Stethoscope doctor

‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’

– French critic, journalist and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808-1890)

AIIMS, the premier medical institute in the country is in the news again albeit for wrong reasons.

The Parliamentary Panel headed by Kirit Premjibhai Solanki, which looks into issues of caste discrimination in specific institutions has come out with a damning report about the functioning of the AIIMS, and how there exists discrimination against SC/ST professors and students at the Institute. It talks about students from this category being repeatedly failed in their exams or posts remaining vacant at the institute supposedly for the ‘absence of suitable candidates’ –  a usual euphorism underwhich reserved seats are not filled for years together.

As per its findings of the 1,111 faculty positions at the institute, 275 posts for assistant professors and 92 for professors remained vacant there.

Noting how the percentage of students from the deprived sections – across different AIIMSs – is below the required 15 percent for SC and 7.5 per cent for ST, it also mentioned how students from the depressed sections are denied admission to Super Speciality courses as there does not exist reservation for them turning all such courses ‘monopoly of upper castes’. Another important observation of the committee is regarding the great hiatus between performance of the SC/ST candidates in theory papers and practical papers which according to it was a clear manifestation of  ‘biasness towards  SC/ST students’

Underlining biases against reserved category candidates across the board it has recommended to fill up vacant SC/ST faculty positions in a time bound manner, conduct name-blinded evaluation of students, stop outsourcing non-core area workers such as safai karmacharis, drivers, data entry operators, and include SC/ST members in the general body of the institute.

Whether the report prepared by the thirty member Panel report which is being described as another proof of ‘institutional apartheid’ by rights activist will prove to be a wake up call for the custodians of AIIMS or those sitting in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare remains an open question ?

Of course, if past experience is any guide then possibilities remain extremely dim.

In fact, browsing the observations and recommendations of the Panel, reminded one of the situation as existed in the premier Institute a decade and half back when there was tremendous uproar in the national media about the treatement meted out to SC/ST students in the institute there which had prompted National Commission on Scheduled Castes to appoint a committee led by Prof Sukhdeo Thorat to investigate the complaints.

A glimpse of the situation as it existed then could be had from a newsclipping which appeared in a national daily then which talked about how ‘Parts of AIIMS hostels are turning into SC/ST ghettos. Reserved category students said they were being “hunted out of the remaining rooms” by upper-caste students and driven to two floors of the hostels,’ (The Telegraph, July 5, 2006). Graffiti in one of the rooms of an SC student in the hostel warned the occupant to ‘get out of this (hostel) wing’. The SC/ST students also shared with the reporter how they are ‘failed’ in the examinations if they dare complain against the discrimination. The sub-dean of the institute, himself a scheduled caste member, corroborated what the students were saying.

The committee led by Prof Sukhdeo Thorat, then Chairman of the UGC, had acknowledged that scheduled caste students did face discrimination and made some recommendations.

What happened later about the recommendations of the Thorat Commitee is worth emphasising

The Institute decided to junk the report which had recommended action against several officials including a former director… ‘The commission in its report submitted in 2008 had specifically named the then director Dr P Venugopal for indulging in caste discrimination and for being the ‘main actor’ in the anti-quota stir which had plagued the institute for several days’  (‘Caste Aside: AIIMS Junks Report Nailing Discrimination at Institute’, Mail Today, May 15, 2012) Despite the commission’s strong recommendation that action against the then director be initiated under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act,AIIMS preferred to junk the report citing the strange logic that, “the institute had come over the phase of unrest and a congenial atmosphere was prevailing”.

As one awaits any action to ameliorate the situation in AIIMS – thanks to the recommendations of the Parliamentary Panel , a cursory glance at the medical institutes elsewhere – including the National Capital – would reveal that discrimination based on caste and other ascriptive categories runs much deep and AIIMS is no exception.

Perhaps what was happening then in AIIMS when SC ST students were ‘pushed into Ghettos’  was just a replica of what had happened in the University College of Medical Sciences, situated in Delhi earlier, which had then metamorphosed into a theatre of conflict between the scheduled category students and the non-dalits. The dalit students studying there had in association with other like-minded groups had launched a vigorous campaign opposing the humiliation heaped upon them by the rest of the students. It was heart rending to know how they were herded together not only on a particular floor in the hostel, or how a few tables in the mess were kept ‘reserved’ for them.

One can also remember that the period during which reports of AIIMS junking the report prepared by Thorat Committee were making headlines ( 2012) happened to be the same period when the single member commitee appointed by the National Scheduled Caste Commission, led by Prof Bhalchandra Mungekar, ex-vice chancellor of Bombay University was looking into allegations of caste discrimination faced by scheduled caste students in neighbouring Vardhman Medical College which is associated with Safdarjung Hospital, Delhi

Dr Mungekar had discovered to his dismay then that not only 35 scheduled caste students were failed repeatedly in one particular subject – physiology – but the authorities had not even bothered to meet them to look into their complaints. Not only did the students lose years because of this apathy, shockingly, the same authorities were guilty of showing leniency towards general category students.

Castigating the authorities who ‘resorted to caste-based discrimination and neglected the duties assigned to them, not by omission but by commission’  he finally submitted his report, and had put forwardwide-ranging recommendations. Apart from asking the authorities to pay compensation of Rs 10 lakh to aggreieved students  underlining the fact that ‘the mental trauma that they were/are made to undergo is not measurable in terms of money’ he demanded that legal action under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 be taken against former Principal and his then colleagues.

Right from the most premier medical institute to the other medical colleges in the capital, there is disturbing commonality between the experiences of the students from the socially oppressed sections of society.

Year after year, new batches of students come but the ‘institutional apartheid’ remains intact, leading to extreme cases when some Bal Mukund Bharti (2010) or some Anil Meena (2011) here or one Payal Tadvi ( 2019) there in Mumbai decides to extinguish the flame of their lives themselves.

Situation which reminds us that though we have ushered into the one man – one vote system called as ‘political democracy’ more than seventy years back, we have yet to travel a long distance to usher into what Dr Ambedkar called one man – one value based system of what ‘social democracy’

This is the 75 th year of India’s independence.

Question arises when will that dream of  ‘one man-one value’ would be fulfilled ?

Subhash Gatade is a social activist


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