NEW DELHI — On Wednesday night, Indranil Khan, an oncologist who has embarrassed the West Bengal government over the shortage of protective gear for doctors responding to the coronavirus outbreak, was stuck at a police station in a suburb of Kolkata, pleading with the police to return his mobile phone.
It had been close to 12 hours since the Kolkata High Court had directed the police to return Khan’s mobile phone to him, and four hours since he had arrived at the Maheshtala police station, but he was still waiting.
“The harassment continues,” he told HuffPost India over the phone. “My mobile phone is my only means of communication with my critically ill cancer patients. Their chemotherapy radiation therapy is getting delayed. Those who are having emergency health issues aren’t even able to reach me.”
On 28 March, Khan, who has been associated with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student organisation affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), published a Facebook post where he said, “Dear Govt of West Bengal, Fighting Coronavirus is not a joke. Sending your doctors to fight COVID-19 in raincoats instead of PPE is akin to sending your soldiers to guard borders with lathis instead of guns.” The Facebook post also had photographs, which Khan says showed doctors in raincoats.
Shortly after he had posted on Facebook, Khan tweeted the same images and wrote, “Welcome to India’s #RainCoatDoctors fighting #Covid19 in West Bengal govt hospitals.” “Asked to wear #raincoats & substandard #masks instead of #PPE, these are frontline medical workers fighting #Coronavirus in WB,” he wrote.
Like many other nations, some far more developed, India is facing an acute shortage of gear and equipment to protect its healthcare workers from contracting the virus. India’s Health Ministry tweeted on Monday that currently, only 3.34 lakh PPE coveralls are available in hospitals across the country, and another three lakh donated coveralls would be received from abroad by 4 April. The Times of India reported the same day that government hospitals that have requested more gear have been asked to wait about a month for delivery.
Reuters reported on 31 March that junior doctors at Kolkata’s Covid-19 treatment facility, Beliaghata Infectious Disease Hospital, had been given plastic raincoats to examine patients.
On 29 March, almost 24 hours after Khan had tweeted, the West Bengal Department of Health and Family Welfare replied with this message: “Dear Doctor Khan, thank you for highlighting this matter. We are taking immediate steps to not only reject any defective or substandard piece (that does not conform to the Health Department’s approved sample), but also supply the PPE of microfiber variety subject to availability.”
Sumit Gupta, Joint Secretary in the Health Department, replied with this message: “The supplier has been asked to replace these pieces forthwith. The set shown in the pic is not as per the sample approved by the Health Department. We have zero tolerance on the aspect of quality/ standards not being met.”
Khan tweeted thanks to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and thought he was done for now. But later that night, he said the police, which answers to Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in West Bengal, took him to the Maheshtala police station, detained him for 16 hours, and confiscated his mobile phone.
A notice under Section 41 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) — arrest without a warrant — was made out by Sub Inspector Rabindra Nath Roy, who invoked three sections of the Indian Penal Code — 505 (making statements to cause public mischief), 506 (criminal intimidation) and 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language).
Khan said he was flabbergasted at the invoking of Sections 506 and 153A. “How is criminal intimidation and communal violence connected to coronavirus?” he asked.
His Facebook post, meanwhile, had garnered hundreds of likes and shares.
While he was detained, Khan said the West Bengal police threatened to arrest him if he did not delete the post, apologise and issue a retraction.
On the morning of 30 March, after several hours at the police station, Khan agreed to delete the Facebook post, but the oncologist says he “vehemently refused” to say the photos and post were fake.
“I was told to say on Twitter and Facebook that it is all fake images and posts and nothing like this has happened,” he said. “I refused. There was nothing untrue about what I posted. I had even cross-checked with the persons who were donning the clothes.
Khan said that it was under duress that he had to post an apology that same morning.
“I said that at most I can apologise but I won’t say that I wrote something wrong. They (police) said in that case, your phone will remain with us.” he said.
On 1 April, in response to a writ petition filed by Khan to get back his mobile phone, Justice I.P. Mukerjee of the Kolkata High Court ordered the West Bengal police to return Khan’s mobile phone and sim card, and ordered that he cannot be interrogated without the leave of a proper court.
Justice Mukerjee noted that the Department of Health and Family Welfare had thanked Khan for highlighting the matter of the “deficient protective gear supplied by the government to its doctors attending COVID-19 affected patients in its hospitals.”
“Freedom of speech and expression which is granted under Article 19 of the Constitution of India has to be scrupulously upheld by the State. If an expression of opinion brings the government into disrepute, it cannot defend this allegation by intimidation of the person expressing the opinion by subjecting him to prolonged interrogation, threatening arrest seizing his mobile phone and SIM card and so on,” Justice Mukerjee wrote in his order.
“The court order is not just in favour of me, but in favour of free speech and expression,” Khan said.
Finally, close to midnight on Wednesday, the West Bengal police returned Khan’s mobile phone to him.