ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

Medha Patkar and the "Hunger strike doctor"

I have met and spoken to Medha Patkar on five or six occasions. As far as I can remember only on one of these occasions was she normal.  On all the other instances she was weak, exhausted, dehydrated & hungry. In stark contrast to her usual self she was barely able to talk. In case you have started wondering why I have been meeting her in these strange set of circumstances, let me explain.

The first time I met her was way back in 1993. I remember this vividly partly because this was the first time I was meeting her. She and an adivasi activist colleague of hers from the Narmada Valley were on a fast unto death at Churchgate Railway Station in Mumbai in protest against the dam on the Narmada river. It was the 7th or 8th day of their hunger strike and one could sense that her health was deteriorating. The usual government doctors were seeing her every day and had issued a health alert that her blood pressure was low. Some activist friends were concerned that the doctors were deliberately claiming this under pressure from the state to force her to end the strike. At the same time they were worried about her health.

A doctor friend and myself went to the hunger strike venue armed with a blood pressure instrument and a stethoscope. On reaching the venue we were led to this frail lady lying on a makeshift bed surrounded by her adivasi compatriots many of whom had perhaps travelled out of the villages of the Narmada Valley for the first time. As soon as she saw us with the BP instrument she said in a frail but resolute voice  “I am okay, I don’t need any help”. I examined her pulse, which was fast, and also her blood pressure, which was a bit low. She was just consuming water.  She was complaining of cramps in her legs a sign of low salt in the body. “Why don’t you add some electral powder?” I suggested innocently. “Electral contains glucose, that will be like breaking the hunger strike” she shot back.

The next day I got an urgent call from an activist friend that she had been forcibly picked up by the police & taken to St George’s Hospital. We rushed there and through our contacts amongst resident doctors managed entry into the ward she had been taken to. Medha was lying on a hospital bed kicking and screaming whilst a group of doctors & nurses were trying to pin her down & put in an intravenous line into her. “You can’t do this to me against my will” she was shouting. We tried to talk to her but were soon hustled out by the police. I can’t precisely remember what happened next but perhaps she was finally given some intravenous fluids and came back to the hunger strike site. Following this she continued her fast for another 4 to 5 days till the state relented and gave in to her demands, which included a review of the project.

Following this, over the last two decades I have been in called in similar situations at least on 3 to 4 further occasions. Only the venue changed from Churchgate to Azad Maidan and the reason for the hunger strike varied. Of course both the crowds around Medha as well as  the media’s attention were slowly waning over the years.

The last time I visited my old hunger strike patient was after a longish gap in 2013 when she sat fasting in the slums of Golibar in Mumbai’s suburb of Santacruz. A rapacious builder was bulldozing a slum bit by bit & Medha sat amongst the rubbles on yet another fast to protest the demolitions. The issue had changed but it was the same resolute, frail, determined Medha braving hunger & the scorching April sun. This time though she looked old , visibly tired & perhaps even a little defeated. Sitting in this corner of a distant Mumbai suburb, the press had largely ignored her and the state seemed to care less. As usual I examined her pulse which was a bit fast. I did not have a BP instrument with me this time. With some hesitation I suggested “Will you now take some electral with the water? She gave a weak smile almost as if she had remembered her words from 20 years back. Just when I was there her old mother came to see her. Medha looked at her & muttered in Marathi ‘Why did you bother to come? I am okay. Someone introduced me to her mother who then told me “Look after her health… she has not been keeping well”. Medha responded in a feeble voice but with her famous but astounding recollection  “He has been seeing me since 1993 when I was forced by the police to go to St George’s Hospital”.

When I heard of Medha’s decision to contest the Lok Sabha polls from Mumbai’s  north east I had mixed feelings. On one hand was the exciting thought that this remarkable lady could bring some substance to the dying political discourse of this city. On the other was the worry that this time around she was taking on a well oiled machinery, rehearsed to perfection by seasoned players which offered little space for the politics of alternative ideas. Over the last few weeks I have tried to talk to as many potential voters as I can from her constituency to try and prod them to vote for her. My effort is obviously miniscule & I am not even sure whether all of them I spoke to will finally vote for her. For that matter I suspect that many of them were being just polite when they listened to me.  But whether Medha gets a substantive vote or not I see a small glimmer of hope for the future in the way some of them, not known supporters of her politics responded.  This was also around the time the candidates declared their personal wealth it became obvious unlike her contestants this lady had lived only for others.

Bombay, the city I was born & have grown up in has now morphed into one huge construction site called Mumbai.  The name Tendulkar now only means Sachin & Vijay has been relegated to history. As a writer so eloquently put it -  in the south of the city they talk money and in the north Bollywood. Like many others, the militant and ethical politics of the feisty Marathi ladies Mrinal Gore, Ahilya Rangnekar , Pramila Dandavate & Tara Reddy has largely been extinguished or coopted.  Albeit temporarily, Medha Patkar reminds me of that Marathi spirit of social commitment, liberal ideas & progressive politics that has now been taken over by small men with petty agendas.  It gives a strange sense of satisfaction & even hope that my frail hunger strike patient is giving some of the most well entrenched political warlords of this city a run for their money. In these times of pathos and mediocrity such phenomena of exhilaration, however transient, remind us of other possibilities. 

About Author

Sanjay Nagral is a surgeon based in Mumbai who occasionally puts down the scalpel to wield the pen on issues in contemporary Indian Healthcare from within the belly of the beast.&nbsp;</div>
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