Facing flak over his remarks that life-threatening diseases were a result of past sins, Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on Thursday said he was quoted out of context and apologised to those hurt by the "absolutely mindless controversy triggered by few political desperados".
His remarks that some people suffer from diseases such as cancer because of sins committed in the past and that it is "divine justice" have sparked sharp reactions.
In a press release, Sarma said, "My speech on divine justice and karmic deficiency is being quoted out of context. In their bid to trivialise and sensationalise, no one is looking at the content of my whole speech and intent."
"It was said in the context of helping poor students of government schools and as request to teachers not to neglect them. It was also a message to indicate district education officers not to harass teachers, he said.
"But the way a section of national media, local media and few in Congress party are now playing with the story, I am pained to say will cause agony among cancer patients and their relatives," he said adding he lost his father, friends and relatives to the disease.
Slamming Sarma for his remarks, Congress leader P Chidambaram had tweeted "Cancer is divine justice for sins' says Assam Minister Sharma. That is what switching parties does to a person," referring to his joining BJP from Congress ahead of the assam assembly elections in 2015.
Sarma took to Twitter earlier in the day to get back at Chidambaram by referring to his quitting the Congress in 1996. He also mentioned Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi's pet, saying "After all #Pidi likes privileged people".
"Sir, please do not distort. Simply I said that Hinduism believes in karmic law and human sufferings are linked to karmic deficiency of past life. Don't you believe that too? Of course in your party I do not know whether Hindu philosophy can be discussed at all.
"By the way sir when did you rejoin @INCIndia ? As far as I know you were in Tamil Maanila Congress. Privileged people can indulge in any activity right from Chit Fund to Inxmedia, can switch party. After all #Pidi likes privileged people," the Assam minister had tweeted.
Addressing a function where appointment letters were distributed to teachers in Guwahati on Wednesday, Sarma had said, "God makes us suffer when we sin. Sometimes we come across young men getting inflicted with cancer or young men meeting with accidents. If you observe the background you will come to know that it's divine justice. Nothing else. We have to suffer that divine justice."
Assam Congress leader Debabratta Saikia and AIDUF leader Aminul Islam yesterday criticised Sarma's statement and demanded that he apologise.
Some cancer patients said they were saddened by the health minister's remarks at a time when it is an established medical fact that there are scientific reasons and various other parameters responsible for the disease.
B B Borthakur, the medical superintendent at the state-run Dr B Barooah Cancer Institute, seeking to downplay Sarma's remarks told PTI "I don't think the minister made the remark on scientific basis but in a social context. I don't think it is a matter to be made into a controversy. It is not a matter to be given so much importance."
In his statement, Sarma also said a "philosophical discourse" (by him) purely to help poor students is being misused and which in turn is causing "avoidable anxiety" among surviving cancer patients and their close ones.
"I still believe divine justice will catch up with each and every one of us for trying to cash in on someone else’s pain to gain political mileage and cheap publicity."
"I reiterate at no point my statement was intended to cause any pain to cancer patients. However, if owing to the blatant distortions, it has caused any anxiety and problems to anyone, I hereby offer my unconditional apology for the pain," he said.
"Detachment from life, karmic action and rebirth are some of the core principles of Hindu philosophy developed over last 5000 years. Western thought process can never dominate or dilute the spirit and eternal meaning of our philosophy," he reasoned.
Continuing with his defence, Sarma said, "Science has not been able to give answer to many of our perennial queries and therefore at our last moment, we are asked to pray GOD."
"While I am not against science, I strongly believe there is strong merit in spirituality and teachings contained in Bhagvad Gita as well as those of our ancestors. The purity of the philosophy and its essence help us in bringing sanity and balance in life," he said.
Sarma claimed his passion for work in containing cancer is well known in Assam. He said cancer treatment facilities including free chemotherapy and Rs 2 lakh financial help for each of the affected, the state-of-the-art hospital with PET CT, banning of chewable tobacco and starting of a grid hospital in the state were his "humble contribution" as the health minister.
The Assam minister on Thursday posted another tweet on the issue. "You have to realise difference between sin and karma. Politics can come and go. But what is written in Bhagavad Gita is for me the final truth.
"Not arguing with anyone. Only availing a huge opportunity to speak little bit about Hindu philosophy. We accept that even Lord Krishna died because of karmic deficiency. That is our philosophy," he said.
Responding to a journalist's tweet that laws of karma should not be used to explain cancer in today's day and age, he tweeted, "Was my speech on cancer? Who told you? I simply asked a new batch of teachers to work sincerely & work for the poor.
"In that context I argue that if we do not work sincerely in next life we might face karmic deficiency & that may lead to sufferings. What is insensitive about this?"
He went on to add, "Go through my speech. I never said that sin causes cancer. It was a speech to motivate teachers to serve the poor or otherwise you may face karmic deficiency and suffer in next life. Science cannot promote human value. Religion might."