Medical Asylum: When the high and mighty fall sick facing action
A Calcutta High Court order transferring a West Bengal minister outside the state for medical examination has once again brought the focus back on how the high and mighty seek means like medical asylum to evade arrest.
Partha Chatterjee was Minister of Commerce and Industries in Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet. He was also the state General Secretary in her party – the Trinamool Congress. He has since been relieved of all posts.
The Enforcement Directorate (ED) arrested him in connection with its probe into alleged irregularities in staff recruitment for state-aided schools. He was earlier quizzed while search operations were going on across the state. His reportedly “close aide” Arpita Mukherjee was taken into custody, and more than Rs. 50 crores in cash, jewellery and foreign currency were seized from her apartments.
Chatterjee was hospitalised after he complained of uneasiness. A lower court had ordered sending him to the SSKM Hospital in Kolkata. The ED then moved Calcutta High Court challenging the order saying that the court can direct the agency to ensure proper treatment but cannot specify a particular institution.
Additional Solicitor General SV Raju had submitted that SSKM Super speciality Hospital is “run by the State Government,” and the High Court mentioned, “it is consistently used as a safe shelter of the accused persons having strong political connections as well as the leaders of the ruling political party”.
Ajay Majithia, counsel, Supreme Court, stated that the investigating agency should have obtained the status report from the concerned hospital on the medical health of the accused. Implying a more comprehensive look into the issue, he added, “The entire matter ought to have been referred to the Medical Council of India, which is qualified to institute an enquiry, and after a thorough probe, it would have submitted a report to the court for further action. It cannot be assumed that SSKM provides medical asylum to accused who wilfully disobey or evade the process of law on the strength of a stray precedent. One swallow does not make a summer,” he said.
“If there is any evidence that the doctors are complicit in such cases, then the report has to be obtained from the concerned hospital, and the report must be referred to an independent doctor of stature or a well-acclaimed government hospital which should conduct a thorough investigation and prepare a report based on the medical condition of the accused. If it is found that the doctor was in cahoots with the accused, then the matter must be referred to the Medical Council of India, and the MCI can institute an enquiry. And if the doctor indeed is guilty, criminal action should be initiated,” says Majitia to The Probe.
Speaking to The Probe, advocate Sneha Kalita says the growing number of cases of politicians seeking medical asylum will affect our justice delivery mechanism and cause unnecessary delays in a country already burdened with pending cases and trials.
“What can be said when our lawmakers turn lawbreakers? Whenever the investigative agencies summon a politician or an influential person, they mostly feign illness. While the politician’s role must obviously be investigated, what about the doctor’s role or the hospital’s medical board’s role? In a government hospital, when the medical board is selected, the board must have members who are honest. These medical reports should also be in the public domain. I feel a committee must be formed at the highest level where a former SC judge or members from AIIMS or MCI should be present, and whenever the agency suspects a case of fake medical asylum, this committee must investigate, and if found guilty, the hospital board, as well as the politician in question, must be acted against severely,” affirms Kalita.
In the case of SSKM hospital, Justice Bibek Chaudhuri stated: “…incredibility of medical practitioners and doctors should not be assumed. However, our experience as a common man with regard to the role of the doctors attached to SSKM Super speciality Hospital is not happy. In the recent past, more than one high-ranking political leader belonging to the ruling political party was arrested or directed to appear before the Investigating Authority for interrogation, and they successfully avoided interrogation by taking shelter in the said hospital. When they found that the Investigating Agency could not interrogate the suspects having strong political backgrounds under the umbrella of the ruling political party, they were discharged from SSKM Hospital. They avoided even production before the court on the strength of the medical report issued by the hospital authority.”
The judgement noted: “Under such background and considering the fact that the accused is the senior most Cabinet Minister in the State of West Bengal having immense power and position, it would not be impossible for the accused with the aid of other political executives to take shelter under the garb of serious illness and medical treatment to evade interrogation. If this happens, the Lady Justice will be cursed by the tears of hundreds and thousands of deserving candidates whose future was sacrificed in lieu of money.”
The ED then took Chatterjee to AIIMS, Bhubaneswar, where he was medically examined by a team of specialists from the Cardiology, Nephrology, Respiratory Medicines, and Endocrinology departments.
The four-member medical board submitted its report to the Director, AIIMS, Bhubaneswar, saying, “After detailed history taking, clinical evaluation and relevant investigations, the committee is of the opinion that Mr Partha Chaterjee has been suffering from multiple chronic illnesses for a long time. Whatever presenting complaints that he is having currently are attributed to his chronic illness, and no active intervention is required at present. However, he is advised to continue treatment for his chronic illness and requires periodic evaluation and optimisation of treatment”. The order, and the subsequent medical report, have raised serious questions over SSKM doctors and the administration’s role in sheltering influential people facing probe.
Not the first
On April 6, the Birbhum district president of the Trinamool Congress, Anubrata Mondal, was admitted to SSKM Hospital for multiple ailments. He was supposed to appear before the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on the same day over a case of cattle smuggling.
In May last year, state ministers Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee, former minister Madan Mitra and former Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee were arrested by the CBI over the Narada case. The case involved sting operations on top Trinamool leaders and their associates, who accepted cash on camera. Then the state Minister of Panchayat and Rural Development, Mukherjee, had to be admitted to the SSKM Hospital following breathing complaints. Earlier, Sovan Chatterjee and Mitra were also admitted. Mukherjee died in the hospital on November 4.
According to a senior physician associated with a renowned government hospital, “damned if we do, damned if we don’t”. Requesting anonymity, he explains that refusal to admit political heavyweights draws their ire, followed by possible retribution. Also, such establishments cannot turn a patient away until medical examinations confirm health stability. “What if the patient needs immediate medical attention or intervention?” he asks.
Dr. Meeran Chadha Borwankar, who was the chief of Maharashtra prisons between 2012 and 2015, once revealed how politicians would fake illness to avoid jail. She recalled an incident in an interview where a former minister got himself admitted to a Mumbai hospital for more than six months. Armed with a photograph that showed him jogging in a tracksuit, the IPS officer handled the situation wisely. And the accused returned to prison.
Five years ago, cracking down on the practice of politicians seeking medical asylum feigning illness, the Supreme Court imposed a whopping fine of 1.4 crores on two doctors from a hospital in the Gurugram district of Haryana.
In 2019-20, when RJD leader Lalu Prasad Yadav was lodged in the Birsa Munda Central jail in Ranchi, he was shifted to the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS). He was first admitted to the hospital’s super-speciality wing and then transferred to its paying ward. He was then again shifted to the RIMS Director’s Bungalow. In July 2019, a media report stated that Lalu Prasad Yadav had “spent more time in hospital than in jail”. The report said, “It’s 19 months since RJD chief Lalu Prasad was convicted and jailed in one of the fodder-scam cases in December 2017. Out of these 19 months, the former Bihar Chief Minister has been in the Ranchi’s Hotwar Jail for two months while cooling his heels in a Ranchi hospital for nearly 17 months.”
In July 2020, Jharkhand BJP spokesperson Pratul Shahdeo posted Yadav’s photograph on his Facebook page, alleging that he was “openly” violating the jail manual by setting up a “darbar” at RIMS. The photograph included the state health minister in its frame. Opponents and detractors alleged that Yadav benefited from a “friendly state government” that had the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the Congress and his own party.
“The Supreme Court is monitoring MP and MLA matters pertaining to the pendency of their criminal trials. We have submitted reports for every state, and we found that cases regarding MPs and MLAs are very high compared to the past decades. So we want these cases to be expedited as they are the lawmakers. If they are guilty, they must be punished because the more the delay, the more witnesses will be influenced, or they will turn hostile. We want a witness protection scheme to be implemented very promptly, and we also want the fake medical asylum seekers to face action,” says Kalita.
Coercion, force, and compulsion are affected in various forms and ways. Journalist Sunetra Choudhury, in her book “Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous,” has made a mention of several such cases. She wrote: “So the two young convicted murderers Vikas and Vishal Yadav, who killed Nitish Katara, were hauled up by the Supreme Court for making 87 visits to All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) for no apparent ailment which couldn’t be tackled at the medical centre in the jail premises. Neelam Katara, the mother, fighting for the punishment of her son’s killers, told me that she got a call from an AIIMS doctor who wanted to tip her off about the parties the convicts were enjoying in their hostel where they were allegedly being “treated”. AIIMS refused to entertain her Right to Information application, and so she had to sit and sift through the logbooks of the prison to figure out how many times the Yadav cousins were being taken in and out of jail for medical treatments. On many occasions, this would coincide with New Year’s Eve or other festivals. Neelam Katara and Gupta also confirmed that Manu Sharma’s father had specially opened a hotel in Janakpuri, next to Tihar, called Piccadily, which caters to jail staff. They are guaranteed a good time in the hotel in return for favourable treatment for the boy who murdered Jessica Lal.”
The issue of fake medical asylum not just affects the case in question but drags the entire investigative and judicial process. This can only be curbed to an extent if the medical boards in such hospitals are scrutinised and held accountable. The doctors must be treated as an accomplice to the crime for derailing the investigation. Unless harsh action is taken, the practice of our high and mighty feigning illness in the blink of an eye – while faced with a probe – will continue.
Jayanta Bhattacharya is a journalist with over three decades of experience with many national and international media organisations. He writes on politics, conflict and agriculture. He has extensively covered Afghanistan and many Southeast Asian countries.
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