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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Doctor in trouble


Sunanda K Datta-Ray  |  New Delhi 

Britian's NHS, with its large proportion of Indian doctors, could be another victim.
Britain is experiencing something of the bitter relief I recall as a child when Mahatma Gandhi's killer's name was announced. The response to the news that the assassin was a Hindu was reflected in a Scottish policeman's announcement this week to Muslims at Glasgow's Central Mosque, "The people we have in custody came to Scotland a short while ago to seek work ... These are not your young people."
One man's meat is another man's poison. British Muslims (mainly Pakistanis) are glad their cricket-playing youths who speak with local accents are not again involved. But the news might mean a sad blow for the pride with which India boasts that the world's third largest Muslim community has not produced a single terrorist. I say "might" because innocence must be assumed until proved otherwise.
The mere fact that British and Australian police have arrested two Indian doctors does not make them guilty though Pakistanis "" who have provided the suspects so far "" might be cockahoop. But it does mean that things can become difficult now for all Asian doctors and, indeed, for all Asian visitors to Britain.
It's unfortunate for Gordon Brown that this should happen in the first week of what many consider his long delayed prime ministership. By and large, Seven-Seven notwithstanding, immigrants did well under Tony Blair. With their keen nose for the rewards of patronage, the Blairs befriended a number of rich subcontinental settlers. Since immigrant politics usually fly the flag of convenience, these people would gladly have transferred their loyalty to Brown. But harsh security measures, searches and other checks might make a difference.
Other groups might also cause trouble for Brown. Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, is reportedly unhappy at not having control of security. Sir Andrew Collins, a senior high court judge, warns of a "disastrous" rift with the government over expected tough anti-terrorism legislation. Some Labour MPs and human rights groups might side with liberal judges. Meanwhile, the attack on an Asian shop in Glasgow warns of a possible white backlash against Muslims or "" remembering the Sikh whom Americans lynched because they mistook his turban for the al-Qaeda headgear "" those who are perceived as such. "Paki bashing" can target Indian Hindus.
Brown will also have to think of the National Health Service which, with 1.3 million employees, is said to be Europe's biggest single employer. It has no security screening and more that 40 per cent of its doctors are from abroad. The NHS attracted around 22,500 foreign doctors in the past three years, 900 of them from Iraq. Apparently, nearly 128,000 of the 277,000 doctors registered with Britain's General Medical Council are from other countries. Though 1,985 are from Iraq, I am sure that Indians comprise by far the largest single group.
It used to be said in the fifties when many trained Britons were flocking across the Atlantic, that the NHS would have collapsed but for the influx from India. It was similarly argued that only West Indian immigrants kept state transport services going. I am not sure if the argument was invented by liberal whites to blunt the edge of then rampant colour prejudice. But even if true "" which it probably was "" it invited the reply that Indian doctors and Caribbean drivers did not go to Britain for philanthropic reasons. They went to escape unemployment or under-employment at home. Both sides benefited from the compact.
Having said that, I must add that I am often surprised by our doctors in British hospitals. Some who have lived in small English towns for twenty years can still barely speak English. When I mentioned this to a native English friend, she replied, "Now you know what we have to put up with!" I wasn't at all surprised when Britain introduced a language test for subcontinental doctors though it didn't seem to make much difference.
The Manchester schoolmaster with whom I shared a flat "" he wouldn't touch curry saying, "If the meat isn't off, why would you want to smother it with spices?" "" had a theory about subcontinental doctors. Many were highly successful, one who lived nearby driving a Daimler. Englishwomen regarded them as savages, my friend maintained. "A woman can tell a savage intimate problems that she can't discuss with a man!"
Linguistic inability was not the only drawback. I must also say, though well aware of the danger of generalisation, that I sometimes sensed a certain callousness towards patients. It was clear to me from the few Indian doctors I came across that they were there only for the money. Not any love of profession or patients.
Of course, they were not terrorists. That's an altogether different matter. But it is surprising that a medical link with crime should surprise anyone. There are great and good doctors in this world, even among Britain's immigrants. To some of them I am deeply beholden. But Dr Crippen was hanged for his wife's murder. Dr Radovan Karadzic was convicted of genocide. And Dr Josef Mengle, Auschwitz's "Angel of Death", was one of many doctors who comprised the largest single group in the Nazi Party.
Quoting Luke 4:23, Physician, heal thyself.

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First Published: Sat, July 07 2007. 00:00 IST