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Private lives, public secrets

india Updated: Aug 06, 2011 23:42 IST
Zia Haq
Zia Haq
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

It's not pleasant or even polite to ask, but concerns linger. So said a journalist after an announcement that Sonia Gandhi had checked into an undisclosed US hospital for a medical condition not yet revealed.

But to lingering concerns, one might add a nation's curiosity. When public figures are wheeled in secretly, people become nosy parkers because they suffer sudden information haemorrhage. Analysts say the desire for disclosure will be intense.

For the first time in many years, Indians found themselves grappling with a question tormenting much of the tech world since Apple Inc. honcho Steve Jobs said this about his ailment — and nothing more: "It's more complex than I thought."

Privacy is no longer going to be the social norm, according to information guru and New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell. In Twitter times, people love to give out personal information and expect the same from others.

Research has shown that people's anxieties double when confronted with news of well-recognised personalities suddenly taking ill. For some, such information can impact their own lives as much as that of the person in question. So, should the health status of public icons be a matter of secret?

In the US, Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann is having to stave off criticism that her migraine attacks, which "incapacitate" her for days, could interfere with her duties as president during 9/11-like emergencies. Or take the case of North Korea's Kim Jong-il, whose health is a closely guarded secret just so that the US doesn't get wind of it.

"Social psychology would imply that people would always spontaneously attribute causes for such events (health of public figures), which can then lead to vicious rumours. So, it might be helpful to provide information," says Jennifer Lerner, Kennedy School of Government professor and social psychology expert.

However, the real-time health status of people in powerful public positions is often strategic, rather than a matter of routine confidentiality. Therefore, the trade-off between the obligation to put out information and withholding it becomes a high-stakes affair.

When Jobs's pancreatic cancer became known, the shares of the world's most valued company, Apple, took a dip. Likewise, today some Indian conglomerates may earn a chunk of their revenues from ventures abroad and employ more foreign workers. Share-holders of such a company, nationally and elsewhere, "might say they have a right to know how its CEO is keeping," says Sridhar Srinivas of Command Analytics, a credit ratings firm.

In such situations, the corporate world should invoke what is called the "need-to-know principle" to decide how much information to share, says Srinivas. This gives companies a reasonable model to decide what information could be damaging to others if not revealed.

So, one argument is that though health could be personal, health information is not, especially when millions of dollars ride on an individual's ability to deliver.

A case in point is Madhubala (1933-1969), who sauntered through the silver screen as a delectable icon of health and youth, even though she was actually carrying a "fatal hole in her heart" or ventricular septal defect. She collapsed during a shoot in Chennai. India was about to lose a movie icon and the producer a lot of money. Recently, Aishwarya Rai's pregnancy impacted one of her director's projects, a fall-out of non-disclosure.

Contrast this with Hollywood's Patrick Swayze. Swayze was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 and died in September 2009, but by declaring his fatal condition, he saved Hollywood producers from losing millions.

Personal health has come close to profoundly impacting history, as a well-known anecdote about Pakistan's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah goes. Jinnah's days were said to be numbered due to chronic tuberculosis in the days leading up to India's Partition.

Dominique Lapierre's 1975 book, Freedom at Midnight, suggests that when Lord Mountbatten learnt about Jinnah's ailment, he noted that the Congress would have rescinded its Partition roadmap and postponed India's independence. History could have changed.

Unlike France, India does not have well-defined privacy laws. The 1950 Constitution did not expressly recognise the right to privacy.

However, in 1964, the Supreme Court first recognised that the right to privacy is implied in the Constitution under Article 21, which states, "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law," according to Nasir Mistry, the proprietor of Mumbai-based legal firm, Mistry Associates.

Privacy rules in India have come to be applied more to online or software data than to living persons, according to the Data Security Council of India.

Therefore, few Indian politicians have exercised an explicit right to privacy in matters of medical treatment. When PM Manmohan Singh underwent an angioplasty at the state-run AIIMS, bulletins were put out. But few know Singh had had a bypass surgery in London in 1990. Former PM Vajpayee underwent knee surgeries while still in office.

Unlike in the US, Indian politicians running for a public post are not required to fully reveal medical records beforehand. "But there will come a time when electors may not choose to vote somebody if they knew their representative was not physically and mentally sound," says Srinivas.

How then to solve the problem of how much privacy? Computational science could have the answer. Computer scientists at Stanford, led by John Mitchell, have put their heads together to address the issue. Rather than a "black-and-white approach", they are relying on a philosophical approach linked to science. Called contextual integrity, this theory recognises that people cannot claim complete privacy. Information should be readily shared so long as there is a reasonable need for it and as long as some social norms are met. For that we may need better definitions for public interest, privacy and public figures.

"But secrets," says University of Mumbai sociology researcher Rhea Gonsalves, "will always be tempting."

Famous people and their health histories

MA Jinnah
He hid a health secret which could have changed history. As his demand for creation of Pakistan grew stronger, he was diagnosed with TB. Had Congress leaders known his days were numbered, they would have rescinded Partition plans, Mountbatten had noted.

Kim Jong-il
The North Korean ruler has come a long way from the dapper playboy of his youth to be a reclusive world leader. US and South Korean intelligence keep a close watch on his trips abroad and his country’s import of medical equipment as a way of gauging his health.

Madhubala
She epitomised health and beauty on screen, despite hiding a heart defect. She hid her ailment from the movie industry for years, until she threw up blood on a shoot mid-way in Chennai. Producers lost huge amounts riding on her. She died on February 23, 1969.

Steve Jobs
The Apple CEO has been ailing for years, keeping investors of the world's most valuable company edgy. He underwent treatments for cancer and had liver grafts done. Yet, Jobs' has continued to grab headlines as much for his products as his health.

Manmohan Singh
The PM continues to be active despite at least 3 known heart operations, the last one in January 2009. Singh — a diabetic who had a bypass in Britain in 1990 and angioplasty in India in 2003 — ensured his office gave detailed news of his health while in hospital.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Underwent knee-joint surgeries while still in office. Has been a recluse since demitting office in May 2004 and is widely rumoured to be unwell. He was put on ventilator in AIIMS in 2009. Gave up on his habit of meeting people on his birthday three years ago.

Hugo Chávez
When the Venezuelan President said he underwent cancer surgery in Cuba on June 30, the US was all ears. Long an American adversary, his illness prompted US-backed Venezuelan opponents to firm up election strategies to defeat him.

Dhirubhai Ambani
During his last stages, investors of Ambani-led Reliance privately fretted about his health. Shareholders recall a frail Ambani at his last annual general meeting. Shares of Reliance started sliding weeks ahead of his death on July 6, 2002.