When Dr Payal Tadvi, a post-graduate student of gynaecology and obstetrics at Mumbai’s BYL Nair Hospital, committed suicide in her hostel room on May 22, her death was testimony to a glaring reality – even educated Hindus seem incapable of overcoming entrenched caste prejudices and the discrimination flowing from them.
One learnt of the simple things one learns about another human being, such as the 26-year-old was a nature lover and had a passion for dancing. Also that on March 22, 2017, she had written a Facebook post in support of the 2,000 doctors from 17 government hospitals in Mumbai who held a protest against the incidents of assaults on doctors by patients’ relatives. Tadvi’s post did not register her solidarity with doctors belonging to her own community or of any particular caste. She was raising her voice for all those doctors who had faced violence.
While the young doctor displayed an admirable sense of fellowship, she herself she was reduced to her caste/tribal identity. One is reminded of the sentence in Rohith Vemula’s suicide note: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility.”
Tadvi was allegedly humiliated by three dominant caste doctors of her gender. Gender relations also get distorted by caste. The three senior doctors who drove Tadvi to take her own life belonged more to their caste than to a fellow colleague who desired equal dignity and fellowship. We are back to the words of Ambedkar in Annihilation of Caste: “The associated mode of life practised by the Sikhs and the Mohammedans produces fellow-feeling. The associated mode of life of the Hindus does not.”
If affectivity in doctors – friendly towards some, contemptuous towards others – both in professional and social terms, is dictated by caste, it illustrates how doctors in India associate their caste identity with the prestige of their profession. But medical science is based on investigation and skill, while caste is a framework of social hierarchy based on heredity. Any notion of hierarchy based on birth is totally contrary to the demands not only of medical science but of any human potential and endeavour.
Yet doctors in India behave like they are a caste. In 2006, when the Indian government declared 27% reservation for Other Backward Classes in higher education, doctors with stethoscopes draped around their shoulders protested with brooms in hand. Their intent: to show who deserved the stethoscope and who was fit only for the broom. Caste sentiment is total and it is divisive. It reduces the dignity of labour and the principle of equality to notions of hierarchy and privilege.
Tadvi’s family, including her husband Salman Tadvi, claims that she bore the brunt of casteist slurs at work; even her “caste quota” was brought up. There is no sphere of life, no profession that remains free of the sickness of caste. Tadvi belonged to the Tadvi Muslim Bhil Scheduled Tribe community from Maharashtra that has experienced the perils of displacement. The positive law of discrimination was meant to enable someone like Tadvi to overcome her social disadvantages.
For her colleagues, however, talent is synonymous with caste privilege. Talent is a euphemism to legitimise graded inequality in Hindu society. It suggests that people from certain castes have better mental faculties and so are meant for sophisticated professions, while people from other castes are better at menial jobs. In India, “talent” is a commodity that is used for underlining and recycling caste privilege.
An editor writing on the incident took recourse to an encyclopaedia to learn about the ethnographic details of the Tadvi Muslim Bhil community. I wonder which book needs to be picked up to learn about the dominant caste doctors who humiliated Tadvi.
The framework of Hindu society cannot be touched by the law of the state. People who live by imbibing notions of caste, stigmatise certain forms of labour. This notion suffers from a hereditary understanding of labour which is anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic. ‘Upper’ castes holding such backward notions discriminate against people from underprivileged castes when they come into professions that are held to be the natural domain of privileged castes. It is time the Annihilation of Caste was compulsorily taught in every graduate school.
Tadvi faced the taunts of fellow doctors for belonging to a certain tribe. Her skills as a gynaecologist undermined the stigmatic assumptions of those privileged caste women doctors. Her skills undermined the prejudiced logic of the hierarchical caste order.
According to reports, Tadvi’s husband had lodged a verbal complaint after his wife told him that she was being harassed at work; that, among other things, she was not being allowed to assist senior gynaecologists on delivery cases and that they threw files at her in the presence of staff and patients.
The need to make Tadvi feel, both within herself and before others, that she was in the wrong place was predictable behaviour on the part of the senior doctors. They had to prove every single day that Tadvi was not good at her work. Caste is a castle, a fortress with paranoid gatekeepers who guard the gates of privilege against all transgressors.
This Kafkaesque metaphor becomes strikingly appropriate when you remember Ambedkar’s brilliant metaphor of the door in his 1916 paper, ‘Castes In India’, at Columbia University, to explain the nature of the caste system: “Some closed the door: Others found it closed against them.”
Caste privilege holds a monopoly on keeping the door open or closed, depending upon who is crossing it. Within the open doors of institutions, the closed doors of caste discrimination work insidiously. Tadvi entered her profession to prove her mettle but the gatekeepers saw her as a transgressor who by her very presence disproved caste-based assumptions of meritocracy.
What is also disturbing about the terrible lack of social consciousness on display is that the dominant caste doctors in question could violate the principle of dignity and equality with a junior colleague and yet consider themselves worthy of being doctors. Caste is synonymous with internal violence in Hindu society. The justificatory logic of this bizarre notion of hierarchy and prejudice has kept its practitioners from realising its brutal repercussions on the soul. A young, sensitive doctor, unable to withstand soullessness, felt agonised enough to end her life.
The suffocating structure of Hindu society is immovable, and those guarding the doors are unmoved by the cruelty it wreaks on others. We must break down these closed doors of privilege so that people are able to breathe.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018).
If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers (www.spif.in/seek-help/) they can call to speak in confidence. You could also accompany them to the nearest hospital.
Thebluedawn.org offers resources to those from oppressed castes and minority communities who may need mental health counselling.