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Jammu and Kashmir medical workers threatened with sanctions for state criticism

Jammu and Kashmir medical workers have been threatened by the state they “will end up in jail for up to six months” if they speak against the government.

Last week, the Directorate of Health Services in Kashmir issued a circular intimidating workers with “strict action” if they criticise the government’s efforts to combat the pandemic on social media, or to the press.

The circular sent out on Wednesday (April 1) stated;

“It has been observed that some of the government servants are publicly criticising the efforts of the administration to combat the pandemic of COVID-19, which is against the service conduct rules,” the letter noted. “Hence forth strict action will be initiated against such elements who resort to such uncalled for reporting to media. Any person disobeying any regulation or order made under the Epidemics Diseases Act, 1897 shall be deemed to have committed an offence punishable under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code [IPC] (45 of 1860).”

The cited IPC section 45 of 1860, calls for imprisonment of up to six months, or a fine of up to one thousand rupees, or both for “disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant.”

“The government order seems like an attempt to muffle voices and silence the underlying reality,” said global health, policy and bioethics researcher, Dr Anant Bhan. “During a pandemic of this scale, it is the right of public healthcare workers to be able to speak about the challenges they are facing, especially if they are unable to get responses from relevant institutions,” he added.

Kashmir - which has been touted as a “high-risk zone for coronavirus” – was stripped off being a semi-autonomy state by India Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 5, 2019. Modi imposed a set of draconian measures on Kashmir, such as monitoring of online activity and enforcing very slow 2G internet speeds across the region.

The internet restrictions have made it very difficult for doctors to operate, especially with not being able to get up-to-date information about the novel coronavirus and hold video consultations with other medical professionals.   

The Kashmiri doctors have insisted the “criticism” should not be condemned but rather allowed as it is a call for help seeking the tools needed to manage the pandemic.

“Most doctors in Kashmir have raised legitimate concerns so far, and in doing so, they’re only raising an alarm, not trying to defame the government. The circular seems like a clampdown on freedom of speech and expression,” said a Srinagar-based doctor. “Other countries, meanwhile, are providing incentives for medical professionals, inspiring them to go to work,” he added.

The doctor insisted the circular is “hampering” the morale of healthcare professionals in Kashmir and urged the health department to “take over the administration during such a situation.” 

Read more here.