Doctor says AIIMS refused him a job because of his activism for doctors’ welfare

Harjit Singh Bhatti protests outside AIIMS against the National Medical Commission Bill in 2019. In 2018, he was part of a group of doctors who opposed the bill and wrote to then health minister JP Nadda, describing it as "anti-people." Sanjeev Verma / Hindustan Times
21 November, 2020

On 25 August 2020, Harjit Singh Bhatti appeared for a walk-in interview for the post of assistant professor of geriatric medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi. He was confident of his chances as he fulfilled all the required criteria of educational qualifications and work experience. Bhatti received a doctor of medicine, or MD, degree in geriatric medicine from AIIMS in 2015. Subsequently, he also worked as a senior resident doctor at the geriatric medicine department in AIIMS for three years from 2016 to 2019. Further, Bhatti is from a Scheduled Caste community and the post was reserved for an SC candidate. According to him, he was also the only candidate who appeared for the interview.

However, on the evening of 25 August, Bhatti learnt that the interview board had not selected him for the post. He believes this is because of his activism for the welfare of doctors and the medical community. “I worked at AIIMS for six years in the same department and the people in the board knew me,” he said. “I did my MD from AIIMS. So, there was no chance of rejection, as I answered four questions right and complete and partially answered the fifth question.” He continued, “The board seemed satisfied and I was very sure because for one post only one candidate appeared and that too who had been with the same department and the same institution. But they rejected me.” Bhatti said that sources within the geriatric medicine department at AIIMS later told him of a possible reason he might have been rejected. “I got to know that the interview board didn’t like my attitude of activism and activities in past at AIIMS, raising voice for the welfare and rights of the medical fraternity.” 

Bhatti described the nature of his activism. “During my period at AIIMS, I was active in raising voice for the welfare of resident doctors. I was an active member of the Resident Doctors Association at AIIMS, holding posts like secretary, treasurer, general secretary and president.” Bhatti was president of the RDA from 2017 to 2018. In December 2017, the central government first introduced the National Medical Commission Bill, which proposed to replace the then medical-education regulator—the Medical Council of India—with a new body called the National Medical Commission. Doctors at AIIMS had opposed this bill on the grounds that it would put “medical education in the hands of the rich and powerful” and give greater control to the corporate sector to “decide fees of 60 percent of the seats.” As president of the RDA at the time, Bhatti wrote a letter to JP Nadda, the then union health minister, and described the bill as “anti-people.” The letter said that there are problems with the bill which are “serious enough to distort the future of medical education in this country.”

“I opposed that bill and raised my voice against it at bigger platforms and at the national level,” Bhatti said. “On my activism, I was invited by the health minister and the parliamentary standing committee to discuss our concerns and give my inputs for the bill. With those inputs the bill was modified and later implemented.”

In addition, Bhatti said he had raised his voice on issues affecting the resident doctors at AIIMS, such as the construction of more hostels. In February 2019, after he left AIIMS, the Youth Congress appointed Bhatti as the national convenor of its All India Medical Cell. During the protests in December 2019 against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, Bhatti said he organised several health camps at the protest sites. He also spoke at the protests and was vocal on Facebook against the CAA and the NRC. “Besides I kept raising the gaps and lack in health care infrastructure in India on Twitter and Facebook,” he said.

In April, during the initial phases of the COVID-19 lockdown, Bhatti was also at the forefront of a Twitter campaign called #DocsNeedGear, highlighting the shortage of and need for personal protective gear for all medical staff. In one tweet, he specifically stated that AIIMS’ doctors had expressed concerns about the lack of PPE.

Since Bhatti left AIIMS in 2019, he said he has been working at a private hospital in Delhi. He told me that he looked forward to joining AIIMS again as an assistant professor. “I was waiting for the opportunity and it came to me but I never ever thought that the voice I raised for the welfare of the doctor’s fraternity would go against me,” Bhatti said.

On 31 August, Bhatti wrote a letter to Harsh Vardhan, the union health minister and also the president of AIIMS. “If the student of AIIMS is not suitable for the post then who will be suitable?” he asked. He added, “When I tried to inquire I have been told that I was not selected because I raised questions on the non-availability of personal protective equipment, I participated in health camps for the needy and neglected individuals, expressed my opinions on current medical issues and raised questions about various government policies concerning medical community and healthcare on social media. It appears that my non-selection is to send a strong message to the medical fraternity and to set an example that either maintain silence or face consequences, as in my case the consequence is the destruction of my career.”

Bhatti said that he has not yet received any response from the health ministry. He further pointed out that in a tweet on 17 April, replying directly to him, Vardhan had infact acknowledged his concern regarding an orthopaedic surgeon under training at the Hindu Rao Hospital. Bhatti had tweeted that the surgeon had been terminated from his post because he coordinated and distributed PPE at the hospital. “I appreciate your concern for the medical community,” Vardhan said to him. “I shall ascertain the facts tomorrow and take adequate steps.”

However, Bhatti emphasised that he was now “being punished” because he echoed “the voice of needy and underprivileged people.” Noting that the position was reserved for a Scheduled Caste candidate, Bhatti continued, “I was the only eligible candidate against that seat, if I was forcefully kept outside then the post will remain vacant for the coming time and might go to an unreserved category. This can also be the reason to keep this seat vacant to make it unreserved for the next selection. Keeping that seat vacant will be unjust to the reserved category.”

In the first week of October, Bhatti also wrote letters to the National Human Rights Commission, the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Welfare cell at AIIMS, and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes regarding his rejection. In his letter to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, Bhatti wrote, “Keeping a reserved seat vacant when a candidate fulfilling all the qualification and criteria smacks of a design against reserved candidates. It becomes all the more glaring in the period of corona pandemic.”

Bhatti further stressed the importance of the vacancy. “There is a lack of doctors in geriatric medicine and that too for a reserved seat,” he told me. “But my rejection has proved that they discriminate the reserved seats and reserved category candidates. If there is a need of people, there is vacancy and for that an eligible candidate appeared, then why there is no selection for that seat? Why the seat left vacant? I will fight for my right and for the rights of the people like me so that in future such things would not happen as discrimination.”

On 9 October, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes wrote to AIIMS and  acknowledged Bhatti’s letter. It asked to AIIMS to “submit the facts and information on the action taken on the allegations,” within 15 days of receiving its notice.

On 8 October, The National Human Rights Commission also sent a notice to AIIMS, based on Bhatti’s complaint, and asked for an “action taken report” within four weeks. “The complainant has alleged that in spite of having the requisite qualification and experience of working in the same reputed organisation i.e. AIIMS, New Delhi, the authorities are not deliberately considering him because he had raised his voice for basic facilities.” It continued,  “The Complainant has requested the Commission to immediately intervene into the matter to protect him from alleged caste base harassment, humiliation and discrimination. The Commission generally, does not entertain the complaints relating to service related grievances but the allegations of caste based discrimination and right to health of the elderly people amid Covid-19 pandemic are a matter of concern for the Commission.”

I reached out to another faculty and doctor at AIIMS who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. “This is surprising that the candidate has been rejected showing that he is incompetent,” the doctor said. “How one could say that as the candidate has studied there and worked there. It shows that AIIMS is proving that its system produces incompetent people or it showed that the decision was predetermined.”

AIIMS did not respond to questions emailed to the media division and to Randeep Guleria, the director. Bhatti said that the decision in his case is a way to create a fear against defying the system and raising one’s voice. “There is nothing written as proof. So it is difficult to prove it, yet from sources I got to know the cause,” he said. “There was nothing against me academically or in service except the activism.”