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Will Justice be done to Dr. Baruah?

As the news of the successful transplantation of a pig's heart into a 57 year old patient at the University of Maryland School of Medicine flashed across the world, it brought back painful memories of a lost opportunity for India, and Assam in particular. Many felt that such an important milestone in medical science could have been achieved by our country two decades earlier, if only our ecosystem had been a little more considerate towards the likes of Dr. Dhaniram Baruah. He, along with Dr Jonathan Ho Kei-Shing, had succeeded in doing the same operation on Purno Saikia in January 1997.  The terminally ill Purno, who managed to stay alive for seven long days, had been operated-on at the Dr Dhaniram Heart Institute and Research Centre in Guwahati. But instead of accolade and recognition, what the doctor got was a murder charge slapped on him and his assistant. Both the doctors were kept behind bars for 40 days and the ensuing negative publicity enraged nearby people who, reportedly,  ransacked and gutted his institute. What makes one seethe with anger is that the details of such an important case were never made public, thereby, allowing people to speculate it as one that had more to do with rivalry and politics than actual crime.
The whole incident also had tragic echoes of the life of Dr. Subhash Mukhopadhyay, who had pioneered the In-vitro fertilisation treatment around the same time Dr. Robert Edwards was running his experiments in England. Dr. Subhash Mukhopadhyay, who was systematically harassed by the then State and Central Govt., finally chose to end his life on 19th June 1981. A brilliant mind was lost on the altar of selfishness and short-sightedness. A tribute to Dr. Mukhopadhyay was given by Tapan Sinha who in 1990, directed the movie “Ek Doctor Ki Maut”; a movie which was loosely based on the doctor’s life. But alas, almost two decades after Mukhopadhyay’s death, another doctor had to face the same apathetic and antagonistic system. A system that does not favour change. A system that hounds people who dare to step out of the defined mould, who dare to question, who challenge the status quo. As if to bring about intellectual socialism, such bright elements are often cast aside, maligned and tortured, if not killed. The regained “mediocrity”  then moves on with their lives nonchalantly. 
It is depressing to know that in terms of “acceptability of fresh ideas” we have not changed much since the times of Galileo, who was burnt at the stake for supporting the heliocentric theory. We were young when Dr. Baruah’s incident started appearing in the newspapers. This writer could only recollect hearing about the incident with the doctor being branded a maverick. A maverick! Of course, he was! Anybody who has known someone creative would agree that these are the people who are often seen as eccentrics, the odd-balls, the non-conformists. These are those people who , in creative circles, are known to “ think out of the box”. They are not the people who will do “routine” work but are the ones who create new systems. Anyone with the faintest understanding of research will appreciate that it is a long painful path with baby steps taken, one at a time, which ultimately helps mankind achieve a milestone.  The feat of Dr. Baruah was one such important step. 
Today, the onus is on the party which was then in power, the media houses that started and fueled the slander campaign and the various cultural organisations who meekly stood by, to make sincere attempts to undo a historic wrong. The medical fraternity of that time also has a lot to answer. We hope that the current Government does all it takes to bring a formal closure to this poignant chapter. People have every right to know the findings of the case, the details of which are still shrouded in mystery. In the event of Dr. Baruah being found innocent, each party must seek a public apology and recognize his achievement. No stone should be left unturned, in trying to seek national recognition for his efforts. This could be the least we  all can now do for the ailing and humiliated 72 year old doctor. And as we pursue these goals, it is also time we ask ourselves as to why we get to hear about the Pichai and Nooyis from the US or Europe and yet fail to recognize such bright stars in our own country? Let this moment be a moment for self-assessment.

(Photo- courtesy Wikipedia)

(Writer is based in Kolkata. He writes in Asomiya and in English on subjects of public interest)

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