Mumbai: A 28-year-old post-graduate medico, Bhagwat Devangan, was found hanging from the ceiling of his hostel room at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose medical college in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh on October 1.
Devangan was allegedly tortured—both mentally and physically— by his seniors for being a “quota student”, a common phrase used demeaningly by the upper castes against students availing reservation policies. Devangan, who belonged to the Other Backward Class (OBC) category was from Rahoud village in Chhattisgarh’s Janjgir-Champa district and had enrolled himself in the medical school only a few months ago in the first year PG Orthopaedic course but under the “general category”, without availing reservation.
It has been 10 days since Devangan ended his life. The police, however, have only conducted a “preliminary inquiry” in the case and no FIR has been registered so far. The Station House Officer (SHO) of the Garhi police station, Jabalpur, Rakesh Tiwari has claimed that the preliminary inquiry has “ruled out” possibilities of caste discrimination.
“Not just me, several senior officials have been looking into the matter. We have not found any caste angle. But we are looking into the allegation of ragging and have recorded several statements including that of the accused persons, faculty members, and non- teaching staff. We will soon come to a conclusion,” Tiwari said. Tiwari also claimed that since Devangan has not left behind any suicide note, the police were trying to ascertain the cause of his death before registering an FIR.
Devangan’s brother and friends, however, said that he had on several occasions complained of maltreatment by his seniors because he “belonged to a poor, and lower caste community”. Devangan’s brother, Prahlad, in his two- page complaint, has named five persons. Of them, the police have claimed that one person belongs to the Brahmin caste, another is a Muslim and three others are from “pichda samaj (backward castes)”.
The SHO further added that at least two of them could be from the Scheduled Caste (SC) community but added that he “could not say this for sure”. When this reporter probed further, Tiwari added, “Since you are so interested in making this about caste, why don’t you find it out yourself.”
This ambiguity about the accused doctors’ castes even ten days after the incident speaks volumes about the police’s seriousness in handling the case. Also, it is important to note that since Devangan belongs to an OBC community, the provisions of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act can anyway not be invoked in the case.
On October 1, Devangan’s brother Prahlad said he had called Devangan on his phone in the morning. “Bhagwat sounded stressed. I had tried to calm him down and asked him to be brave. Around the afternoon when my father tried to call him, he did not respond. We got worried,” Prahlad told The Wire. Prahlad said he then immediately called Devangan’s friend Sumit, whom Devangan had known since his undergrad days, and who lived just outside Jabalpur to check on his brother.
Sumit then made a few calls and asked Devangan’s friends and a senior student to check on him. “I did not know which hostel room was allotted to Bhagwat. So, I made a few calls and asked friends to find his hostel room and check if he was fine. When he did not open the door, they broke open the door. Bhagwat was found hanging to the ceiling fan,” Sumit said.
Sumit reached the college soon after. A few hours later, the college administration called Prahlad and told him that his brother was critical. “Only upon reaching his hostel, we were told about his death. His body had already been brought down and was kept in the mortuary,” Prahlad said.
Devangan’s body was shown to the family a day later at the mortuary. There were ligature marks on his neck. Soon after Devangan’s death, Prahlad filed a complaint, both with the college anti-ragging committee and the police.
Both Prahlad and Sumit added that in the past few months, Devangan had only talked about the abuses hurled at him, the humiliation he was subjected to by seniors and the hostility he faced on campus. While several seniors ill-treated him, Sumit said a few even tried to help him. “He would share stories of some seniors trying to intervene and help him as and when he could.”
Like the police, the Anti Ragging Committee constituted by the college authorities was prompt in denying any incident of ragging. Doctor Arvind Sharma, who is a member of the committee, denied Devangan’s family’s claim about ragging and caste discrimination. “There has not been any ragging,” Sharma told The Wire. Sharma’s claim is particularly peculiar here since the committee has not concluded its findings.
Prahlad said this was not the first complaint made to the committee. “A few weeks before Bhagwat killed himself, he had lodged an anonymous complaint with the college authorities. The complaint was registered online. But the college did not take any action,” he alleged. Upon questioning, Arvind Sharma said a complaint had been received a few months ago but it could not be ascertained if it was from Devangan. “The committee had met after a complaint was received. But since we did not find any evidence, the case could not be taken forward,” Sharma claimed.
According to section 6 (4) (1) of the Medical Council of India (Prevention and Prohibition of Ragging in Medical Colleges/ Institutions) Regulations, a committee should be constituted and along with college authorities, members of civil society, police administration, NGOs and local media should also be included. According to Sharma, the committee comprises of representatives as prescribed in the Regulation but curiously SHO Tiwari, who is investigating the case, is also a part of the committee.
Devangan had attempted suicide once before
On July 24, Sumit said that Devangan had called him to inform him that he was at the airport and wanted to run away from the institute. “He sounded depressed. I have known Bhagwat for many years and I have known him as a jovial person always. I knew he needed me and I told him to just wait where he was and went straight to meet him,” Sumit said.
When Sumit met him, he said Devangan looked exceptionally drowsy. “He looked as if he had not slept in ages. I got him home and let him rest. He slept for a very long time. When he woke up in the evening, he shared that he had eaten several sleeping pills and wanted to end his life.”
Sumit then rushed him to the medical facility in the college and Devangan was hospitalised in the Intensive Care Unit. The college, however, did not register a complaint. “Only psychiatric treatment was recommended,” Sumit said.
SHO Tiwari too admitted that the college failed to inform the police about the incident. “No information was provided to us even when the student was treated at the same college’s hospital,” Tiwari said. The police, he claimed, is looking into the allegation that the college failed to take appropriate action even when the student had clearly shown intent of self- harm.
Sumit and Devangan were close friends and had studied MBBS together at B.J. Medical College in Pune. Upon completing MBBS, Sumit said Devangan had secured admission at the Grant Medical college in Mumbai. “But because the Maharashtra state decided to suddenly introduce reservation for the Marathas, his admission was abruptly cancelled. He then decided to pursue his studies at Jabalpur,” Sumit added. Sumit himself is preparing for a PG course now after the completion of his MBBS.
Devangan’s family has denied allegations about his depression and loneliness. “My brother was used to staying by himself since he was in class six. He was self-reliant and took good care of himself. Only after coming to Jabalpur, he suddenly faced a lot of humiliation and discrimination,” Prahlad said.
The family has also alleged that in addition to mentally torturing Devangan, the accused persons had also slapped him in public on several occasions. “After the July incident (where Devangan had consumed sleeping pills), we got him home for a few weeks. We hoped he would get better soon. We knew things were bad in college but hoped it would eventually get better. We did not think we will lose our child,” Prahlad said, further adding that since the incident, his parents have not been able to come to terms with the loss.
“Bhagwat was not just the first one from our community but was also the first from our entire village to have scaled such heights. Where did we know we would have to pay such a huge price for dreaming big,” Prahlad said.
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 refer them to the nearest hospital.