It is hardly surprising that the statement made about cancer and accidents by Himanta Biswa Sarma, Health and Education Minister on Tuesday should have distressed so many people in Assam and elsewhere. This is what he had said on Tuesday: “Many people wonder why some people suffer from cancer and why some young people meet accidents. If one checks the background, one will know that it is divine justice. Nothing else... We have to suffer that divine justice, whether (the sin was) in the previous life, or this life, (or) committed by our fathers or mothers. Maybe the youths did not commit the sin but their fathers had done something wrong. Divine justice will always be there. No one can escape divine justice. When God writes out your faults, then the sin will touch you too. Without doing well in your Class IX and X, you can never do well in your XI and XII.” The next day, Sarma sought to defend himself by saying that his father had also died of cancer because “he might have done some sins in his previous life”!
There is so much of unsupportable and risible ivety in Sarma’s statement that it should leave all his friends and relatives greatly embarrassed. We are being taught for the first time that diseases themselves tend to select the kind of people that they will make their victims. And that the same thing is also true of accidents. According to Sarma’s experience and reasoning, cancer has a way of selecting sinners as its victims. He believes that accidents too have a way of picking sinners and wrongdoers as their victims. Sarma is trying to make us believe that only the saints will be spared by cancer and accidents. This is heartening in a way, because we know that there can be very few saints left in a social system so totally riddled with corruption. Almost everyone must have committed some petty sin or the other just to survive. And so perverse is Sarma’s logic that he concludes that even his father might have committed some sins in his previous life.
It is common experience that a whole lot of good people have died because they had cancer. It is also true that a whole lot of good people have perished in road accidents because the driver was not capable or experienced enough or because he was drunk or fell asleep. How can one jump to the conclusion that everyone who died in highway accidents must have committed some sin or the other? What would Sarma have to say about infants who also die in highway accidents? Obviously, the infants could not have had the opportunities or the know-how to become ‘sinners’.
What is saddening about Sarma’s bizarre notions of “divine justice” is what he has maged to do to the morale of cancer patients. It is no longer ratiol to regard cancer as a termil disease. A whole lot of cancer patients have recovered and are leading normal lives. All that the Health Minister’s comments can do is to demoralize them. Oncologists in Assam are not only shocked over the latest public statement of the Health & Family Welfare Minister that cancer is the outcome of “divine justice” but are worried that such unscientific statements will have a negative impact on the use of creative therapy to help patients fight the battle against cancer. This is what an oncologist had to say about the Health Minister’s statement on Thursday: “Cancer is now largely curable if detected and treated early. But many patients lose the battle halfway as they become frustrated and develop a very negative mindset soon after being afflicted with the disease. To help such patients, oncologists are now using creative therapy beside medicines to help patients develop positive mindsets. Creative therapy is now doing wonders as many critical patients in the recent past have developed tremendous resistance against cancer after undergoing such therapy. Scientists have proved that when patients become positive and hopeful for life, they develop a strong immune system to successfully fight the disease. I fear that the latest statement of the Health Minister will prove to be a dampener for cancer patients,” said an oncologist on Thursday.
What has astonished everyone is that the statement about cancer being the punishment for sins or sinful action should have come from the Health Minister of the State. It is imperative for the Health Minister to exercise the utmost caution in making statements about any disease that could affect the spirit or morale of patients suffering from that disease. The Health Minister’s statements on cancer and highway accidents were unfortute and unbecoming of a responsible minister. It was, therefore, in the fitness of things that Health Minister Sarma should have offered an unconditiol apology for his statement of Thursday, claiming that his speech on divine justice and karmic retribution had been quoted out of context. This is standard phraseology for most ministers and does not cut any ice any more. He would have been better off stating the context in which his unfortute remarks were made. For most observers, no context would have made any difference to the impact of his statement, since his reference was to sins and sinful actions. This is what his apology states: “In their bid to trivialize and sensatiolize, no one is looking at the context of my whole speech and intent. It was said in the context of helping poor students of government schools, and a request to teachers not to neglect them. It was also a message to indicate (to) district education officers not to harass teachers.” It should be obvious to anyone that this could not possibly be the context in which the statement about sins referred to would be appropriate. In fact, the ‘sins’ referred to do not need the context referred to. They stand out on their own.