Published: 30th May 2019
Payal Tadvi suicide: Why casteist slurs on Indian campuses shouldn't surprise us in 2019
The institutional murder of Payal Tadvi shows us how marginalised students have to fight caste on a day to day basis, with professors, principals, society and sometimes their own friends
With the institutional murder of Dr Payal Tadvi, casteism has reared its ugly head again. The last time that it found its way to the front pages was the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, the Dalit scholar from the University of Hyderabad. What we cannot and should not ignore is that in between the time of Vemula's death and Payal's death, several other caste-related suicides have occurred. Only that those cases haven't reached the keyboards of the newsroom or the sheets of the complaint books in police stations.
At this time, we should also not forget those that live in constant horror of their caste identity getting revealed, those that reach out for help and get none, those that suffer in silence, those that are thrown out for raising their voices and those that take the painful decision of dropping the course altogether. We speak to some of those people here. From what they tell us, caste continues to thrive in our education institutions, though in some ways it has changed. The dominant castes might be careful about using caste names but they ensure their words sting anyway, they might not make the comment directly but talk loud enough on the phone for the victim to hear, they might not say anything at all but they won't even look at the victim or as they did in Payal's case, they'll discuss in whispers how the only reason the victim is even there is because of reservation. Reservation is, of course, seems to be the most favourite topic of discussion and the most preferred method of harassment.
You have reservation, after all!
Dr Rajeshwari A only just completed her MBBS and is now preparing for her PG. Just two days ago, one her closest and dearest friends said — you don't have to worry even if you get less marks, you'll still get a seat because you have reservation. "She is one of my closest friends and yet, she didn't realise how painful such a statement can be," Rajeshwari said. On her very first day of college when the students were being alloted rooms, she saw a parent go into a fury. "He was yelling and shouting at the management because his daughter was going to share a room with an SC person. He said, "My daughter can't live with strays", just like that openly in front of everyone," said Rajeshwari, who studied in Trichy.
Happier Times: Payal Tadvi on the day of her wedding. Her husband, Salman Tadvi has been leading the protests along with her family
A few months later, Rajeshwari and her friends were discussing one of their teachers. They all loved her classes because she was very jovial. "She was also super smart, so the group was discussing how someone who was so much fun could also be so smart and get into such a good college. And then one of them said, "Moonji paathale, SC nu theridhu" (If you see her face itself, you know she's SC), so she must have got a reservation," Rajeshwari recalled. The others joined in soon, laughing together not bothered by the fact that she stood right there. "I will never understand how people say you can find out someone's caste by how they look. People also tell me that I don't look 'SC', whatever that even means. But in my first-month of MBBS itself people asked me what caste I am," she said.
It isn't always openly done though, sometimes it's subtle. "They'll say "namma aalunga" (our people) or they will go on praising themselves about how they are good at this or that and talk as if we are nothing and come from nothing," she said. But she says it's quite apparent when someone is being casteist, even if not with words they do enough to make marginalised students feel awkward and uncomfortable around them.
She also said that from her first year she noticed how with every passing year, the caste groups would just get bigger, "Caste groups are already present on campus and as soon as the new batch joins, all the juniors from the same caste will immediately join the seniors," she said.
Dr Janaki Raman says it was the same at his college too. "We are all divided into units. Each unit will be given duties on certain days. In our college and in several other colleges in South Tamil Nadu, the students are divided based on their caste," he said. The doctor tells us that on the weekdays, the upper caste units work and on the weekends, the SC, ST groups are asked to work, even the professors guiding them are SC or ST. He says discrimination is a lot more rampant in PG courses than MBBS because the numbers are much smaller.
Casteism not Ragging: The College has confirmed that the three accused doctors harassed Payal over her caste and humiliated her in front of everyone just hours before she committed suicide
Casteist abuse? — Shift your room
"The upper caste students might be cordial but they will never include anybody from the oppressed castes in their group. There might not be big fights or anything but they'll make sure you know they are excluding you. The SC,ST students have a separate hostel wing in many colleges, this is what you call modern untouchability, I guess," Janaki said.
Even if the students want to approach someone for help, they have no one, "Most teachers say 'compromise' because they've never been in our place. They're all from upper castes. Without proper representation, we can't reach out for help," he explained. Himika K, a JNU student was in a similar situation recently, when she went to file a complaint, she was asked to 'adjust'.
