Payal Tadvi, a gynaecologist at the BYL Nair Hospital in Mumbai, committed suicide last month after her senior colleagues allegedly targeted her with casteist slurs. Three doctors were arrested for allegedly abetting her suicide in the days that followed.
The problem of casteism, however, extends far beyond the walls of her hospital. Vijay Tadvi, a 19-year-old medical student who hails from the same Muslim Bhil community as Dr Payal Tadvi, says similar slurs are thrown at him by seniors at his college in Mumbai on a fairly regular basis. "They say that I lack talent and I don't deserve my seat. They claim that I'm a barbarian who does not know anything because I come from a tribal area," he says.
Vijay Tadvi claims that getting a medical seat was especially difficult for him, given that his parents are illiterate farmers. "Getting low marks doesn't mean you are not talented. A student may study hard, but how is he to get anywhere without the means to enrol in coaching classes like open category students do? This perception is wrong," he says.
It's a story that finds resonance among tribal and backward caste students in most medical colleges. "I think cases of caste discrimination are ignored at the initial levels because faculty members mostly hail from the upper caste," says another student. "It takes away the student's confidence, preventing him from studying further."
His colleague, who belongs to a backward caste, claims that there are times when teachers award low marks to students just by looking at their surnames. "Discrimination is practised even when seats are being allotted in medical colleges," he says. "My friends wonder why I put in so much effort when I belong to the scheduled caste category. But that's not the case. The difference between the open and scheduled caste categories is hardly 5%."
Justice CL Thool of the Maharashtra Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Commission told NDTV that many such students suffer in silence because they are too scared to disclose their identities. "While some of these students come forward in all boldness to get relief, others are scared that the departmental heads will favour those from the upper caste," he says.
According to the 2007 Thorat Committee report on Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences, around 69% students claimed that they did not receive adequate support from teachers while 72% alleged caste-based discrimination in the classroom. Another 76% said that their papers were not checked properly, and 84% alleged facing discrimination during practical examinations.
"Whether it involves our education system, democratic institutions or public forums, we have collectively failed to sensitise people into realising that we are all equal citizens," says Bhalchandra Mungekar, former Planning Commission member and Mumbai University Vice-Chancellor.