The Irony of HBS and the Cancer Controversy

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By Utpal Kanta

It was merely a month back when a picture of Himanta Biswa Sarma with Ratan Tata had popped up in media. I was wondering if the man in perpetual haste was building his base to fight his last battle of Dispur. Health Minister of Assam and most trusted lieutenant of Amit Shah in North-East, Himanta Biswa Sarma was in Mumbai and he had successfully persuaded Ratan Tata to spend 540 Cr to set up a three-level cancer treatment grid in Assam in collaboration with the state govt. It was the most sensible initiative so far taken by any department of Sonowal Govt which of late taking a leaf out of Modi book has been trying to create a feel good atmosphere organising random festivals and creating headlines with lofty promises like the 65-storied world trade center in Guwahati.

On Friday evening a video of Himanta Biswa Sarma talking to media persons in New Delhi surfaced on social media and though he was trying to be usual, Himanta Biswa Sarma we are familiar with, I think he was not in his usual self. He tried to put up a brave face saying that though he has tendered unconditional apology in front of national media he will fight back his case in Guwahati once he comes back. He looked pained and grieved. He was pained as he was not being able to figure out what his fault was which led him into such a big controversy and he was grieved because he must have realised that he has gone at least 1 year back in his political journey.

Last week controversy erupted over remarks of HBS that some people suffer from life-threatening diseases such as cancer because of sins committed in the past and that it is ‘divine justice’. What HBS spoke about cancer in that teachers’ meeting in his half an hour speech appears the case of slippage of role. A leader plays multiple roles in public. For a set of audience he could be a minister as well as a mentor and a custodian. Multiple roles make it unsure which kind of conversations are appropriate and in which setting. When you are speaking in a meeting in which you are getting treated as a God (we Indians are habituated in giving that feeling to people in power) it gives the person a luxury of that slippage of role. In those 30 seconds of his speech he spoke like a mentor with set of his personal beliefs. Here we can say that Himanta Biswa Sarma is the guilty of an accidental role slippage.

It would be unfair to analyse the whole incident taking HBS as a politician only. He is also a human being. He comes from a Brahmin family which traditionally always believes in ‘Karma’ and ‘Purva Janma’. When there is loss of a member in a family, we use to console the family in grief …Chup Ho Jayo, kya karoge, samjho ki koi purva janma ka fal hai. That doesn’t mean that the person who is consoling is uneducated or from stone-age. This is all we have grown with and it has become a part of our lives irrespective of our education and growth. Even it has nothing to do with our beliefs. Do we believe in next life? No, we are educated people and believe in scientific facts. Still we go to Bodh Gaya to do Pind-Dan. Have we not seen scientists and even decorated medical experts from Hindu families going to Banaras for rituals? “I never said that sin causes cancer. It was a speech to motivate teachers to serve the poor or otherwise you may face karmic deficiency and suffer in next life. Science cannot promote human value. Religion might”, he said while clarifying his statement. It decodes the set of his personal beliefs which guided his statement in those moments of role slippage.

There is another school of thought. He has come across a long and tiring political struggle all across his life. He might have got tired and might have turned more religious in his personal life. Recently we came across his photograph with family visiting Vaishano Devi temple. One could see him turning into a person who believes in ‘Karma’, ‘Purva Janmon ka Fal’ and other teachings of Gita. It explains his both the acts which are contradictory to each other- addressing the problem of cancer in state by bringing in institutions like Tata for cancer care, and talking about cancer as divine justice of sins. His emphasizes on ‘Bhagavadgita as the final truth for him’ even after the controversy, further emboldens this theory. But turning into a religious person guided by Gita, this is not that bad.

Assam has high incidence of cancer, with the number of new patients diagnosed touching the 30,000 mark every year. With Tata Trusts coming forward to partner with the Assam government to set up three-level cancer treatment grid in the next couple of years, over 80,000 cancer patients would directly benefit every year. A cancer grid with Tata Trusts at the top, the cancer hospital at the Gauhati Medical College Hospital and Dr B Borooah Cancer Institute in the middle and the district hospitals at the bottom is the perfect scenario. Tata Trusts has also agreed to help build a separate oncology wing in upcoming medical colleges in Lakhimpur, Dhubri and Diphu. This is a very rare philanthropy-government collaboration on cancer care and management, all thanks to Himanta Biswa Sarma and definitely the great Ratan Tata. Besides this HBS was also instrumental in taking over of the Dr B Borooah Cancer Institute in Guwahati by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) which could bring a revolutionary change in utility of this otherwise defunct institution. Very few people know a “Travelling School of Pathology”, aimed at bringing training in quality cancer diagnosis to the doorsteps of pathologists in far flung areas was piloted this year for Pathology covering 12 cities in North-East.

The Titanic was an irony, which was deemed 100% unsinkable when it was built and it sank on its first trip. The Great Dane who held the title of ‘Britain’s Biggest Dog’ was named Tiny. What else people of Assam could have expected from a health minister in curing and curbing this ‘horror’ disease? He has already done what somebody else would have thought about doing only in the next 5 years. And today he is marred in the biggest controversy of his political life due to this cancer only. This is the irony of Himanta Biswa Sarma in this cancer controversy.