Hailing from a severely marginalised Scheduled Tribe community, post graduate medical student Payal Tadvi had fought against a system stacked against her to become a doctor. Her social media posts showed a sensitive person eagerly wanting to help those in need. Along with her husband, who is also a doctor, she was planning to start a hospital after completing her studies. But the ugly reality of caste discrimination derailed her dreams.

Earlier this week, Tadvi was took the extreme step of suicide on the campus of TN Topiwala National Medical College in Mumbai. The anti-ragging committee has found that she was subjected to “extreme harassment” by three upper caste seniors.

The incident lays bare the inadequacy of the system in handling what is a gruesome social reality in India. Over the years, governments have tried to put in place mechanisms that were supposed to ensure such incidents do not take place. But the system has lost its teeth to the grind because the people who are supposed to keep it moving are themselves subject to the machinations of the caste system, which perceives people from marginalised communities as undeserving of their positions.

In the case of Tadvi, the system failed totally. Her complaints to the college went unheard. Despite her family intervening multiple times over a period of six months and taking the caste harassment to the notice of the management, the three senior upper-caste students, who have now been arrested, were given a free rein to continue the alleged discrimination.

At the heart of the problem is the devaluing of those who enter the institutions under the reservation system. A narrative has been built that affirmative action is inimical to merit and those in the unreserved category place themselves on a high pedestal, forgetting the massive privilege that has put them in the top of the social ladder. With senior teaching positions in most of these colleges invariably filled with upper-caste persons soaked in the false narrative of merit, marginalised students who face discrimination have very little avenues to reach out to. It takes something as drastic as a suicide to set the system in motion. Everyday casteism, which is a stark reality of India’s institutions, continue unabated once such an incident fades from public memory.

In 2007, the Sukhadeo Thorat committee which went into caste discrimination at the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences painted a harrowing picture of what was transpiring in the elite medical institutions. Over 70% of students from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes categories reported some form of discrimination at the hands of their teachers. There was the acute problems of inaccessibility and indifference. Many even reported discrimination in examining papers and conducting interviews.

Despite such findings, India continues to sacrifice students from weaker social sections to caste oppression. While sensitising those running the system is necessary, unless there is a more durable deterrence that could attend to everyday casteism in colleges and not wait for a loss of life to wake up, the impunity of caste discrimination will continue unabated.