New Delhi: Despite the fact that systemic caste-based harassment in Indian medical institutions is well documented, the leading doctors’ union has remained in denial. The Indian Medical Association’s (IMA) position hasn’t changed even after the death by suicide of Payal Tadvi, a 26-year-old gynaecologist from a Bhil Adivasi Muslim community. She allegedly killed herself after facing casteist harassment by three of her fellow doctors.
He death prompted protests across the country and after wide-spread media coverage, swift police action and the arrest of the three doctors, the IMA has finally issued a letter to their members, vaguely mentioning casteism in the medical field.
Last week The Wire reported that the current leaders of the IMA, Dr Shantanu Sen (president) and Dr R.V. Ashokan (general secretary) preferred not to acknowledge the presence of casteism in the medical profession.
“There is no caste discrimination in Indian medical field,” Sen told The Wire. Ashokan agreed with him and said, “We have not heard of a level of caste discrimination that requires attention.”
In the IMA’s letter to their members, they continue to deny the presence of routine and systemic caste-based harassment in medicine, despite dozens of testimonies and suicides linked to this issue. But, their letter says that they do not “condone any discriminatory behavior”.
On the Payal Tadvi case, the IMA says, “Allegations of casteist bias and slur have surfaced in the index case. This, if true is a matter of serious concern which has to be addressed.”
But on general casteism in the field they say, “As a fraternity the medical profession is miles ahead in overcoming the barriers of caste, religion and politics. There is no discrimination on any ground within the fraternity or with the patients. However individual bias and behavior can be at variance to this unwritten code of conduct. IMA does not condone any discriminatory behavior.”
IMA has not actually condemned caste discrimination
In these two statements, the IMA has not unequivocally acknowledged or condemned caste discrimination, but said that in case it exists, then it would not be condoned by them. Whether this would mean doctors would be penalised is not clear yet.
They also don’t have a written code that explicitly discourages caste discrimination, but say that doctors should follow their “unwritten code.”
When asked by The Wire last week if they have ever done an audit of the number of oppressed caste doctors part of their body, Ashokan had laughed and said, “Why should we?”
All the same, the IMA has now constituted an all-male fact finding team to examine the case of Payal Tadvi. The mandate of the committee is apparently to “evaluate the background situation and the critical factors that led to the unfortunate suicide” of Tadvi. They say this is their “cohesive effort to ascertain the social and hierarchical dimensions and the dynamics inside the medical profession” and to “study comprehensively the complex issue.”
While the IMA wants to constitute its own committee to look into Tadvi’s death, her medical college has already come out with a report that has recorded the harassment she faced from these seniors, with testimonies from at least thirty people. The three doctors have also been booked under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and sent to judicial custody.
IMA to continue focus on “work load” of doctors
As in their public statements to the media, IMA doctors from around the country have chosen to explain Tadvi’s death as well as other suicides in the medical profession linked to caste discrimination, as somehow unrelated to caste.
IMA doctors routinely explain it simply as a case of “stress” related to “work load”.
In their letter to doctors, the IMA again repeats this multiple times. They say that doctors “especially in government hospitals”, have an “inhuman work load and suffer burn out and depression”. They also say that doctors in government hospitals particularly, have “poor working conditions” and an “abnormal overload of work” and face an “ever present ridicule for deficiency of clinical sills.”