OPINION

Recognising fair criticism

The anger against the British medical journal, The Lancet , for publishing on August 17 a strongly worded editorial on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was initially restricted to social media. However, two days later, the Indian Medical Association (IMA) waded into the controversy with a letter admonishing Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of the journal. “The reputed medical journal The Lancet has committed breach of propriety in commenting on this political issue” and the editorial amounts to “interference into an internal matter of Union of India,” the letter says. It adds that “ The Lancet has no locus standi on the issue of Kashmir” and questioned the “credibility and the mala fide intention behind the uncalled for editorial.”

The Lancet editorial

The editorial is broadly divided into three parts. The first lists facts. The second focusses on the findings of two reports: one by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on human rights violations in J&K and the second by Médecins Sans Frontières on the state of mental health in J&K. The third part carries the opinion of the journal. The ground reality and the findings of the two reports are given equal treatment and weightage.

The controversial part is found in the beginning and end of the editorial. The editorial begins by calling the revocation of Article 370 a “controversial move” that gives the government “greater authority over the State’s affairs”. It then adds that “militant presence raises serious concerns for the health, safety, and freedoms of the Kashmiri people”. It concludes that the “people of Kashmir need healing from the deep wounds of this decades-old conflict, not subjugation to further violence and alienation.”

While those outside the medical fraternity may not know about The Lancet ’s stand on issues such as J&K, it is unfortunate that the IMA reacted in the manner that it did. How can a body of over 500,000 doctors, which is supposed to be reading the journal regularly, be unaware of what the journal has always stood for?

The role of a medical journal

The editorial is not an “act of commission” by The Lancet , as the IMA calls it, but what the journal considers as its beholden duty to speak up for people in health distress. This may be the first time that The Lancet has written critically about the J&K issue, but it is naïve to assume that it has never written on such matters before. In fact, it regularly denounces any action or policy of any nation or group that harms people’s health. It has commented on Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the refugee crises in the U.S. and Canada, Sudan, the Arab Spring, and several times on Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Rohingya.

In a July 2014 editorial on Gaza, The Lancet wrote: “The Lancet is a general medical journal that publishes research, news, and opinion about all aspects of human health and wellbeing. In situations of war and conflict — such as in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere — our perspective has always been to put the interests of civilian lives ahead of the politics of military engagement... The role of the doctor is to protect, serve, and speak up for life. That, too, is the role of a medical journal.”

The same day that the editorial on J&K was published, The Lancet also carried another on mass shootings in the U.S. After putting the editorial in context and referring to a report on mass violence, the journal criticised the government saying: “The far right and the Trump administration have fomented and normalised white nationalist sentiment and entitlement with anti-immigrant rhetoric, which is amplified by conservative media and then consumed by the disenfranchised.”

Unlike in the case of the editorial on J&K, the journal has been scathing at times while commenting on other countries. But the central focus has always been on health, and the editorial on J&K is no different.

prasad.ravindranath@thehindu.co.in