NEW DELHI: What happens when the poor, the tribals, the marginalised and those who write about their plight, raise their voice, or even provide medical treatment for them are treated as an euphemism for Maoism? They are turned into targets by the government, threatened, arrested, attacked. Reports from the poverty ruled districts of Chhattisgarh today point towards targeting and deep repression of rights and justice as many of those who are struggling to give the poor a reprieve from the gun---state and non-state---find themselves staring into the barrel instead.

Shaheed Hospital, is a story that needs to be repeated as its inception, and its struggle through the years epitomises the struggle of the poor of Chhattisgarh where even medical care for them becomes suspect in the eyes of government, and where health workers receive the short end of the stick. As Dr Prabir Chatterjee who has been associated with some of the work done by the hospital told The Citizen, “it is like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan who attack health workers for bringing medical aid to the people, here too the government is arresting them for even carrying chloroquine (for malaria patients).”

Shaheed hospital came into existence out of the struggle of mine workers in Dalli Rajhara, Balod district that was home to the Bhilai Steel Plant. Poor care and low wages led to the formation of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha founded by Shankar Guha Niyogi who worked closely with the trade unions of the mine workers set up earlier. It was decided to set up a hospital for the mine workers, and Shaheed Hospital with 12 beds emerged out of the resolve with Dr Binayak Sen, Dr Ashish Kundu and Dr Saibal Jana. It was a long struggle It is today a 150 bed hospital, overflowing with patients, many of whom have been ironically directed to it by the district government hospital.

Despite this Shaheed hospital has been under attack by successive governments with its doctors being harassed, jailed, and its health workers receiving daily threats and being arrested as well for working amongst the poor. Dr Sen fought a prolonged battle to be released from jail. Dr Jana, now the chief physician, finding himself under arrest for doing little more than going to the courts to seek closure of a 24 year old case against him and others. This was on the advice of lawyers who felt it would be best to close the case, but all were shocked when he was ordered to be arrested.

A petition to the Chief Minister details this: “According to sources, Dr. Saibal Jana along with four other persons appeared before the chief judicial magistrate (CJM), Durg on March 16, 2016, in connection with a warrant that was issued almost 24 years back. They approached the court with the genuine assumption that they would be given regular bail as many others had already been released at different point of time. But the CJM rejected the bail application and asked them to file the appeal on March 17, 2016, before the Additional Session Judge in Durg city. The Additional Session Judge granted bail to four others but kept Dr. Jana’s matter under consideration and sent him in judicial custody.

Dr. Saibal Jana’s arrest came in a case that happened way back on July 1, 1992, when he along with the staff and ambulance of Shaheed Hospital were present at the site of the agitation providing medical assistance to trade union activists of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha who were injured in police action. The agitating mine workers were demanding equal pay for all, for same kind of work before Bhilai Industrial Area. The agitators went on to the nearby railway track and tried to block the movement of the trains. The police resorted to firing which resulted in the deaths of some of the workers. Police lodged criminal cases against 54 persons in 1992. Among them, 49 persons were set free from the charges at different point of time. Dr. Saibal Jana was among the 5 persons who were left out after their anticipatory bail applications were rejected at the Jabalpur High Court in 1992-93.

After his arrest Dr. Jana has been charged under sections 147,148,149,333 &152 of IPC. He was immediately taken to the Durg District Government hospital for check-up where he got admitted under judicial custody. On March 18, 2016 morning he was referred to Apollo Hospital, Durg due to health complications.”

Dr Jana has now been released on bail. As Dr Chatterjee pointed out, the hospital remains a target as its health workers, all locally trained, fan out into the districts including those governed by Maoists to treat patients of malaria. As he said many about 150 such villages in Pankanjur district do not have names but are referred to only as Project Village X number. Most of the villagers here are tribals, and interestingly Bengalis who had migrated to this area in the1950’s and live like the rest in utter squalor and poverty. Malaria runs like an epidemic here, he said, and health workers bringing the information to ensure treatment of the poor are harassed and picked up the cops. As Dr Chatterjee said, in these areas “you have to be with the police, and if you are not, it is assumed you are with the Maoists.” ShaHeed Hospital has been able to treat villagers living in the entire belt, even in Narainpur that remains out of the control of the government.

Asked whether in his view individual doctors or the hospital itself was the target Dr Chatterjee said, that he did not see the difference. The doctors being systematically attacked were the founders of the hospital, associated with it for long years, and clearly responsible for its success after a long struggle.

It is this reach and independence of the hospital that has made it a target of the authorities, that is keen to put a lid on media coverage by arresting journalists, and even on medical care by targeting the one hospital that works with zeal and passion in the region.As Dr Chatterjee said, the state government says it will get health workers and doctors from other districts and states but when it is not even allowing those who are there to function, how will it be able to persuade outsiders to go there.”

How indeed, when the tribals and the poor workers are being pushed into a Hobsons choice not of their making.