Where to look for Sanity?

“They called you insane.

And they took you to worship.

And they took your wrists.

And they took their chains.

And then, when the fire came,

they ran in strides as big as their own surprise and terror.

And they called you insane.”

~ Excerpt from a poem by an activist


Revelling in our reassuring sofas or feeling the textures of an ancestral mahogany chair, rocking back and forth, a lot of us sat in our living rooms on the cloudy evening of the 6th of August. Did we remember? Did we know? The invite was sent to a huge network of Kolkatans on social networking sites to participate in a meet remembering Erwadi Day, to fight for mental health rights. The presence confirming messages were kept a count of and the activists gathered outside the Academy of Fine Arts Kolkata, a seat for political activism since long. Although the lightning and rainfall induced scepticism was potential hindrance, some of us trotted our way to the spot to support the cause. In groups of three under one umbrella, struggling to avoid raindrops dripping from the corners of its metal framework, many others reached the place. Surprising was the spirit of the performers, supporters, singers and slogan-shouters who stood their ground firmly, completely drenched in the rain and their cause – rights for mentally ill patients. Some on-lookers stopped by clutching on to their office bags reading up about Erwadi day on the first link thrown up by Google search on their smart(er) phones:

6th August 2001, marks the tragic day on which fire broke out in an asylum in the Erwadi village of Tamil Nadu killing its 28 chained mentally ill inmates who had no aid to escape the fire.  Post this tragedy the Supreme Court of India took suo moto action against the illegal so-called mental healthcare centres in the village which follow faith-based healing practices.

But 12 years on since the mishap, how many of us have given enough thought to the marginalized section of the society with psycho-social disabilities? Gathered that day to seek rights for the mentally ill, as basic as that to be treated right and not caged or chained, we solemnly remembered the people who were left to die in that hospital in Erwadi. Soon after, an amateur group of women broke out into a street play about a family whose daughter was mentally ill to illustrate the plight of that young girl and the appropriate way to deal with her. These women from Bishnupur Panchayat in Bengal were trained to work as barefoot mental health professionals in their community by Anjali Mental Health Rights Organization, the organiser of the 12th Erwadi Day observation. The act was about the social stigma attached to mentally ill patients which moves families to either completely abandon their kin or they’re so afraid to let the fact out that they do not seek any medical help at all. What also emerged from the Erwadi tragedy were myths that run widely pan India, such as mental disorder is contagious, medically incurable and caused by the influence of ghosts. People from various parts of India would visit the ‘dharga‘ in Erwadi, leave the patients at one of the makeshift asylums there and most never looked back, because of these myths.

Only post the Erwadi fire incident, the mental trauma and physical harassment of mental patients at the hands of quacks came to light. The patients used to be frequently caned, whipped and beaten up in the name of ‘driving away the evil’ and would be kept chained to iron beams with iron chains. Although the Mental Health Act enforced some of its clauses ordering healthcare centres to seek legal approval before opening up, such appalling treatment is still prevalent in Erwadi as well as mental hospitals in the country. The piecemeal approach towards handling the mentally ill needs a different direction. Treating them does not stop with medicines; it needs to be a holistic approach including rehabilitation and integration into the family and society. Calcutta-based activist and founder of Anjali, Ratnabali Ray says, “The state is desensitized, almost oblivious of their sense of responsibility towards the neglected mentally ill patients. The Government has always taken a convenient stance where the marginalized has never been looked after. Through our activism today, we want people to wake up to realise the Right to Life and Right to Liberty that mentally ill people rightfully deserve.”

Since the past 5 years, Anjali has been commemorating the unfortunate death of the Erwadi asylum inmates every 6th of August and raising their voice for mentally ill patients in terms of their cure, hospital conditions and above all their Right to Life and Right to Liberty. Its future endeavour is to have this day manifested as the National Mental Health Day in India. This year Take Back The Night, an initiative that protests gender-based violence, SAPPHO which fights against sexuality-based discriminations, inmates of Lumbini Park Mental Hospital and other activists got together to stand by Anjali to remember those who were charred to death. Srija Chakraborty of Anjali, the moderator of the event, spoke of the importance of Erwadi Day along with other guest speakers and performers – Sidhu of Calcutta rock band Cactus, Anu Kapoor from Swayam women’s rights organization and singer Moushumi Bhowmik. Members of the Take Back The Night initiative in Kolkata sang songs about people power and recited poems to show support.

12 years gone by, and the amendments of the Act for mental health are still pending in the judicial system of India. Embedded deep within us are the prejudices against people who come across as “different”. There are laws which allow people to be divorced, excluded from property and declared unfit for employment only on the grounds of psycho-social disabilities. This is a multifarious crisis which can be resolved through a sustained programme of education and awareness generation, improvement of the infrastructure for treatment and refurbishment of our judicial system. Anjali’s associate director, Sudeshna Basu adds, “OCD, stress and schizophrenia are being used very loosely in the popular culture world. People need to be more aware of the classifications of psycho-social disabilities and their respective cures. Admissions in hospitals are better than ignoring the illness completely. But even the hospitals have a huge scope for improvement. We at Anjali have our training programmes for nurses, therapeutic programs for mentally people at a nascent stage and rehabilitation for patients showing signs of improvement.” But many such efforts are stalled due to lack of awareness, funding and state initiation. Are awareness and activism also a capitalist agenda in this self-seeking world where varied causes are sold to a targeted market and one cause is given precedence over another? Mental hospitals, both state-run and private, are in a sorry state, indeed.

In the light of recent incidents at mental hospitals within the span of a year in West Bengal itself, we must draw our attention to the management of these healthcare centres. A 36-year old patient at Lumbini Park Mental Hospital was allegedly raped in 2012 and in May this year a woman in a Bengal Government run mental hospital gave birth to a baby in a locked ward with no assistance. Can we expect people to trust their mentally disabled family members with these hospitals without anyone to oversee the on-goings within? The 2012 case in which the caretaker of a rehabilitation centre in West Bengal allowed in outsiders, who then sexually abused the inmates, was another shocking finding. Another case in point is of the highly decomposed body of a 32-year-old woman which was dug out of the compound of a state-funded rehabilitation centre for the mentally challenged in Hooghly. So here is where we stand in a tight spot. This wavering contradiction where on one hand we are propagating awareness about seeking medical help for mentally ill patients, on another the disappointing state of these medical hospitals is putting the activism itself in a dilemma. Unless the conditions of mental health institutions are improved and supervision enhanced, this activism is a story of one step forward, two steps back.

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