Medico Friend Circle has always embraced open-minded scientificity in the form of continuous support to the re-evaluation of all systems of medicine including allopathy with a goal of evolving an “integrated polypathy”. However, as public health thinkers, practitioners and activists we are concerned by such statements by the prime minister. They treat serious health issues of mortality and morbidity and the problems of the health sector as matters of shame and national pride, rather than as genuine problems of the people that need to be addressed in a humane manner, and as a matter of democratic citizenship and rights.
We are, first of all, concerned at the convenient conflation of fact and myth to prove that medical science existed in ancient India. It is a well-known fact that what is known now as plastic surgery was practised in India as evidenced in the Susruta Samhita. Rather than refer to these texts why does the prime minister choose to invoke the image of a Hindu deity to say that plastic surgery was practised in those ancient times? Incidentally, historians and other researchers who study science, technology and medicine in ancient India, have analysed the contents of the Charak Samhita and the Susruta Samhita (the two texts dealing with medical science). Neither mentions anything about the practice of “genetic science” in any form whatsoever, nor mentions a plastic surgeon fixing the head of an animal on a human child. All that is offered by the prime minister as proof of genetic science is a story in an epic, of which we know there are several versions and interpretations, depending on one’s social and geographical location in India. In the reference to Karna’s birth without a womb, Narendra Modi possibly had in mind “test-tube babies”, technically known as assisted reproductive technologies. He seems unmindful of the fact that such technologies were not possible in an age in which horse-drawn carriages were the main vehicles of transport. Modern systems of scientific thinking and knowledge of genetics could not have existed alongside bows, arrows and spears.
If at all we need to look to the past, we need to understand why medical, scientific and technological capabilities that he refers to stagnated and did not flourish or grow after a point on the Indian subcontinent. In order to do this, we need to use history with rigour, not use the selective, unscientific and deeply problematic pop-history that the prime minister employed in his speech. Historians have shown that there was decline of materialistic and empirical knowledge including medicine (that was put together in Charak and Susruta Samhita) in the ancient times with the rising tide of ritual practice and the orthodox brahminical reaction against Buddhism and other progressive and materialist philosophies.
Second, such mixing up of factual knowledge and religious-cum-mythical fairy tales, the use of ideas of national shame and pride, the harking back to a past about which information is controversial and scarce (if not missing), all bear little relevance, if at all any, to the present context that the prime minister started his speech with – namely, the sorry state of the health sector in the country, and the numerous problems being faced in the health sector. One fails to understand why the prime minister had no explanation for the fact that even though Indian doctors presently have a good reputation the health sector suffers from lack of good doctors.
The whole tenor of the speech addressed to the medical and public health community appears to be caught up in the idea of a glorious past that needs to be restored, while completely failing to address the many problems in the health sector in the country and set them right. Persevering with the latter through appropriate social policies, political will and commitment should be our national goal, a goal that can be reached with the human and material resources that we currently have. And this is the goal that we expect our prime minister to focus on.
Medico Friend Circle