On May 22, Payal Tadvi, a 26-year-old resident doctor working as a gynaecologist in BYL Nair Hospital in Mumbai killed herself allegedly due to caste-based discrimination by three of her seniors. Payal belonged to the oppressed Tadvi Bhil caste--an Adivasi Muslim community. She was the first woman in her community to pursue post-graduation and the first in her family to become a doctor.
Payal’s parents, Abeda and Salim, and her husband Salman alleged that Hema Ahuja, Bhakti Mehare and Ankita Khandelwal - Payal's seniors - allegedly subjected her to humiliation with casteist slurs and denial of opportunities. The trio have been booked under Sections 306 (abetment of suicide) of the Indian Penal Code, Prevention of SC/ST Atrocities Act and the Maharashtra Prohibition of Ragging Act, and IT Act.
After initially evading the arrest, the accused wrote a letter to the Maharashtra Association of Resident Doctors (MARD), seeking fair investigation. Denying caste discrimination against Payal they said, “Do you really think such allegations are true? Do we ever consider caste before treating patients? Do we make friends, listen to our seniors, juniors, and colleagues on the basis of caste? Are we really allotted work on the basis of our caste?”
While Hema and Bhakti were arrested by the police on Tuesday, the other accused, Ankita, was arrested on Wednesday. Bhakti wore a burqa and tried seeking a bail from the court, however, she was caught by the police at the court premises. Similarly, Hema was caught at Andheri railway station based on a tip-off. The bail application of the trio was to be heard on Wednesday.
Following Payal’s death, several activists, students and party members of Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi had been protesting at the hospital for the past one week seeking justice and the immediate arrest of the accused. An online campaign with #JusticeForPayal on Twitter also began.
Dr Payal, had been facing harassment from her seniors – Ankita, Bhakti and Hema – for several months before she was compelled to take her life on May 22.
An anti-ragging committee which looked into the suicide labelled it as a “clear cut case of ragging”. The report based its findings on interviews with 30 people including the 26-year-old victim’s family members, colleagues and the college staff.
When she joined the hospital, she was temporarily made to share the room with Hema and Bhakti, which is when the harassment first began. Payal’s mother Abeda told The Hindu that the two seniors would go to the toilet and then wipe their feet on Payal’s mattress and litter it. They allegedly taunted her for spending time with her husband.
On May 13, Payal’s husband, Dr Salman made a verbal complaint to the head of the Department of Gynaecology at the hospital, Dr Yi Ching Ling. Salman, who is an associate professor at RN Cooper Hospital, did not mention the caste discrimination in that complaint, which he now regrets.
After this, the accused women did not speak to Payal for two days. From the third day onwards however, the harassment increased, Payal’s brother Ritesh Tadvi told Indian Express. The family says that Ankita, Bhakti, and Hema had Dr Ling’s support. The anti-ragging committee had also criticised Dr Ling, and said that she should have acted against the seniors immediately.
Three days after the complaint, one of three accused allegedly threw a file at Payal, scolding her for “shoddy” work. The following day, they allegedly threatened Payal saying they won’t let her complete the year.
Further, the accused did not let Payal perform cesarean procedures after her husband’s complaint. Ritesh, who is disabled and repairs mobiles at home, said that while first year students who had joined on May 1 were being allowed to assist in deliveries, Payal was made to do menial work.
Payal was under extreme stress, according to her family. Abeda, a cancer patient, told media that her daughter cried every day due to the torture she was facing.
In the four days leading up to her suicide, Payal was allegedly unfairly admonished at work every day, which was confirmed by two of her colleagues in the anti-ragging committee. Her family allege that Payal also heard the three seniors saying things like “these caste people don’t know anything” and that Payal had gotten admission through quota.
On May 22, hours before she took her life, Payal’s family says that she had assisted on two surgeries, and was yet again scolded by the three accused over her work. At 2.30 pm, she was seen crying as she left. An hour and a half later, she spoke to her mother over the phone, who told her to meet her husband and spend time with him. Payal is believed to have died between 4.30 pm and 7.30 pm.
Salman, in whom Payal had been confiding about the harassment since December 2018, initially told her to ignore the harassers and study. “I was wrong. Why should we hear taunts over our caste? This is the worst kind of caste discrimination,” he said.
Salman and Payal had planned to go back to Jalgaon and start a hospital for their community.
Aftermath of Payal’s death
Soon after the death, though Payal’s family had alleged caste-based discrimination as the cause of her suicide, the conversation around it was initially in denial of it. Some even went to the extent of calling Payal incompetent. Some suggested that suicides of people from the oppressed communities should not just be looked through the lens of caste discrimination, but also as mental illness.
However, caste discrimination is a reality everywhere, including cities and there have been several examples of the same. For instance, Rohith Vemula, a Hyderabad University Dalit scholar driven to suicide due to caste discrimination in 2016. A few months ago, Dr Mariraj, a Dalit PG student from Tamil Nadu attempted suicide in Ahmedabad where he was studying medicine. He was told to “serve tea” instead of being allowed to perform surgeries.
The death of Payal also points to the lack of a grievance cell or a union for the students belonging to SC and ST communities in educational institutions. Simply terming it as ‘ragging’ minimises the trauma of caste-based discrimination.