Over the last few days, professional bodies representing lawyers, doctors and journalists in India have issued statements supporting the central government’s decision on August 5 to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and split it into two Union Territories. But some members of these organisations have responded sharply to these statements, issuing rebuttals and counter-statements.
The public debates that have unfolded over the past few days offers a glimpse of the divisions within Indian society over the situation in Kashmir. At the heart of the matter are differing views on the ethics of each profession.
Curfews were imposed in Jammu and Kashmir after the Centre’s decision on August 5 to revoke its special status, and a communication blackout effected. These restrictions completely constrained journalists, who despite all odds, continued to report in the Valley as phone lines were cut and internet services were suspended.
On August 10, Kashmir Times editor Anuradha Bhasin filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking freedom for journalists in the state to carry out their profession. “The debilitating restrictions imposed through the complete shutdown on internet and telecommunication services, and severe curbs on the movement of photo journalists and reporters be immediately relaxed in order to ensure the freedom of the press and media,” the petition read.
After Basin filed her petition, the Press Council of India unexpectedly intervened on August 23 and filed a petition supporting the ban on communication. The council said that it would like to present its views to the court to assist it in deciding on the petition filed by Bhasin. The restrictions, it added, were “in the interest of the integrity and sovereignty of the nation”.
However, on August 26, the Indian Journalists Union and three of its nominated members to the council described the intervention a “blatant violation of the Council rules”. Members claimed that Press Council of India Chairperson CK Prasad did not inform them of the petition the organisation had filed.
In a statement, Indian Journalists Union President and Press Council of India member D Amar, union Secretary General and International Federation of Journalists Vice President Sabina Inderjit, and two Press Council members, Balwinder S Jammu and M Majid, said the chairperson should have consulted the council before approaching the Supreme Court “and spared members and the institution the grave embarrassment it [the decision to support the restrictions] has caused”.
On August 22, the council had held a meeting to pass a resolution to seek free coverage of Jammu and Kashmir, according to Balwinder Jammu, who was present at the meeting. But that was not accepted and it was decided instead to send a four-member team to Jammu and Kashmir to assess the situation.
The Editors’ Guild of India issued a statement on August 27 criticising the council for “perversely arguing for a media clampdown in the name of national interest”. On the same day, at a press conference at the Press Club of India, New Delhi, Press Council members, journalists and editors criticised the council for its move.
Journalists who spoke to Scroll.in said that the council’s earlier actions did not represent their interests. “The discord is that the chairperson of the council is not a journalist,” said Vineeta Pandey, general secretary of the Indian Women’s Press Corps. “The chairperson is a Supreme Court judge who is highly esteemed so we expect some neutrality from him. He is a partisan to a particular ideology or kind of thinking. What was the need for that petition?”
Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Caravan magazine said that the council had abdicated its role. “The problem begins with what has happened to institutions across the country under this government,” he said. “I would even include partially the Editors’ Guild of India that has not been able to speak as strongly as it should. So when professionals are speaking against this [the Press Council of India’s petition], they are actually speaking up for the profession.”
Pandey claimed that council’s chairperson had refused to intervene on a previous matter concerning journalists in July. “We took a delegation to the chairperson to intervene when the finance ministry blocked the access of journalists,” she said. “That time the chairperson said he had no powers. So now where did his powers come from?”
As uncertainty loomed over the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir, a group of 18 doctors from across the country wrote a letter to The British Medical Journal, expressing concerns over people’s access to healthcare facilities on August 16.
They claimed there was “a blatant denial of the right to healthcare and the right to life” in the state, and urged the government to ease communication and travel restrictions at the earliest “and undertake any other measures that are required to allow patients to access healthcare without hindrance”.
Echoing similar concerns, The Lancet, another British medical journal, published an editorial piece on August 17 titled “Fear and uncertainty around Kashmir’s future”, describing the revocation of the state’s special status as a “controversial move”. The editorial claimed that people in the region had “increased anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder” while also stating that Kashmir’s developmental indicators were better than the national average.
Two days later on August 19, the Indian Medical Association, a national voluntary organisation of doctors, condemned The Lancet’s editorial, calling it a “breach of propriety”. In a statement, the medical association claimed that the British journal had no “locus standi on the issue of Kashmir.” Along with this, the statement also questioned the “credibility and malafide intention” behind the article and said it was withdrawing “the esteem we had” to the journal, “on behalf of the medical fraternity of India.”
