• Open Access

Being ‘anti-state’ in public health in India


Correspondence to: Sruthi Herbert, Centre for Development Studies, Prasanth Nagar, Ulloor, Thiruvananthapuram 695 011, Kerala, India; e-mail: sruthi.herbert@gmail.com

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9/11, while widely condemned, was also a backlash against both a global power and the capitalist system. It led to a re-assertion of capitalism in other forms – most notably, military invasions in the Middle-East. Capitalist forces, it must be noted, leave few aspects of life untouched. Here, we examine how they touched the health of tribal (Indigenous) people in Chattisgarh, India.

In the so-called ‘war against terror’, the global propaganda neatly equated terror with Islam, terrorists with Muslims. This conveniently aided not just the US and its allies but also countries like India, which faces its own dilemmas in governing its marginalised peoples.

India has problems: the contested autonomy of Kashmir, insurgency within tribal-dominated North-Eastern India, rebellion inspired in Central India and assertive anti-caste movements. The global discourse of terror that entered this scenario was taken up by the elite upper-caste Hindutva forces. Abetted by the mass media, this reinvigorated a nationalistic patriotic fervour as exemplified by Bollywood movies adopting a narrative of the patriotic Indian versus the terrorist Muslim.

All of this made it easier to enforce a draconian legislation like the UAPA – Unlawful Activities Prevention Act – and to clamp down on, and criminalise, dissent. Many public figures, including noted Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, were charged with ‘sedition’ for attending a public seminar in New Delhi that discussed the turmoil in Kashmir.

In 2007, Dr Binayak Sen was also charged with sedition and under the UAPA, among others. He works in Bagrumnala, a remote village in Chattisgarh inhabited by tribal people displaced by a dam on the Mahanadi River. His key contributions lie in promoting not only health services but also the social determinants of health with particular emphasis on addressing tuberculosis and malaria. Thus, he ‘diagnosed’ the ill-health of the community as being a function of the larger political economy, the very unequal conflict between capitalist interests and those of ordinary people when ‘development’ displaces Indigenous people living in resource-rich regions.

While previously seen by the state of Chattisgarh as an expert in health care planning, Dr Sen's criticisms of development and his support for non-upper caste victims has made him ‘undesirable’.

Today, the state has conspired to deprive its own citizens of health care by running down Dr Sen's hospital. At the same time, ‘the silence of the medical fraternity in India on the corporatisation of the healthcare’ smacks of their fear of antagonising the government over its development plans.1

Our contention is that these are the inevitable fall-outs of a system that has criminalised dissent which is in turn aided by the discourse on terrorism post-9/11 and which has inter alia served corporate interests. When it comes to public health, we cannot ignore the question of who is more sick here. The system or the people?