On Saturday, in an interview to ANI, Subramanian Swamy spoke as if he wanted to tell us all a secret. “Priyanka Gandhi,” he said, “suffers from an illness that is neither apt nor appropriate for someone in public life. That illness is known as bipolarity.”
Swamy went on to claim that Gandhi’s illness has left her with a “violent character” which becomes manifest when she physically assaults those around her. Gandhi’s SPG team is supposedly Swamy’s source. Her security personnel had come to him, wanting a transfer. For Swamy, ‘outing’ Gandhi was an ostensibly moral decision: “Till she was a private citizen, I chose not to say anything, but now that she is in public life, the public ought to know. You never know when she will lose her mental balance.”
Over the years, Swamy’s malice has often made him easy to dismiss, but the 79-year-old politician does have an uncanny knack of knowing which buttons to push when.
In 2011, bombs went off in Mumbai’s Opera House, Zaveri Bazaar and the city’s Dadar West area. I was an employee of Daily News and Analysis (DNA) at that time. In the aftermath of the bombings, the paper ran a comment piece by Swamy, then president of the Janata Party. In it, he had written his prescription for a better India: “If any Muslim acknowledges his or her Hindu legacy, then we Hindus can accept him or her as a part of the Brihad Hindu Samaj (greater Hindu society) which is Hindustan. India […] is a nation of Hindus.” I knew I mustn’t take Swami too seriously.
Given that it’s now open season for political trash talk, Swamy’s assertions must, of course, be taken with a pinch of salt. But the trouble is that the politician’s vitriol is so dangerous that it can’t be ignored. We don’t, of course, know if a psychiatrist has ever written Gandhi a prescription. It’s unlikely Swamy has access to such records—and criminal if he does—but assuming that a medical file sits somewhere in Gandhi’s drawer, the right to publicly disclose its contents first ought to be hers.
Narratives of mental illness don’t always begin or end well. For those who are able to successfully manage their afflictions and live rich, full lives, few things matter more than narrative. As someone who was diagnosed bipolar 12 years ago, I know how important stories can be. I am functional and productive today because I have been allowed to control the telling of my history. My life has been interrupted by mania, yes, but by being the primary narrator of these debilitating events, I’ve been able to salvage some agency. Besides, my few days of mania have not overshadowed my years of lucidity.
Overused in popular mental health discourse, the word ‘stigma’ had recently lost some of its import. Swamy has given it back some of its sting. Even though his byte lasts only a minute, he builds suspense. He drops the word ‘bipolarity’ as if he were speaking in an exotic tongue. His obvious presumption—not many people know what it means—is perhaps on point, but Swamy exploits the foreignness of the word with a sly cunning. Gandhi, he then suggests, is violent because she is bipolar.
Swamy had once tweeted that homosexuality is a mental disorder. It would thus be prudent to assume that his knowledge of mental health issues is suspect at best. By equating bipolarity and violence, however, Swamy has confirmed the worst suspicions of many Indians. According to a 2018 survey conducted by The Live Love Laugh Foundation, 44% of 3,556 respondents said people suffering from mental illnesses are always violent; 68% believed the mentally ill must not be given any responsibility.
If Swamy’s claims are followed through to their logical end, it’s clear that restraints and segregation are the only solutions that await the mentally ill.
After the University of Oxford cancelled Swamy’s lecture in 2015, he may have boycotted the institution and its research. But if the BJP leader was interested in veracity, he would do well to access the findings of a 2010 study commissioned by the university’s Department of Psychiatry. After examining the lives and behaviour of 3,700 bipolar patients, the study found, “People with a severe mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else—unless they abuse drugs or alcohol.” Chances are the study would only embolden Swamy. In 2014, he alleged Gandhi “drinks too much”.
I have been admitted to two mental health institutions, both have doubled up as rehabs. I have often found it difficult to separate a fellow inmate’s drug use from his or her illness. Like the classic chicken-and-egg formulation, it’s hard to know which comes first. I’ve seen doctors try to identify and manage the risk of violence that does exist in some of these patients, but I have also seen some patients being tied and shackled like cattle. If Swamy’s claims are followed through to their logical end, it’s clear that restraints and segregation are the only solutions that await the mentally ill.
On March 24, 2017, while debating the Mental Health Care Bill in the Lok Sabha, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor had said, “Inmates, particularly women and children, in mental health facilities are treated worse than animals.” Two hours later, in the Rajya Sabha, Subramanian Swamy also had animals on his mind. He introduced The Cow Protection Bill, 2017, which sought the death penalty for those convicted of cow slaughter. Swamy’s politics has always been controversial, but he has led us to a somewhat crucial question in an election year: do the mentally ill have any place in India’s public life?
When Swamy says, “You never know when she will lose her mental balance,” he parrots a view that is common to a majority of people around the world. Mentally ill people cannot be trusted because they have the capacity to act against the force of reason. They can quite suddenly lose sight of social mores.
Swamy might have a point. When tasked with the responsibility of heading teams, I too have temporarily been incapable of judgment and protocol. In each of these two moments, my team of journalists has stepped up and controlled damage. My editors and employers have cared for me and given me the time I need to recover. If Swamy’s accusations are true, the Congress will have to demonstrate a similar empathy. But in the interest of public life, it would bode well if Swamy did too.
Shreevatsa Nevatia is the author of How to Travel Light, a bipolar memoir.