Saturday, August 10, 2013

Pledge for no more Erwady!

Happenings, Aug '13 (update 1)
Pawan Dhall reports on a commemoration of the tragedy of Erwady in Tamil Nadu 12 years ago when
inhuman treatment cost the lives of 28 mentally ill people

Kolkata, August 6, 2013: “Nothing about us without us!” is a worldwide acknowledged principle and slogan to assert the idea that no policy should be decided without the full and direct participation of members of the groups affected by that policy. The inmates of Lumbini Park Mental Hospital in Kolkata seemed to assert this much neglected principle in the context of people living with psycho-social disabilities or mental illnesses through an inspiring performance of songs, dance and plays at the '12th Erwady Day' observations outside the Academy of Fine Arts on August 6, 2013.

A poster carried by a participant says it all: "Mental health is central to
success in all endeavours". Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

The event was organized by Anjali Mental Health Rights Organization and Take Back the Night, an initiative that protests gender-based violence. It attracted a sizable crowd of social activists, artists, media persons, families of the mentally ill, and the general public. The evening drizzle did not deter the performers, speakers and presenters, or the audience.

Central to the event, of course, were the people living with mental illnesses, and in the words of Ratnaboli Ray of Anjali “their explorations of possibilities”. Their presentations, as of the speakers from different backgrounds, emphasized a few simple home truths. Sidhu, the lead singer of Bangla rock band Cactus, urged that it was high time we demystified mental illness – it was a problem like any other health problem that can be tackled with care, support and treatment, and with the involvement of the mentally ill.

Advocate Kaushik Gupta stated that chaining the mentally ill was dehumanizing and against their legal rights. He argued that mental illness must not be stigmatized and need not be feared, it cannot be a reason to exclude or demonize people. The mentally ill also have the right to live in their homes.

The speakers from Take Back the Night presented interesting insight into the connection between mental health issues and gender and sexuality. Historically many myths have existed around mental illness. The condition of hysteria was primarily associated with women as they were believed to be emotionally weak and unstable. Similarly, till recently homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender phenomena were also considered mental diseases, and even now popular perception has not changed. The stigma, discrimination and violence experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people and women in general because of their gender or sexuality is compounded by the stigma around mental illness. This clearly calls for people working on these issues to join hands.

The incident of Erwady, Ramanathapuram, Tamil Nadu, 12 years ago on August 6, 2001 should have shaken us up as a society and nation to these crying needs. In a makeshift asylum in a faith healing centre, 28 mentally ill people chained to the ground as per the practices then, were burnt alive when they were unable to escape a fire that broke out early in the morning. This was a long time ago, but Anjali asserts that the insight and attitude towards the mentally ill has not changed. As recently as on the night of May 5, 2013, a woman in a government run mental health hospital in Kolkata gave birth to a baby in a locked ward, was attended to by the staff only in the morning, then questioned about her sexual life, and further traumatized when her baby was taken away from her!

Photo credit: Pawan Dhall
So was no action taken against the Erwady tragedy? Will thousands of people like the woman in the story above continue to be denied their basic rights? In response to the Erwady incident, suo motu action was taken by the Supreme Court of India, and several public interest litigations were filed by social activists across the country. But perhaps the greater tragedy is that a final decision in such a crucial matter is still awaited. A banner made from a website grab shows that the status of the case is still pending. The next hearing is slated for August 27, 2013.

We will soon know if the wait is going to be any longer for people seeking protection of the rights of the mentally ill. But we already know that the enthusiasm and zeal of the people seeking these changes is not going to die down. I did not get an opportunity to talk to any of the inmates performing on the occasion. But for many reasons I could identify with them at a personal level. The crescendo of the tabla accompanying their dance remains in memory, the words of the song Dao Ektu Bhalobashte (Allow Me to Love) still resonate in my mind.

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!


  1. We frequently tend to forget that we are on the same boat with women as well as with mentally challenged people.

  2. Thank you for this report Pawan. You have an easy reader-friendly writing style, making it somewhat simpler to see the connections between complex issues.

    1. Hello Shikha, thank you for your appreciation! Pawan

  3. we have to be more sensitive when working on differently able people. At times when working with these people, we as care givers are not sensitive enough to give them their right and respect that they deserve irrespective of caste creed and gender.

    1. Indeed Sudha, differently abled people also have gender identity and sexual orientation concerns, they too have sexual desires and needs. If we see them only through the lens of charity, we will never see them as complete human beings. Pawan