Mumbai: The three doctors – Hema Ahuja, Bhakti Mehare and Ankita Khandelwal – who allegedly tormented and discriminated against medical doctor Payal Tadvi, pushing her to end her life, will now return to the same BYL Nair Hospital in south Mumbai to complete their pending education. The Supreme Court on Thursday, October 8, allowed their application to pursue studies which had come to a halt after Payal ended her life on May 22.
This order was passed despite staunch opposition to it by the Maharashtra state government, the Mumbai police and also Payal’s mother Abeda Tadvi. All three had contended that allowing the accused back in the same college would jeopardise the trial and that a transfer to another college was not possible as per the rules.
The Supreme Court bench comprising Justices U.U. Lalit, Vineet Saran and Ajay Rastogi, on October 8, while allowing the accused persons’ application for permission to continue with the studies observed that they can return to the same college from October 12 but under “court-imposed restrictions”.
While passing an order in favour of the accused doctors, the apex court observed that, “If the law presumes an accused to be innocent till his guilt is proved, the appellants (accused persons) as presumably innocent persons, are entitled to all the fundamental rights including the right to liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution and are entitled to pursue their course of study so long as exercise of said right does not hamper smooth conduct and progress of the prosecution.” Since all three accused persons are from outside Mumbai, the court further observed that, “The appellants do not appear to be original residents of Mumbai and, as such, it cannot be said that they or their families have deep-rooted presence in Mumbai.”
In August, last year, the Bombay high court had granted the three accused persons bail under several conditions including suspension of their licences issued by the Maharashtra Medical Council (MMC) till the conclusion of the trial. Soon after, the trio had filed an appeal before the court, seeking relaxation of the conditions, including revocation of their suspension. When the court refused to give them relief, they filed an appeal before the Supreme Court and sought the court’s intervention in letting them resume their studies.
Even when the Supreme Court was still hearing their appeal, the MMC had discreetly gone ahead with revoking the suspension of the medical licences of two (Mehare and Khandelwal) of the three accused doctors. Ahuja is not registered with the MMC but with the medical council of another state. She is in the process of getting registered with the MMC on the high court’s direction.
The MMC’s order, Abeda Tadvi shared, was passed just days before the lockdown. “I, as a complainant, ought to have been informed about such a big decision but the MMC kept me in the dark. I found out only when it was mentioned months later in the Supreme Court,” she told The Wire.
While the MMC order came as a major blow, Tadvi’s family, the state government and the Mumbai police continued to oppose the accused application in the Supreme Court.
The state government had opposed this application and had filed two separate affidavits – by the Mumbai police and the state’s Medical Education and Drugs department – on September 8, claiming that their demands “don’t deserve to be considered” and there is a “grave sense of hostility” against the accused persons in the college they had once studied.
They relied on the anti-ragging committee’s report which had found the three accused guilty of tormenting Payal and her close friend Dr. Snehal Shinde.
The committee report had concluded:
“It is observed that Dr. Payal Tadvi was subjected to mental harassment by ill-treatment and also abused by three senior postgraduate students namely Dr. Hema Ahuja, Dr. Bhakti Meher, and Dr. Ankita Khandelwal. She was threatened that she will not be allotted clinical work for the next period (semester)…After reading the conversation on the WhatsApp group (The accused had formed a group with their juniors, including Tadvi, on it), we have come to know about the type of harassment against Dr. Payal Tadvi.”
The state government’s Medical Education and Drugs Department, while opposing the application, had said that the accused persons were free to pursue their further education on completion of the trial. The court, however, termed the department’s stand as “not correct” and observed, “Even a convict is allowed to have academic pursuits while undergoing sentence and develop his potential as a human being to the fullest. The State apparatus must facilitate such pursuits rather than hamper any attempts in that behalf. The Appellants, therefore, by any standard, are entitled to continue their courses of study subject to the caveat expressed earlier.”
Payal’s mother Abeda, who is also a complainant in the case, has maintained that the accused are influential and can possibly threaten or coerce the witnesses in the case. Senior advocate Indira Jaising who represented Abeda in the apex court had claimed that if the accused returns to the college it would have an adverse impact on the yet-to-be-commenced trial.
Prime witnesses in the case and also other alleged victims of caste-based torture are still pursuing their education in the same college. But the court is of a view that, “It will be difficult to imagine that three lady doctors who do not otherwise belong to Mumbai will be able to influence any such witnesses by their mere presence in the College and the Hospital.”
The accused persons’ lawyer, Siddharth Luthra, had argued before the Supreme Court that they were willing to study at other Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) colleges in case returning to the same college was not possible. They cited the COVID-19 pandemic and claimed that they would want to “serve the nation” at the time of medical crisis.
Disheartened after today’s order, Abeda Tadvi told The Wire, “The trial is yet to commence. The prime witnesses in the case are still studying at the same institute. While the right of the accused has been taken into account, the court completely disregarded our concerns.”
The police, in the chargesheet, have recorded over 250 witness statements. Many among them are junior students who had also allegedly been tortured by the accused three. These witnesses have made damning revelations against them. According to most witnesses, Payal, a 26-year-old postgraduate resident doctor, was subjected to sustained humiliation and torture by her three caste Hindu seniors and finally ended her life on May 22.
Payal, who belonged to the Tadvi Bhil (of the larger Bhil ethnic group) 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, the three accused doctors had allegedly treated her with cruelty and taunted her for having secured admission under reservation.
Tadvi had left a note where she described the torture she was subjected to and also named the three accused as persons responsible for her death. In the note she said that it had become unbearable for her to carry on amid increasing torture by the three.
The Mumbai police had subsequently booked the accused doctors under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, Maharashtra Prohibition of Ragging Act, abetment of suicide, destruction of evidence and common intent under the Indian Penal Code. They were arrested and later released on bail.
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 they can call to speak in confidence. Icall, a counselling service run by TISS, has maintained a crowdsourced list of therapists across the country. You could also take them to the nearest hospital.