One of the deterrents to justice and equality for people hailing from disadvantaged and oppressed castes and communities, is how the discrimination is often institutional, inflited by those with power as they feel entitled to do so. Moreover, deeply entrenched problematic notions often prevent poeple with power from recognising and responding to discrimination, thereby restricting avenues of redressal for the aggrieved. This institutional casteism, its prevalence and impact, are examined in great detail in a report titled ‘The Steady Drumbeat of Institutional Casteism’.
The need for such an investigation became acute especially in wake of the institutional murder of Dr. Payal Tadvi, an Adivasi doctor who died by suicide after suferring extreme emotional abuse and jibes about her socio-economic background from her peers. It is aimed at understanding experiences of different sections of students and employees in medical institutions regarding caste-based discrimination as well as the response/action taken (or its absence) by the institutions in terms of its mandated responsibilities to prevent occurrence of such events.
The report has been compiled by Forum Against Oppression of Women (FAOW), Forum for Medical Ethics Society (FMES), Medico Friends Circle (MFC), and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Maharashtra.
Dr Payal Tadvi’s institutional murder
As per the media reports, over a period of one year, three women resident doctors from the third year of residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mumbai’s Nair Hospital, namely, Hema Ahuja, Ankita Khandelwal and Bhakti Mehere, continually harassed Dr Payal Tadvi. The harassment included persistent derisive remarks about her caste, and her hailing from a backward community, being an Adivasi. The jibes alleged that she got admission into the prestigious medical college only because she was Adivasi and therefore benefited from reservation.
Caste, religion and “merit”
After a detailed account of the incident and the institutional response, as well as the trial, the report dives deep into the caste-based social structure and how it penetrated into other religions apart from Hinduism, thus explaining its all-pervasive nature.
The report then explores how casteism is much more pronounced in higher education, as reservation is seen as “anti-merit” which is a completely wrong notion, as affirmative action is actually a way to compensate for centuries of lack of social capital. During their interaction with various stakeholders they found that the ground for this argument against reservation is that the candidates who get admissions through accessing reservation, do not have required merit and capabilities to complete these professional courses and be equipped professionals or practitioners in medicine or engineering. The report points out that the Supreme Court in 2019 B. K. Pavitra and Ors v The Union of India and Ors held that “For equality to be truly effective or substantive, the principle must recognise existing inequalities in society to overcome them. Reservations are thus not an exception to the rule of equality of opportunity. They are rather the true fulfilment of effective and substantive equality by accounting for the structural conditions into which people are born.”
The researchers interacted with two Ayurvedic doctors who pointed out that students from marginalised communities do not have resources required to prepare for the entrance exam for medical colleges, NEET. Further, in internal exams, they are often subjected to unfair assessment practices.
Assertion of dominance
Some respondents described how it was fairly common for individuals from marginalised castes and tribes to be subjected to humiliation on account of their caste identities. Showing the students from marginalised castes and communities “their place” in the social hierarchy, and making them feel inadequate and lowly is a common practice. This tends to range from making them feel that they are undeserving of their place in the institution to openly saying that they should be grateful for the kind of food they could get in the institutional settings at the college canteen or mess.
Aside from the experiences of marginalised communities, the report also explores how post graduate medical students and resident doctors employed in government hospitals are constantly overworked and how their condition has not changed for the good despite several news reports highlighting this fact. To add to that, those from marginalized communities have to bear comments like ‘you don’t deserve this’ as they enter through reservation.
Further, those from marginalised communities also miss out on academic engagements with the peer community in the form of seminars and conferences as access to resources enabling such participation, mentoring and approval from seniors or concerned offices within the system determines possibilities of such engagement opportunities and there are caste based discriminatory practices in this sphere as well. This discrimination is also carried forward at places of employment after the education is complete.
The report also goes into detail into the various committees that have been commissioned over the years to check redressal of grievances of caste discrimination in higher education institutions and while the UGC has issued guidelines to universities and colleges, several have remained non-compliant to these guidelines thus allowing caste based discrimination and the redressal for the same to go unchecked.
Non-recognition of discrimination
The report states that there is a culture of not recognising discrimination and not identifying it as such. People from marginalised communities who get entry through reservation are often accused of securing their positions as a special favour from the State, and that they are undeserving of the same.
There is a presumption that for those from the communities eligible for reservation, life is easy as they apparently do not have to work hard to get admission in any field they want. There is a presumption of ‘lack of merit’ and the intention is to show ‘them their place’ and to humiliate. The assumption is that it is easy for those belonging to the marginalised communities. Such sentiments and perceptions also implied that for those coming from dominant communities it is very difficult because they have to face so much competition and have access to few seats! This statement reeks of entitlement of caste.
The complete report may be read here: