The Indian Medical Association has expressed doubts about whether casteism exists in the medical profession. I would like to report what I witnessed as a medical student at the Government Medical College (GMC), Nagpur, where I studied from 1982 to 1987. There was much to be proud of in this college which was, and is, dear to me; but what I relate here is a part of its dark underbelly that I had no idea even existed before that. It is a college whose alumni include several eminent practitioners who might reflect on whether such practices existed in the years before I joined.
“What is your caste?” my senior asked me in an intimidating way during the ragging. That was the first time I had been asked that question in my life. I was too flustered to answer. Late into my First MBBS, I came to realise that caste was a defining characteristic in this medical college. Whenever the exams or the resident doctors’ association’s (MARD) elections approached, there would be a flurry of caste-based mobilisation. “Get-togethers” would be organised along caste-lines. Faculty, post-graduate and undergraduate students from a particular caste would meet over lunch or dinner to identify themselves to each other, and this would be followed by watching a movie together. These get-togethers would split the entire class, for suddenly a group of people who would hang out together would go to different “get-togethers.” The association of residents had some say in the allocation of PG seats, so the stakes extended beyond the exams. On one occasion, there was a move against this rampant casteism and a Non-Casteist Panel was formed, led by a really genuine person. This caused an uproar during the college elections season, and the claim was that the allegation of casteism is a figment of the imagination! There is no casteism in the Government Medical College! Ultimately the non-casteist panel was infiltrated by the casteists, who ironically won under the “non-casteist” umbrella, and the real leader of the movement lost. I remember feeling disgusted with the outcome
There were luminaries of each caste active in local politics who were doctors, and who would join the appropriate group. There was a “Maratha” icon with twenty educational degrees, who later became the number two politician in the Maharashtra cabinet for a brief period, but died a premature death. There was another similar individual, a kind of Don from the “Brahmin” side. Caste groups had names given to them— Marathas were “Foes”, SCs were “Parafoes” (if I remember correctly). After every examination there was often gossip about how Maratha examiners favoured “their” candidates and brought down the “Brahmins”, and vice versa. Muslims were hardly 1-2% of our class of two hundred students, and were often the target of casual slurs: “Oh, you might go to Pakistan after the MBBS, right?” The rest of us, who did not belong to Maharashtra and were the “Hindi-siders” or “the southies”, did not count politically or socially. It was suggested by some in this loose group that we could actually be a politically influential group, because our powerful Dean was one of “us”, along with some other faculty members. I excused myself from this exercise.
There were two people from the tribal community in my batch of twenty-five. One of them was the only literate person in his family, who had done various odd jobs as a manual worker, selling bread and milk to enable his journey through high school. I remember feeling that in comparison, I had done nothing to really earn my education. The pressures of a medical school, however, proved too much for him. He developed a mental health issue, and starved himself to death at a local temple, as we later learnt. The other, a girl, was also the target of verbal barbs at her lack of sophistication. She, however, developed a particular kind of smile which would deflect and disarm. She managed to pass her MBBS.
I do not know what the current situation is in the GMC at Nagpur, but it is hard to imagine that in a society where caste is still so important (read the classified matrimonial ads in any newspaper), things would be dramatically different. I think that casteism would still emerge as a subterranean phenomenon. At the core of the prejudiced mind in India is casteism—and misogyny and communalism are the two other key manifestations following from this core.