Even as the Indian Medical Association head claims he was unaware of the polarising VHP leader’s past, others say he could help doctors gain attention to their demands.
New Delhi: A lesser known fact about Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Praveen Togadia is that he is a doctor. Togadia is a trained cancer specialist and is said to be running medical camps and seeing patients regularly in Rajasthan. Of course, he is better known for his hate speeches and anti-Muslim comments than his medical practice. His comments grabbed the limelight during the 2002 Gujarat riots, and he has continued with his hate campaign since then.
Which is why at the Indian Medical Association’s ‘Dilli Chalo’ protest event this week, it came as a surprise that Togadia took the dais and gave a speech to an estimated 10,000 doctors who had gathered from all over India. A few days before their protest, the country’s largest doctor’s association had put ads in newspapers, addressed to the prime minister, listing their demands.
The irony is not lost on some doctors who wonder how someone like Togadia, who has called for physical violence on Muslims several times, could have been given the platform of the country’s largest doctor’s association, to speak about issues that preserve human life in general.
Arun Mitra from Ludhiana, former office bearer of the Punjab chapter of IMA, participated in this week’s protest but was “utterly perturbed” by the presence of Togadia. He wrote to IMA president K.K. Agarwal, saying, “This act of inviting Togadia has lowered the professional prestige of the organisation.” This was to remind Agarwal of the pledge that doctors make to dedicate their lives to the service of humanity. “Praveen Togadia is well known for venomous hate speeches. When one possesses bias against a particular community how can one justify the commitment to serve all the people in same manner,” he wrote.
Agarwal says he is not aware of Togadia’s political history and also did not hear Togadia’s speech on the day. “I am not aware of his credentials. I don’t know him personally. For me he is an ordinary IMA member. I know he is a person belonging to the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and a medical doctor. I came to know of health camps he is doing in Kota. How do I know what political comments he has made before? If he was someone important, we would have invited him, I would have introduced him, he would have been given flowers and so on. But he spoke like any other member and went,” says Agarwal.
He also says, “I don’t know what he spoke. I didn’t listen to him. I was on the dais but doing something else. His speech is not recorded in the minutes of the event. Only officials of the IMA are recorded. He is not a spokesperson. The platform can’t be used for anything political. We don’t support his views on anything other than those related to the medical community. He is not my ideal or hero. I’m not his friend or devotee.”
Agarwal has since reached out to Mitra and conveyed his assurance that Togadia was not invited and was not representing the IMA. “I will listen to the recording of that speech and if Togadia has said anything anti-religion, we will issue a letter. I told Mitra, critics are my best friend. In a democracy people are free to raise questions” says Agarwal.
Journalists were only allowed to attend the protest march and not the doctor’s discussion meeting. Togadia did not participate in the protest march. He was one of the last persons to speak on the day. It is not even clear if he is a member of the IMA.
As Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) international general secretary in April 2003, Togadia admitted to the VHP’s participation in the destruction of the Babri Masjid as well as its participation in the Gujarat violence: “We demolished the Babri Masjid. We were the ones who came out on the road in Gujarat.”
A Human Rights Watch report written in 2003 documents Togadia’s activities in that period – he was arrested in the same month under the Arms Act for defying the government’s orders against the distribution of tridents. His bail was rejected, he was charged with sedition and for disturbing communal harmony. The BJP condemned his arrest. When he was finally released on bail, he resumed distributing tridents.
IMA feels Togadia is ‘politically useful’
But other IMA officials say that Togadia has been been helpful as he has been raising issues which are also the IMA’s demands. “Togadia is close to the RSS and VHP and thus obviously close to the government in an indirect fashion. And we want our voice to be heard somewhere. Just because a person has had FIRs lodged against him, it doesn’t mean he can never speak anything good. For example, he has taken it upon himself to speak against the Clinical Establishment Act. Praveen Togadia is one person who has understood the implications of this Act. I think you should compliment him for saving people from this anti-poor legislation,” says Dr Parthiv Sanghvi, secretary of IMA’s Maharashtra chapter. He added that he did not hear Togadia’s speech as he had left the event by then. The
The IMA has been asking the government to amend the Clinical Establishments Act, which it says will benefit only big corporate hospitals, killing small and neighborhood healthcare facilities.
Furthering the IMAs stand that they are open to all types of speakers, general secretary R.N. Tandon says, “It is not that we wanted to politicise the event. Or else we would have personally invited politicians. But if doctors from Congress and BJP wanted to give an opinion on the medical profession, they also could have attended and done so.”
BJP MP Dr Sanjay Jaiswal, who represents Pashcim Champaran constituency says, “Togadia is a doctor with a big medical practice. He still sees patients everyday. He could have avoided going to the IMA event, but it is difficult to stop anyone from speaking if they are a part of IMA.”
Others like Dr Ajoy Kumar from the Congress say, “Medicine is secular and non-denominational. Doctors take an oath to treat all people. How can the IMA call someone as divisive as Togadia? If the IMA does not know this about Togadia, they are terribly ill informed. There are so many eminent doctors they could have called instead. The IMA might be technically right by allowing Togadia to speak only in his medical capacity, but they have lost the moral ground.” Kumar has worked with Max Healthcare and is on the board of Elbit Medical Diagnosics Ltd.
Responsibility of doctors during communal violence
In 2003, a group of doctors had written to the Medical Council of India (MCI) asking for Praveen Togadia to be de-registered as a doctor. This was in response to his communal comments during the 2002 Gujarat riots: “We from the medical fraternity do not find Dr Pravin Togadia fit to continue as a doctor. We, therefore, request you to take appropriate disciplinary action and cancel his registration,” their petition to the MCI said. After the riots, Justice A.P. Ravani, a retired high court judge from Gujarat, testified to a citizen’s tribunal that doctors were being threatened by the VHP to not treat Muslim patients. Togadia was then the VHP’s international general secretary.
Various newspapers at the time of the Gujarat riots reported how hospitals were being threatened by mobs and medical professionals were attacked. One of the IMA’s major demands in their ongoing protests happens to be about violence against doctors. Doctors in Maharashtra recently went on strike to demand better protection of their community.
During both the Bombay riots in 1993 and the Gujarat riots in 2002, there were stories of hospital staff braving violence in order to administer emergency care. There were also stories of hospitals denying and harassing minority community patients. In 2002, the Medico Friends Circle (MFC) wrote a report titled, Carnage in Gujarat: A Public Health Crisis In it they said the medical community behaved in a largely non-partisan manner. However, “Some medical professionals have been actively involved in propagating the ideology of hatred,” and “Medical associations have behaved in a partisan manner; they did not mobilise relief like they have done in the past for large scale disasters like earthquakes; and they condemned the violence only when a majority community doctor was attacked when, before this many minority community doctors had been attacked.”
Even while the IMA this year has been at the forefront of the protests, demanding better protection of the medical fraternity, in 2002 doctors noted that the medical fraternity had not proactively safeguarded the rights of patients, such as demanding security for patients. In an honest and self-indicting analysis, the MFC report said “The medical profession should be concerned when one of its fraternities is involved in the carnage in Gujarat” and demanded that “associations like the IMA must condemn attacks on doctors of all communities and draw up ethical guidelines for medical professionals working in communal situations.”