India’s New Protest Battlefield: Ambulances and Hospitals

Police are attacking hospitals and ambulances, and stopping doctors from treating injured protestors, sparking outrage from within the medical community.

Source Saqib Majeed/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

Why you should care

Because heavy-handed police actions are turning doctors against the Modi government.

Jamal, a 20-year-old Muslim boy was shot in his hand in December during police firing in the city of Meerut in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His family says that he had been flying a kite on the roof of a building, saw a scuffle between police and some protesters on the road below and ran down to see what was happening. He lost consciousness after he was shot.

His older brother Sidiq — both his and Jamal’s names have been changed at their request because they fear police retribution — propped him up on his scooter and rushed him to a hospital. But two hospitals refused to treat Jamal. A third was unreachable because of police roadblocks. And a fourth, a public hospital that finally treated him, didn’t give them a medico-legal certificate — a document doctors fill when a patient comes in with unnatural injuries such as from road accidents or assaults. Without that document, the family stands little chance of successfully demanding accountability from the police.

It was no one-off incident. As protests surge across India against a controversial new religion-based citizenship test and attacks on students, a new battlefield is emerging between the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its critics: emergency health care. Medical establishments are increasingly caught in between, at times colluding with the government to deny health care. More than 20 people have died in the clashes, including five in Meerut alone.

Police had come to our hospital while the protest was growing and told us not to treat anyone.

Ravinder Gujjar, owner, Jagdamba Hospital, Meerut

On Dec. 19, police in the southern city of Mangalore barged into a hospital while looking for protesters and fired tear gas. A senior hospital representative says they’ve been trying to lodge a case against the police for a month — without success. Masked goons who on Jan. 6 attacked students at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University then targeted an ambulance trying to reach victims, smashing its windows. In Uttar Pradesh, several victims have alleged that they’ve been denied medico-legal certificates. Many of the families of those who died are still waiting for postmortem reports from hospitals, a month after the deaths. And some private hospitals have confirmed to OZY that police told them not to admit wounded protesters.


Protesters react during demonstrations against India’s new citizenship law in Meerut.

Source Getty

“Police had come to our hospital while the protest was growing and told us not to treat anyone,” says Ravinder Gujjar, the owner of Jagdamba Hospital, close to a protest site in Meerut.

All of this is leading to a break in support for Modi from influential sections within the medical community that had backed some of his government’s other policies. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) had accused the medical journal The Lancet of “interference” in India’s internal matters after it warned about health impacts of the crackdown in Jammu and Kashmir following the termination of the region’s special status in August. But after the attack in JNU, the world’s largest association of doctors issued a statement saying that “the situation in the country smacks of total anarchy and breakdown of law and order is complete.”

On Dec. 22, the IMA called instances of police entering hospitals to target protesters “a new low in civic life.” It called reports of people being denied health care “disturbing.” All violence, it said, was unacceptable — especially that “perpetrated by the state on those who require medical attention and care.” The Alliance of Doctors for Ethical Healthcare, a group of senior physicians and surgeons, has also criticized the government for instances of police blocking doctors from treating protesters. Article 18 of the fourth Geneva Convention bars the targeting of medical facilities even in times of war.

Zaheer Ahmed was among those shot dead during protests in Meerut on Dec. 20. The family says they were turned away by the hospital where they took Zaheer’s body. When I visited the city of 1.5 million people earlier this month, Zaheer’s brother Shahid was waiting outside a lawyer’s office to inquire about a postmortem report. “It seems like hospitals had made some plan beforehand to reject patients,” says Shahid.

To be sure, the approach of the police has support from some hospital owners. “The police were right — a whole mob would have followed the injured people into our hospital if we treated them,” says Gujjar. “It was better for us to send them off.” Gujjar and other hospital bosses say police told them to send injured protesters to government-run hospitals.

The divide over the police action is reflective of broader fissures over the citizenship law and the National Register of Citizens. The law facilitates citizenship for migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh — as long as they’re not Muslim. The register will identify all residents who can’t prove their citizenship. India has the world’s third-largest Muslim population, with 172 million people. Together, critics say the two policies will allow the government to selectively punish poor Muslim families living in India for decades who — like millions from other religions — don’t have papers to prove their citizenship. “Where are Muslims from? They should be made to prove it,” says Gujjar.

But in a conflict, police are expected to defer to the expertise of doctors and not interfere in medical care, says Unni Karunakara, former president of Doctors Without Borders and now an assistant clinical professor of public health at Yale University. “The stories we are hearing show that the Indian police have not been doing this,” says Karunakara, calling the situation “quite troubling.”

After Jamal was shot last December, he had a three-hour surgery at Meerut’s government hospital. Sidiq says the family noticed something strange. Two security personnel were posted at the ward but refused to answer the family’s queries about why they were there. When Jamal was discharged four days later, the officers asked the family to accompany them to the police station. There, Jamal was arrested, accused of rioting. He’s still in jail. “The police and hospital cheated us,” Sidiq says.

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