used this as the reason he was in love with a certain Kshatriya girl, because she was apparently honourable and would give birth to strong children.
One boy didn’t hesitate to let the elevator shut on a boy from the Meena community, saying ”ye Meena log ke saath aise hi hona chahiye’‘. It was that normalised. If you called them out on it, they would brilliantly justify themselves, leaving us feeling like we were just over-reacting.
Classroom discussions on the jurisprudence of reservations were one-sided, usually concluding that reservations must wither away or be provided on economic grounds. The discussions were dominated by UC students; our voices silenced by their loud, assertive ones, confident in their ignorance of the larger social context.
These were all bright, well-meaning, caste-blind students who were extremely thick to the social realities outside of life as they knew it. My confidence and self-esteem were beaten to a pulp by everyday microaggressions. Eventually, it got to me and I succumbed into believing that I deserved to feel that way.
After all, my existence in that university was an anomaly, and I had taken up their space. The assault to my dignity was the price I had to pay for the privilege of studying at such an eminent institution.
Those experiences, coupled with rampant sexism, took a toll on my mental health. I tried to talk to the few people I thought I could, including my parents. But they couldn’t understand what I was going through. I’m a first-generation college graduate, and my world is very different from theirs.
My savarna seniors told me that I was victimising myself, and that law schools are extremely competitive spaces; I had to toughen up or be left behind. I didn’t know how to explain this to my doctor either. She told me I had “low self-esteem and an inferiority complex and that I should only think positively.”
I couldn’t, so I became a recluse. I took up less space, participated less and confined myself mostly to my room, escaping into books and art. I managed to get through five miserable years. I have had enough time since then to process and understand that ordeal.
When I look back now, what bothered me most was my inability to respond in a way that made me feel empowered. Instead, I protested weakly, with the savarnas beating me with their eloquence. I was already gaslighted into believing I was a waste of space in a meritorious institution. I had so deeply internalised their narrative that I couldn’t fight the it within my own self, let alone them.
It wasn’t until I read Ambedkar (conveniently excluded from the law school’s curriculum), Yashica Dutt’s Coming out as Dalit or Christina Thomas Dhanraj’s writings that I could develop the intellectual ammunition to fight the narrative – first with myself and then others.
My colleagues from the Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi communities went through similar experiences. When we enter these privileged spaces, we are very vulnerable and develop various coping mechanisms. Some internalise the dominant campus culture, hiding our identities and trying to emulate them. Some become depressed, even self-destructive.
At my university, we refrained from forming a homogenous group, because some of them were not comfortable with being ‘that quota group’, as one friend put it. Many of us wanted to learn from our savarna peers, even if it meant putting up with their micro-aggressions and gritting our teeth through their thoughtless remarks.
Expecting savarnas to magically unlearn their casteism and make these spaces inclusive would be foolish. It is so central to their lives that they may genuinely not see it, the way fish may be unaware of water. Those of us who were never a part of it, can’t help but see it – we are reminded of it with every interaction.
That’s where our institutions have failed us. Professional institutions – medical, engineering or law – do not encourage any form of student politics. Their students have no safe spaces in which to confidently come to terms with their identities, and assert the same when someone threatens their dignity.
Greater student representation from these communities would also help make these spaces more inclusive. Another institutional-level solution would be to establish mandatory workshops on casteism and sexism every year, so that these spaces don’t churn out even more insensitive professionals, like the ones who killed Dr Payal Tadvi, Rohit Vehmula, Bal Mukund Bharati and others.
The author is a young lawyer, who is deeply interested in learning how to build socially just and diverse institutions and contributing her bit for the same. You can follow her on her Twitter handle @lawandemotions.