Indian Medical Association Secretary General Dr RV Asokan told Scroll.in that the body felt it was necessary to respond to The Lancet’s editorial. “The IMA has not commented on the Indian government’s decision,” he said. “But The Lancet has commented on an area where it does not belong. Where is the medical and health point of view in this? This is how they are exercising their colonial powers. They are living in a fool’s paradise. We are Indian first and medical next.”
But were all of the association’s members consulted before the statement was issued?
“This is a very insulting question,” Dr Asokan said. “Does [Narendra] Modi consult people when he has to say something to [Donald] Trump? I am an elected member and we are empowered to make such decisions.”
Doctors who spoke to Scroll.in distanced themselves from the association’s stand. Dr Yogesh Jain, who was one of the signatories of the August 16 letter to The British Medical Journal, said that bodies like the Indian Medical Association did not represent the entire medical fraternity.
“They are more like clubs and most of the people leading it are practicing in the private domain,” said Dr Jain, one of the founders of Jan Swasthya Sahyog in Chhattisgarh. “Their primary objective is to safeguard the interest of members from certain high handedness of the state.”
Rather than taking a stand, the association could have initiated an inquiry on access to healthcare facilities in the state, Jain said.
“They have made a fool of themselves in front of Lancet and the entire international medical fraternity,” he said. “Doctors cannot choose whom to treat and whom to not treat. Did they even consult any physicians or doctors in Jammu and Kashmir?”
Sulakshana Nandi, a public health researcher in Chhattisgarh, claimed that the association was “selective in its outrage.” “The representation in the association is lacking,” she said. “I find that they bend to the more politically powerful.”
Jain echoed similar views. “The IMA’s reaction to [Dalit doctor] Payal Tadvi’s suicide in Mumbai [allegedly because of harassment from upper-caste colleagues] reflects on the power dynamics,” he said. “They do not represent the interests of the people the doctors are supposed to serve and the association is male-dominated.”
Another doctor, Sanjay Nagral, differed with this view. He said that there was “no discord” among doctors and professional bodies representing them. “It reflects the large majority view but this is also problematic because the majority is not always right,” said the Mumbai-based doctor.
Days after the IMA’s letter, the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin issued a press release on August 21 criticising The Lancet’s editorial piece. The press release stated that claims made in The Lancet’s editorial piece were “unfounded and not scientifically valid” since it referred to a study conducted in Jammu and Kashmir on the state on mental illness without a citation.
The Indian American Association also demanded to know why the journal had stayed silent during the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley in the late 1980s as militant activities peaked. “Apart from the Kashmiri Pandits, there are a number of other people around the world, who deserve the attention of The Lancet, perhaps more than the people of Jammu and Kashmir,” the statement claimed.
On August 22 another group of 20 doctors urged the Centre to end the communication blockade in the Valley. These doctors noted in a statement that restricted mobility had affected medical services such as immunisation programmes, obstetric emergencies, and supply of medicines and other materials to hospitals.
Quick to react, the Bar Council of India on August 5 welcomed the Centre’s move to abrogate Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, according to ANI.
“The Bar Council of India, the statutory body representing the entire legal fraternity in India wholeheartedly congratulates the Union Government on the historic and landmark decision to scrap Article 370 of the Constitution of India,” the report quoted the chairman of the Bar Council, Manan Kumar Mishra from a statement.
However, 81 advocates of the Madras High Court condemned the Bar Council and its chairperson Mannan Kumar Mishra for making this move. These advocates, in a letter, stated that the council’s statement was “shocking, undemocratic and a misuse of his [the chairperson’s] official position”. The letter also stated that Mishra’s statement “does not reflect that of he entire legal fraternity”.
Scroll.in contacted Bar Council of India Chairperson Manan Kumar Mishra for his response but he did not respond to calls or text messages. This article will be updated if he responds.
Several reports claimed that along with Opposition and Kashmiri leaders, lawyers had also been detained in the state.
According to an August 17 report in The Print, over 600 politicians and lawyers have been detained since August 4 and 5.
The Indian Express on August 19 reported that those detained include lawyers, businessmen, professors, members of the Jammu and Kashmir Bar Association. However, the report did not provide more details about the lawyers and bar association members detained.