Doctoral Complicity in State Terror

By rahnuma ahmed

I take liberties with English language as I write “doctoral” to indicate the complicity of doctors and hospitals, both public and privately-owned ones, in short, the Bangladesh medical establishment’s actions which aid and abet state functionaries who have committed acts of terror?whether those in the police force, or RAB (Rapid Action Battalion), or in any of the military intelligence agencies, such as the DGFI (Directorate General of Forces Intelligence)?to cover it up.
Doctoral, as an adjective, refers to a doctorate, the highest degree awarded by a university. But as a transitive verb, as in doctoring, it means to change something in order to make it appear different from the facts. From the truth. In other words, to deceive.
Is that what doctors did in the case of Anu Muhammad? Did they doctor the facts to cover up marks of police brutality? Anu, a well-known and widely-respected public intellectual and activist, also a professor of economics, was brutally attacked by the police on September 2. Did they also doctor the facts in the case of F M Masum, crime reporter of this daily, who was tortured by RAB officials just because he had asked them why they were beating up a woman? Did doctors in either, or both cases, work against the good of their patients, in violation of their Hippocratic oath? Did they utter or write down words, undertake actions that? were not to the best of their ability, ones that were intended to make grievous injuries appear harmless? Ones that prolonged their patients injuries instead of helping them heal?
Is medical ethics taught in the medical colleges? Do students see their teachers practise it?

Pretty Packaging Outside

I was busily working on my manuscript?the reason for having been absent from the pages of New Age for the last three months?when my mobile beeped: `Anu and other tel-gas cmttee leaders beaten up by police.’
I called and was horrified to hear that the police had targeted him, had charged at his head with batons, an attempt foiled by brave young members of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports. They had borne the brunt of the attacks as he fell down on the street. The thousand strong procession was heading toward Petrobangla headquarters?in Anu’s words, “a multinational company base that no longer represents the wishes of the people”?to protest against the government’s decision to award three offshore blocks to international companies.
Anu had been rushed to Dhaka Medical College Hospital, the nation’s most reputed public hospital. His legs were X-rayed before being put into plaster casts. We need to carry out other tests, said the doctors, as he lay on a trolley. But since the hospital was overfull and there were no empty beds, said Anu, my family and friends took me to Square hospital instead. They knew it was expensive, but a recent health insurance policy was expected to cover the costs. He added, they were concerned about whether I had suffered any internal injuries.
So, I prodded him, how was the treatment at Square? It is a hospital that is owned by the Square Group; Tapan Chowdhury, the managing director of the group was the power and energy adviser to the military-installed caretaker government (2007-2008); the hospital, as its website advertises, is affiliated to hospitals abroad (USA, India, Singapore). You had no broken bones, so why is it taking this long to heal, I asked. And I saw all these hotshots flocking to the hospital to see you, Khaleda Zia, government ministers. Why, I believe, even the health minister, an orthopaedic surgeon, went to see you, no? Yes, that was the problem. What on earth do you mean?
Well, you see, at Square they carried out a lot of tests, blood, urine, ultrasound, CT scan, but no one did a physical examination of my feet, legs, no one looked at the bruises, pressed or poked to see where it hurt, whether I could move my toes, during the four days that I was there. Yes, they changed the DMCH plaster casts, I was upgraded to fiber optic casts, they look prettier, but no physical examination was done.
And then, the health minister Dr Ruhul Haque came to see me on the 5th. I was planning to leave the hospital the next day, which I did, but the impression I had gotten from my doctors was that my legs would need to be in casts for a month or more, that I would need to come for regular check-ups. But the very next morning, after the health minister’s visit, the same doctor who had said I would need them for a month, came and got rid of them. And then, all these doctors disappeared. Very mysteriously.
The hospital issued a discharge certificate, it says, I had “improved satisfactorily.” I don’t know which tests demonstrated that. It also said I should use a walking stick. But that was pretty absurd, since I couldn’t stand up for the briefest of seconds. Not for a good fortnight after I left Square.
And what happened after you went home? Well, I couldn’t move, the pain got worse. Luckily, a doctor friend of mine dropped in regularly, he showed me some physiotherapy exercises, he told me how to move my body, how to avoid putting weight on my feet. You mean to say he did what the doctors at Square should have done? Anu grinned, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. And I hear there was pus?? Oh yes, my feet were heavily bruised because the police had kicked at my feet with their boots, they had nearly jumped on my feet, so they were all swollen. And then, another doctor friend got hold of two orthopaedic surgeons. They were pretty shocked when they came and examined me. They prescribed antibiotics immediately, which gradually got rid of the swelling and the pus, and that intolerable pain. If it hadn’t been for them I definitely would not have recovered as I have, now.
While listening to Anu, I riffled through his medical file, looking at his discharge certificate, his blood reports, other reports. A line caught my eye, Thank you for being with Square. Yes, I thought, but is Square with its patients?
Pretty packaging outside. Ugly politics inside.

Discharged in the Middle of the Night

F M Masum, crime reporter, New Age was tortured by RAB officials, first at his home, and then later at RAB-10 headquarters. Not only had he protested, he had dared to ask RAB officials to speak civilly. As they should, being employees of the state, paid by the public exchequer. In exchange, they barged into his house, beat him up, blindfolded him, rubbed salt into his wounds. The torture grew worse, said Masum, when I showed them my ID card. According to them, Nurul Kabir had made things difficult for them. They had “suffered” because of his outspoken views, that’s how they put it.
After Masum’s release was finally secured an excruciating ten hours later, with the intervention of the home minister, his colleagues took him to the DMCH. It was nearly midnight. Were you examined? Well, the DMCH X-ray machine was out of order so I was taken to a private lab, we returned to the hospital with X-ray and CT scan reports. And then? They said, everything was fine and I could be taken home.
Even though you were covered with torture wounds? Even though your body and feet were swollen? Even though you were said to be in severe pain and should have been examined for internal injuries? Well, yes.
Masum was admitted to the Dhaka Community Hospital at Maghbazar Railgate the next day. And how are you now? I asked. Well, my feet still hurt a lot. And your ears? Oh, it’s much better now. Once the blood clot has completely dissolved, the ENT specialist said he’ll be able to examine and see whether my eardrum has suffered any rupture.
But DMCH has had courageous doctors too. I remembered Dr Shamsul Alam, professor of surgery, who accompanied communist leader Ila Mitra to Calcutta in the mid-50s. She had been imprisoned, tortured and raped by the police after the Tebhaga movement flared up with peasants demanding two-third share of the produce from their landowners. While serving a ten-year prison sentence she had fallen ill, had been hospitalised. Embarassed at street protests at home and outrage abroad, the Pakistan government released a weak, frail and emaciated Ila Mitra on parole, agreeing to let her go to Kolkata for better treatment. `But your khalu had to pay the price,’ his widowed wife reminded me. `They transferred him to Chittagong. They didn’t give him the promotion that was due.’ There are still a few left, I thought, as I remembered the words of gratitude Bidisha (ex-wife of former president Ershad) had written of Dr Afzal of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical university where she had been hospitalised. She had been remanded, and allegedly tortured by DGFI officials. Hospitals too, since Dhaka Community Hospital had admitted Masum, and had continued to treat him despite receiving intimidating phone calls.
I am sure there are other instances too. But the rest? Too busy doctoring to be real doctors.
Published in New Age, 9 November 2009