What does it mean to be a doctor? To have a doctor in your family?
For most people in the mainstream of India it is a matter of pride, a status symbol. Maybe a way to earn a lot of money. And of course a way to heal people, at a big hospital in a big city. Maybe open a clinic of your own. Maybe open a hospital of your own (if your parents can afford it). Most doctors in the mainstream prefer not to treat their own family members for various reasons.
I have a doctor in my family. She worked in a government hospital in a small town in TN. Her being a gynaecologist literally meant that all the babies in our family could be birthed there, in the safe space of her care. I was also born under her watchful eye.
Did she gain pride and status? Yes. Though of a different kind than the ones in the city. She is literally called “Doctor Amma” by people in her town and her family. Did she earn a lot of money? Not really. Did she heal people? Hell, yes. She never opened her own clinic or hospital. For her, taking care of those who will never be able to go to a big hospital or clinic of the big city was the greater priority.
This was Dr. Payal Tadvi’s dream too. She wanted to go back to her hometown of Jalgaon and treat her people there. A dream that was brutally, cruelly, unthinkingly cut short by people who were intimidated by her strength, courage and merit.
Yes, I said merit.
It was her merit that she broke through the shackles of what society had imposed on her. It was her merit that made her parents invest all they had in her, in a way that parents living in mainstream India can never do. It was her right to that merit that is enshrined in the constitution by Dr. Ambedkar that so infuriated the three upper caste women who bullied and harassed her while classmates, seniors and college authorities watched for three whole months and waited for the next inevitable step – her death.
Every tribal, dalit and OBC student has to face this mockery of their merit. What does merit mean? The dictionary says merit means “good” or “worthy”. Everytime we hear our merit – which is earned through the kind of hell-fire that mainstream India will never understand, forget go through – derided, what we hear is – go back to what your worth is, go back to what you are good at. Go back to where your place is. Go back to being toddy tappers. Go back to being fishermen. Go back to being farmhands. Go back to being tanners.
We all go through this psycho-social torture called casteism. Those of us who survive are living ghosts, and those who die, well their ghosts come back to haunt us too.
Maybe I can give you some numbers and statistics? 4 years ago a study of 73 expelled students from IIT Roorkee revealed that out of the 73 students, 31 were from ST category, 23 from SC category, 4 from PD, 8 from OBC & 7 from general category 90.4% students are from the reserved category – Make of that what you will.
In 2014, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), for the first time, collected data on suicides based on religion and caste groups. That data showed that people from the Scheduled Tribes had the highest suicide rates at 10.4%.
How about this number – Dr. Payal was the first woman in her community to pursue post-graduation. She was the first person in her family to become a doctor. Dr. Payal was from a Scheduled Tribe, her community – the Tadvi Bhils exist in the border areas of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, they converted to Islam when the area was a part of the Faruqi sultanate between 1382-1601. They are a marginal tribal muslim community, marginalised even by mainstream muslims, because they are considered so far away from the idea of the Indian muslim. They hold on strongly to their tribal customs and worship old gods called Hinglaj and Maladi. Charges of Islamophobia are mistakenly being applied to Dr. Tadvi’s case because what she has experienced is untouchability and casteism, not religious bias or bigotry.
Dr. Payal’s brother is a polio patient and her mother is a cancer patient. Her husband has said she dreamt of starting a hospital in Jalgaon for her people. How many mainstream, urban doctors open hospitals in Jalgaon? Forget that, how many of them would have accepted a posting in a remote area like that? How are we going to compensate her people who will now have to start the process of educating yet another person all over again so they can have a doctor?
And how is mainstream Indian society going to treat that doctor? Will you allow her to survive? Or will she too be traumatised and bullied until she finally protests by taking her own life?
Casteism is institutionalised in India’s society, religions, institutions and workplaces. Bullying is the norm in all these spaces. Who should I speak of to convince you sitting in your air-conditioned pigeon hole, that this is the reality? The boy who was called “kaalu” by his classmates for the entire time of his 5 year course? The girl who was mocked for not being able to afford class outings by her own professors? The lady who was asked why she “stole” a general category seat when she could have taken a “reserved seat”? The guy who was mocked with the word “reservation” itself used as a slur? Don’t worry. All of them are still alive. Barely.
The media will of course cover cases that end in death. Because death is shocking in ways that living despite it all, is not. That does not mean that this one case alone has been politicised. All of it is political. All these lives are political.
Every time a Dr. Payal dies, we raise our voices more vociferously in the hope that this is the last such case. This is the last time we lose a doctor. This is the last time we lose a life. And it’s not just the loss of an individual life, this is a loss to the entire Tadvi Bhil community, who was waiting for a doctor to come back and be their healer. Was it naive to hope that after Rohit Vemula, your mainstream civil society would learn, would change, would grow? I guess it was.
Don’t question us on why we politicise the dead. Ask yourself why you don’t politicise the living.
Ask yourself why there are no caste-sensitisation sessions in schools, in colleges, in workplaces. Ask yourself why casteist harassment is brushed under the rug as if it doesn’t matter. Ask yourself why you set up committee upon committee to investigate casteism staffed with people who understand nothing about casteism, having never experienced casteism. Ask yourself why you don’t stop your children when they learn and use casteist slurs like bhand, kameena, chamar, harijan, junglee. Ask yourself why you don’t question your friends and family when they mock people for availing reserved seats that is their constitutional right.
Work with us to dismantle caste hierarchy. Set up anti-caste cells in every institution staffed by people from oppressed communities. Set up safe spaces in your workplace for people to discuss the casteism they have faced. And most importantly work to counter the inbuilt caste bias that you grew up with.
Believe us when we tell you that something you say or do is casteist. Listen to us when we tell you of our experiences. If you are in a position of power at your workplace, stop and punish people immediately when you see they are being casteist harassers.
Look around you, caste is everywhere. And no, you don’t get to be “casteless”. Not until casteism ends.