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Opinion World

SIDDAPUREDDY: The Curse of Caste

The three doctors had no intention of driving Dr. Payal Tadvi to suicide, defense attorney Abad Ponda alleged

It is uncertain what Tadvi’s senior colleagues expected after subjecting her to months of incessant harassment on the basis of her caste. But on Wednesday, May 22, inside her hostel room at Topiwala National Medical College, twenty-six-year-old Tadvi took her own life

Soon after her death, the accused were taken into custody. They are now charged under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code (Abetment of Suicide), the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and the Maharashtra Prohibition of Ragging Act. These measures were enacted in hopes of providing a preventative cushion against abasement, but they are much too loosely enforced for individuals of historically disadvantaged groups. 

The caste system is hierarchical and prejudiced in nature, but the institution has been ingrained in the framework of India’s society for 3,000 years. At the core of it, the system divides Hindus into four main classes: Brahmins are the topmost caste, followed by Kshatriyas, then Vaishyas, then Shudras. Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Scheduled Castes (SC) are the lowest castes. 

Traditionally, caste predetermined one’s line of work, who one was allowed to marry, and how one was treated in society—it stigmatized members of the lower castes for life. For much of Indian history, ST and SC communities have been forced to execute menial jobs like cleaning toilets and skinning animal caracasses; they have long been underpaid and forced to suffer through physical and emotional abuses. Unfortunately, these conventions remain largely unchanged. Technically considered outcaste and once deemed “untouchable,” ST and SC groups have always been subject to extreme cases of inequality, marginalization, and violence. 

In an attempt to combat the severe caste-based discrimination plaguing India, affirmative action programs have been put in place. These reserve an allotted percentage of seats in government-run higher-education institutions, jobs, and legislative positions for ST and SC groups. 

However, in academic establishments, these quotas generate intense resentment and intolerance among high-caste students, who have higher exam score cut-offs than students of SC or ST backgrounds. 

As a member of the Tadvi Bhils, a group classified under the ST, Tadvi suffered through despicable, casteist taunts and ragging, even though “she was not in any way inferior because of her admissions under quota,” Special Public Prosecutor Raja Thakare argued

Abeda Tadvi, Payal Tadvi’s mother, has recounted some of the harassment that her daughter, an aspiring gynecologist, faced: “The seniors used to scream at her in front of patients and tell her that they won’t let her learn. They wouldn’t let her conduct deliveries or even enter the operation theatre. They also repeatedly threatened her with complaints to the dean or the head of the department.”

Two of the three accused college seniors also shared a hostel room with Payal for a month. Instead of a cot, she was given a mattress on the floor, which her roommates would wipe their feet on after using the toilet. 

It was months of such abuse and humiliation that drove Tadvi to extreme lengths. 

Tadvi’s tragedy mirrors that of numerous other individuals who faced similar casteist injustices, reflecting the sad reality of the social climate in India. Rohith Vemula, Balmukund Bharti, and Dr. M. Mariraj are only a few names of people who, like Tadvi, have recently experienced egregious caste-based discrimination at medical colleges alone. Vemula and Bharti committed suicide, and Mariraj has survived an attempt. Though their stories were met with public outcry, there have been no major attempts to eradicate such discriminatory practices. 

According to Tushar Pawar, a first-year MBBS student at the Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Medical College in Mumbai, caste-based discrimination begins early on. Upon entering college, students are asked for their NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) rank in order to determine who is a “quota student.” In 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh created the Thorat committee, its purpose being to investigate the widespread allegations of differential treatment towards students from marginalized parts of society. A report by the committee found that at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMMS), 69% of SC and ST students felt that they did not have adequate support from teachers, 76% felt that their papers were not justly examined, 76% were asked about their caste directly or indirectly, and 84% claimed their grades were affected by their caste. 

The most disheartening aspect of all of these events is that a lack of decisive action from Indian legislators and academic institutions perpetuates such issues. Tadvi’s medical college did nothing to battle her suffering, despite her family providing verbal and written complaints that detailed her abuse.

Tadvi’s death did spark a surge of statements from politicians, doctors, activists, and students on various social media platforms, where they shared personal stories and experiences of casteist discrimination. Protests were held in small villages across India to honor Tadvi, to demand justice for her tragic story, and to urge a transformation of India’s social organization. 

But such protests and media uproars are not adequate solutions to the discriminatory practices that are so deeply rooted in Indian society. Even new laws and enforcement rules may not be enough to extinguish a destructive casteist culture. What is needed is education—both for lower-caste individuals to rise up, and for upper-caste individuals to understand and acknowledge the fundamental issues with casteist discrimination. Only with such knowledge will it be possible for Indian society to achieve change, to outgrow the ancient and prejudiced structure. 

In 2019, the oppression, marginalization, and stigma that arise from the caste system should have no place in India’s academic establishments, or Indian society at all. Working to remove casteist stereotypes will free hundreds of thousands of individuals and add diversity and value to India’s streets and institutions. Every student, every human, should have the right to choose their own path and place in the world—and not be enslaved by a hopelessly interminable, inescapable, inflexible, and inequitable mechanism of social stratification.