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From Rajasthan, the tragic tale of two women

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“Either we are elevated to the status of Gods or we are treated like killers. Has everyone forgotten we are human?” Dr Suneet Upadhya sat on the floor in front of a portrait of his wife, Archana, his frame bent and hunched over in a reflection of how broken he feels. In her suicide note, Archana Sharma, a gynaecologist, charged with murder after a pregnant woman, Asha Bairwa, died from post-delivery complications, urged the country to stop harassing doctors.

“I have not killed anyone,” Sharma’s handwritten scrawl reads.

This travesty of justice in Dausa in Rajasthan should make us all a lot angrier than it has.

At one point during his conversation with me, Dr Upadhya pulled a young boy towards him and held him tight, breaking down in inconsolable tears. “This is my son, he is 12. How should I explain to him why his mother died? What should I tell him?”

He blames the police, a local journalist and local politicians of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for his wife’s death by suicide, painting a sordid picture of extortion, blackmail, a compromised legal process and a system that he calls “rotten and without hope of justice.”

Asha, the young mother who died, was a parent to three girls. She was evidently under pressure to produce a male child. The doctors I spoke to confirm that she was anaemic and not in the best reproductive health. Ironically, she had delivered twins at the hospital that her family now accuses of murder.

“We did everything we could but we could not save her from postpartum hemorrhage [PPH]. We even refunded the money they had spent on the ambulance,” Dr Upadhya tells me, describing how the family at first conceded that he and his wife had done their best.

It is then that local politicians stepped into the act. Balya Joshi, a local BJP leader, and a clutch of others persuaded Laluram Bairwa, Asha’s husband to register a case of murder. A poor labourer, Bairwa has since told the media that he barely knows how to read or write. He says someone thrust documents at him and he signed them.

Asha was possibly a tragic victim of a patriarchal culture that gave her little agency in deciding how many children to have and when, which privileges boys over girls.

But Sharma’s death is the consequence of wilful callousness and complicity of the powerful.

Dr Upadhyaya has named a BJP Member of Parliament from the area, Kirodi Lal Meena, for being the “godfather to the mafia who runs a reign of terror in our area”. He told me that threats and blackmail were nothing new to his hospital. He had flagged the matter publicly over the years several times, but no action was taken. Meena has claimed innocence, arguing that he has been forcibly linked to the case. But Upadhyaya is now convinced that his life is at risk for demanding justice for his wife.

“In one year, you will be writing my obituary, he will not let me live for taking him on. But I am ready. Come, kill me. In any case, you have killed my soul, if you take my body, I am ready for you,” the doctor says, his grief, rage, and disappointment mingling in a way that leaves you overwhelmed and helpless.

Dr Upadhyaya is at pains to underline that he doesn’t care about the politics of the BJP vs Congress. Rajasthan is Congress-led but “unable to act against Meena’s stranglehold,” he argues, and “other BJP leaders have reached out to me. But this is not just about me. It’s about all of us as doctors. Where is the environment for safe practice?”

The scathing irony of this moment is underlined by its timing. We are only just beginning to emerge from the shadows of Covid-19. It has been an extraordinarily tough two years for our health workers. Lives have been lost in the line of duty — and worse, doctors and nurses have sometimes been treated as pariahs (because of stigma and ignorance) and even faced physical assaults from relatives of angry patients.

We banged thalis and lit candles for our health workers. But as Dr Upadhyaya says, “Aap log ya phool phenkte ho ya mala charathe ho” — referencing the garland that drapes the portrait of a deceased person.

Will our perennially outraged nation expend some anger where it is needed?

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal.

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