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Battered by Covid-19, Doctors Challenge Militaristic Nationalism

Dr Rajan Sharma was the president of the Indian Medical Association, a national voluntary organisation of doctors, not too long ago. He has fraternal feelings for medical professionals. And he loves to dabble in poetry. On 22 May, he penned a piece on the bruising experience of doctors battling the Covid-19 pandemic. In it, Dr Sharma wrote:

The soldier comes home draped in the tricolour, a “martyr”

The doctor returns unacknowledged

Silence prevailing

Both fight for their nation

And yet are awarded two starkly different stations?

These lines may seem an amateurish attempt at writing poetry. Yet Dr Sharma has, consciously or otherwise, mounted a challenge to the ideology of militaristic nationalism, which has as its pivot the reverence for the soldier, who is willing to die to protect the country’s territorial integrity and, therefore, the freedom of its people. Or the soldier combats those citizens whom the State identifies as “enemies”, as, for instance, the Maoists. The nation shows its gratitude to the soldier fallen in battle by wrapping his (or her) body in tricolour and honouring him (or her) as a martyr.

The willingness to die in the line of duty has also defined the conduct of doctors in India’s one-year battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Sharma writes. They have worked for unduly long hours, risked carrying SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes Covid-19, home, and fought hard against death lurking to claim lives. Worse, unlike soldiers, doctors have been stigmatised and violently attacked.

“Just as a soldier goes to war willingly for the nation, a doctor does so for their patients,” Dr Sharma writes plaintively, with a touch of incomprehension at the nation’s indifference to doctors dying.

Dr Sharma, in not so many words, is pointing to the nation’s hypocrisy—of according the status of martyr to soldiers killed in military operations and denying the same to doctors whose life SARS-CoV-2 choked. And this, even though national leaders and the media have borrowed from the military argot terms such as ‘frontline’, ‘warriors’, and ‘war-room’ to describe the valiant efforts of doctors to counter the virus.

The Indian Medical Association (IMA), in a recent letter to citizens, said 1,300 doctors have, since last year, died battling Covid-19. This figure is likely an underestimate, as many cases would have gone unreported, particularly of those who are not members of the IMA.

By comparison, 1,157 soldiers died in the Indian Peace Keeping Force operations in Sri Lanka, between 1987 and 1990. In Jammu and Kashmir, between 1990 and 2019, around 4,800 soldiers, excluding paramilitary forces and local police, were killed in counter-insurgency operations, at an average of 166 deaths a year. The South Asia Terrorism Portal says that between March 2000 and June 2021, around 2,616 men-in-uniform perished combatting Maoists, at an average of 137 deaths a year.

These figures testify to how perilous the medical profession has become over the last year. These also bolster Dr Sharma’s contention: If fallen soldiers are to be treated as ‘martyrs’, why should not the same honour be extended to doctors who continue to die battling Covid-19?

The Indian government, interestingly, does not recognise the term ‘martyr’ or ‘shaheed.’ In 2017, in a response to an application moved under the Right to Information Act, Information Commissioner Yashovardhan Azad said neither the Defence nor the Home Ministry uses martyr or shaheed as descriptors for the dead. Instead, Azad informed, the Defence ministry employs the nomenclature of ‘battle casualty’ and the Home ministry that of ‘operations casualty.’

Yet the word martyr has been popularised by political leaders to honour the death of soldiers, with a dash of hypocrisy. When jawans were killed in the Pulwama bomb blast in February 2019, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted, “We must recognise the sacrifices of our paramilitary forces, like the CRPF and award their martyrs the title of ‘shaheed’.” To this, Amit Malviya, the BJP’s IT cell head, responded with an abrasive tweet, “Rahul Gandhi is a compulsive liar.” Malviya furnished the link to a media story detailing Azad’s reply to the RTI application mentioned above.

Yet, when five military personnel were killed in counter-insurgency operations in Handwara, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, on 3 May 2020, “Tributes to our courageous soldiers and security personnel martyred in Handwara.” Likewise, speaking about the soldiers who died in the bloody fight against the Chinese in the Galwan Valley, Modi said, on 17 June 2020, “Of our martyred soldiers, the country should be proud.”

Indeed, the Modi government has propagated the term martyr to popularise militaristic nationalism. In 2017, the Human Resource Development Ministry initiated the Vidya, Veerta Abhiyan, or Education, Valour campaign, which required universities to display photographs of 21 soldiers who were awarded the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest gallantry award, over the last seven decades. It was thought their portraits would imbibe the spirit of nationalism in students. Thirteen of the 21 awardees were honoured posthumously, suggesting a strong link between the military, valour, death and nationalism.

However, as Dr Sharma’s letter suggests, soldiers are not the only category of people who willingly court death in the line of their duty. Medical professionals apart, the Delhi-based Institute of Perception Studies recently said that 238 journalists died due to Covid-19. A good many of them contracted the virus because they were assigned to report on hospitals, crematoria, and villages. Or take Uttar Pradesh’s 1,600 primary teachers, who died because they caught SARS-CoV-2 during the panchayat poll duty.

Indeed, there are professions where death and duty come entwined together. Take sewer workers, many of whom die of asphyxiation as they jump into manholes to unclog underground sewage channels. Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson’s Safai Karmachari Andolan gave this writer the following figures—136 sewer workers died in the line of duty in 2017, 126 in 2018, 127 in 2019, and 24 in 2020. The number of security forces who died in Jammu and Kashmir was 83 in 2017, 95 in 2018, 78 in 2019, and 56 in 2020.

You get the point, don’t you?

We often link some jobs to what is called “national interest” because of the sudden emergence of extraordinary situations. When India was partitioned in 1947, Hindus began to wend their way to India. Among them were Dalits, on whom Karachi’s sanitation and sewage system were crucially dependent. India sought to lure them through jobs, soft loans and housing schemes. Pakistan told them about the life of ignominy awaiting them across the border.

Nevertheless, as author and publisher Urvashi Butalia writes in The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, Karachi’s Dalits entered the transit camp, where they waited to secure berths in ships. In their absence from work, Karachi became a stinking garbage heap. This prompted the Sindh government to pass the Essential Services Maintenance Act, which debarred sanitation workers from leaving for India. It is not that their situation is any better in India seven decades after Independence—49 of the 94 municipal employees who died in Delhi due to Covid-19 were sanitation workers.

The idea of martyrdom is framed in different ways by different occupational groups. For instance, farmers protesting against the new three farm laws have consistently claimed they feed the nation, a work they say is no less in importance to that of soldiers. This is why they insist on defining their comrades who died at protest sites as martyrs. On 26 May, to mark the completion of six months of their sit-in outside Delhi, farm leader Ashok Dhawale wrote a piece, saying, “There have been over 470 farmer martyrs in the last six months. But the Prime Minister, like Nero, keeps fiddling.”

For sure, people do not clean sewer lines or take to farming because it is a calling for them. They do so to earn a livelihood, as would be true for a large percentage of soldiers and officers, primary teachers and journalists. It is flawed, to quote activist and writer Harsh Mander, to have a ‘hierarchy of patriotism’ that privileges the soldier over all others, including those who risk their own freedom to protect the freedom of others. Indeed, Dr Sharma’s letter is a challenge to militaristic nationalism because he has implicitly questioned the hierarchy of patriotism existing in the country.

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.

First published by Newsclick.