Among the spate of arrests in Kashmir after the hollowing out of Article 370 on August 5, the detention of Dr Omar Salim stands out. The urologist at Srinagar’s Government Medical College was whisked away by the security forces on Monday as he was talking to journalists about how the lockdown in the Valley was likely to cause a health crisis. Salim was especially concerned that the shortage of essential medicines like those used in chemotherapy was hurting patients, and that people who need dialysis were unable to get to hospital.
Salim was not protesting. He was only making urging the government to relax restrictions so that Kashmiris could access medical treatment.
Thus far, the Indian Medical Association has been strangely silent about Salim’s arrest, even though the organisation has been rather worked up about developments in Kashmir. Only last fortnight, the association wrote a scathing letter to Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of The Lancet, criticising the journal for publishing an editorial on August 17 about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.
The association declared that it had “withdrawn their esteem” for the journal because the editorial said that the Indian government’s decision to revoke special status for Jammu and Kashmir was controversial.
The editorial said that the “militant presence raises serious concerns for the health, safety, and freedoms of the Kashmiri people”. It added: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi vows that his decision to revoke autonomy will bring prosperity to Kashmir. But first, the people of Kashmir need healing from the deep wounds of this decade-old conflict, not subjugation to further violence and alienation.”
Taking cue from the Indian Medical Association, the Association of Surgeons of India on August 20 wrote a similar letter to The Lancet. Other Indian doctors also took umbrage to the editorial.
Of course, if they had actually been following The Lancet over the years, they would have known that it regularly comments about state policies that affect the health of people. The journal has previously published editorials about the US military presence in Afghanistan, the European migrant crisis, the humanitarian and refugee crisis in Syria and the conflict in Gaza, among other few controversies.
It is pertinent to point out that the Indian Medical Association has only 3.5 lakh doctors as members. On what basis did it make a sweeping statement that claimed to represent all of us? I am sure there are many more doctors like me who would agree that it was inappropriate of the association to issue a politically motivated statement like this, without first seeking a broad view.
By failing to build a consensus and consider the opinions of others, the medical association was, of course, merely following the example set by the Indian government. By issuing such a disproportionate statement, the association was feeding the jingoistic mood that has gripped India. Instead of considering the genuine health concerns raised by The Lancet, the Indian Medical Association chose to act like a government mouthpiece.
Mental health epidemic
The concerns expressed in The Lancet editorial are not unfounded. In 2016, a report published by Doctors without Borders highlighted mental health crisis in the Valley. It said that approximately 1.8 million adults in Kashmir – 45% of the total adult population – is suffering from some sort of mental health disorder. It added that 93% of them have experienced conflict-related trauma.
Another report published by the charity Action Aid and the Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience said that between April 2018 and March this year, 366,906 people received treatment in the psychiatric hospital in Srinagar alone. Many children, including orphans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. In a state that has been reeling under insurgency from last three decades, at least two generations have grown up in an environment of uncertainty and fear.
With Kashmir under lockdown for almost four weeks weeks and the communications blackout preventing families and friends from speaking to each other and being able to reassure themselves about the well-being of their loved ones, it would be naïve to discard the possibilities of serious psychological impact it would have on an already vulnerable population. The apathy and indifference of members the medical fraternity, is disconcerting and is an indicator of how India’s institutions as being disconcertingly politicised.
Instead of asking the editor of The Lancet for an apology and “withdrawing their esteem”, the officer-bearers of the Indian Medical Association should perhaps consider re-reading the modern Hippocratic oath that every doctor must take to gain their qualifications and reflect about their priorities. “I will maintain the utmost respect for human life,” it says. It is a promise that the brave Dr Omar Salim was definitely trying to uphold when he was arrested.
Nazma Parveen is a doctor who lives in Kolkata and writes on sociopolitical issues.