As a relic of the British Raj, talking down to subordinates is a defining character of governments in India, especially the bureaucracy which still functions as if managing colonies rather than an electoral democracy.
In Kashmir particularly, ministers and bureaucrats appear to have inherited the mindset of the military apparatus that many believe actually rules the conflict-ridden territory – a belief re-affirmed on Monday by a not-so-unfamiliar episode at the Valley’s busy SMHS Hospital when Health Minister Chaudhary Lal Singh insulted many doctors and paramedical staffers during his visit. Justifiably, the medical faculty rallied in support of their harassed colleagues and warned of a more vehement response in case the minister repeated behaviour the latter has since sought to defend as that of a strict “disciplinarian.”
When portfolios were being allotted a couple of days ago, many doctors rang this office up to inquire who the health minister was going to be, a routine practice among public servants ahead of government formation. But the doctors were driven more by anxiety than curiosity: they did not want Lal Singh to be health minister again. When he held the portfolio during the Congress-PDP coalition in 2002, many complained that he did not seem to make a distinction between political rallies, where he is known for making fiery speeches, and day-to-day administrative interaction.
That the relationship between a huge work force in the government’s critical health sector and its minister has come to be defined by fear and loathing is not a healthy sign. In Jammu, the minister is said to have rebuked a psychiatrist for not wearing a white apron, even though the doctor had tried to explain why that was not a universal practice in his field, unlike other branches of medicine.
On Monday too, he had targeted a few doctors for the same reason. Medical studies have proven that aprons are carriers of infection, and medical professionals are reluctant to wear the garment whose only purpose is to make identifying them easier. The minister is a seasoned politician. He has been a Member of Parliament twice. Having served as health minister before, he should have sensitized himself to cultural differences. A senior doctor in Kashmir is bound to feel insulted if addressed as “hey Nazeeray,” even though being condescending or insulting is the last thing in the minister’s mind.