When her roommate kept bringing too many guests to the room, Himika raised objections. The roommate responded by calling her a casteist slur. This hadn't been the first time, Himika said her roommate would frequently complain (referring to Himika's caste) about her while over the phone even when she was within earshot. Tired of the abuse, Himika approached the warden who responded by saying — "I don't know the caste of the roommate, so how would I know she's being casteist to you?"
"She took it lightly, but when I persisted, she called for the other girl. Then spent the entire time only listening to her. She then told us that she would change our rooms, but that didn't happen," she said. From here on ensued a long list of fruitless visits, Himika approached the dean and then the Equal Opportunities cell. The roommate didn't turn up for the hearing at the Equal Opportunities cell and then she made up her mind to approach the SC/ST cell. And suddenly, she found that the roommate had shifted all her things. "Since I'm leaving in a few weeks, the warden told her she can come back to the room after I leave," Himika said. For now, she is unsure if she will pursue the case.
In the case of Sriraman, another JNU student, the roommate that he had complained against also suddenly decided to shift their room. "He would harass me for putting up Ambedkar's picture in my room, even though he himself had Vivekananda's picture put up in his side of the room," he recalled. When Sriraman refused to remove his poster, his roommate locked him out of the room for hours together, "That's when I complained. But that day, he himself vacated."
Turning Point: The Rohith Vemula case reached a dead end when the opposition became keen only on determining whether or not Vemula was really Dalit. Cases against his friends are ongoing though.
When friends turn strangers overnight
In many cases though, students don't even know how to react to a casteist abuse or situation. Sometimes it is so subtle, that a snide remark, however painful, seems like something they simply have to put up with. Sreeja V from the University of Hyderabad said her own friend changed overnight when she realised Sreeja was a Dalit. "I had left my bag in the classroom and went back to retrieve it. A professor was taking class, so I waited until she allowed the students a break. When she did, I leaned in to take my bag, barely stepping into the classroom. But the teacher saw me," she tells us.
The teacher then yelled at Sreeja for disturbing her class, even though she hadn't. But Sreeja apologised anyway. To which the teacher allegedly said, "Your people are not even eligible to say sorry to me." But this was not the most painful part, when Sreeja went back to her room that day, word had spread about the incident. "When I went back my roommate asked me to go and wash my feet before I entered the room. She changed completely after that. She would ask me to sit outside on the stairs and taunt me about using the room," she remembers.
Sreeja didn't know who to approach or if she even should. "It was the first time something like this was happening and I had no idea how to handle it,' Sreeja said. Well, they don't prepare you for it in school, do they? After all, aren't we taught that caste is dead.
Yazhini PM, another doctor who is from the MBC community said that throughout her course, she had a professor who referred to the SC, ST students as 'naxals'. A twitter user spoke about how the case of Payal had been very triggering for her because of the casteism she had faced. She also says it was never explicit, she called it "subtle and intellectualized". She went on to explain how upper caste kids would ask about her ancestors and speak proudly about their achievements while she had nothing to say, they would taunt her for not knowing classical music or dance and 'of course, quota'.
Human Rights: People took the streets a few months ago to protest against the decision to dilute the SC,ST (Prevention of Atrocities) act
But they don't know that the caste system is a violation of human rights
Most of the conversations we had with the students ended with them saying — the abusers are not aware of what they're saying, that they're not educated on the subject. "That's what we are told anyway. We are told to 'understand' because they don't understand the horrors we've been through in our lives to be where we are or the horrors that our parents have been through," the students all say. They wish upper caste kids were taught in school about reservation and why it is there so that they don't grow up to taunt people like them.
But sometimes, despite several attempts, people refuse to educate themselves."There is a medical page on FB that puts up updates on exams. Almost every single day, there is one anti-reservation post that people put up. Several times other people have tried to post articles educating them on caste and reservation but they are deleted right away," Yazhini says. The students from Tamil Nadu say they think that the situation is better in their state because reservation is high and they have more representation. "In the North, we've heard horror stories of the experiences students go through. There's no one to support them because they are such a small number," Janaki Raman said.
If we don't take into account, those who practise and believe in the caste system. Then now three questions arise — one, who is supposed to be providing this much needed social awareness and education and why is it taking so long?
And two — why is verbal casteism treated so lightly, when it can affect a person enough for them to give up their careers, or worse still, give up their lives?
Three — When will it ever be decreed socially unacceptable in what we consider an enlightened, equal society - if we do still think we are one.