Mumbai’s famous drug rehabilitation specialist and ‘psychiatrist’ Dr Yusuf Merchant accused of sexual abuse, including minor’s rape
By Sunil Baghel, Alka Dhupkar
September 18, 2020
Yusuf Merchant – Psychiatrist
Disturbing testimonies of seven of Dr Yusuf Merchant’s patients given to Maharashtra Medical Council
Collective called People Against Rehab Abuse (PARA) brings multiple charges of abuse against celeb doctor
The Maharashtra Medical Council (MMC) has received a complaint levelling serious charges of sexual abuse, including the rape of a minor, against internationally renowned Mumbai-based drug rehabilitation specialist and “psychiatrist” Dr Yusuf Merchant.
The complaint filed by People Against Rehab Abuse (PARA) — a collective of doctors, lawyers, journalists and writers – also calls into question Dr Merchant’s qualifications as a psychiatrist and his financial dealings, alleging that he holds only an MBBS degree and has merely served an internship in psychiatry.
The complaint, which has seven testimonies attached – five of sexual assaults, ranging from inappropriate touch to rape, and two of physical violence – seeks a probe into the financial dealings of Dr Merchant and his Kushivali, the Thane-based Drug Abuse Information Rehabilitation And Research Centre (DAIRRC), popularly known as Land Rehab Centre or just ‘Land’.
Dr Merchant, a prominent name in Mumbai and across the country on drug addiction and mental health, on Thursday, rejected all charges against him, including the victims’ testimonies, as a conspiracy to malign his image.
When Mirror contacted Dr Merchant, he told us: “These are all baseless allegations. I will respond in a court of law and I would be happy to throw open my records for anybody to inspect.” When we referred to the testimony that accuses him of raping a 16-year-old in his care, he said: “Anybody can say anything. I hope the government has a thorough inquiry into this and I want to see who is trying to defame me.”
Among the testimonies is the experience a 22-year-old whose family knew Dr Merchant, who joined Land in August 2016. She had known Dr Merchant from the time she was 11 or 12. “I had an early history of anxiety and I had coped with self-help strategies. Sometimes it was tense at home. I felt my anxiety made me unbearable to those around me. Yusuf uncle seemed to understand what I was feeling,” she writes in her testimony.
The victim who joined Land said he would enter her room at night and kiss her. “I was on anti-anxiety medications before and the Doc put me on stronger medications. It made me groggy and sleepy all the time. The first time he kissed me, it was dark in the room. I thought maybe Yusuf uncle didn’t know what he was doing. Maybe he thought it was my forehead. But he did this a number of times. I remember this because he smelt of cigarettes,” she says, adding that he later raped her at his residence and in hotel rooms on multiple occasions.
“I don’t remember how many times and with whom and when but going to his place became a frequent occurrence. He would also keep me in hotel rooms. He would tell people at Land that I am going to visit my parents, but then I’d just be in a hotel room. I wasn’t allowed to keep a mobile phone,” she writes.
The other victim, a minor, who was allegedly raped by Dr Merchant multiple times over a period of ten years, is now 27 and married. She alleges in her testimony that the first time Dr Merchant raped her, his daughter was asleep in the same room. The victim, a Bangladeshi citizen, says her trauma was exacerbated by Dr Merchant referring to her in public as his daughter. “I will not allow anyone to hurt me and my family anymore. I have stayed quiet hoping he would apologise to me, but instead he has taken advantage of my silence and thinks I’m still weak and scared of him,” she says.
Another victim refers to a prayer therapy session in October 2017 at DAIRRC. “The therapy ended. It was great. Dr Merchant was hugging everyone. I was almost the last person in the room. He hugged me and then his hand went down and he did a weird squeeze-tap thing with both his hands. I was in shock,” says the victim, adding she was barely 20 then.
The PARA complaint, a copy of which has been marked to the state government’s health department, says it has verified the testimonies to the extent possible. “We do not make these claims lightly. As a group of highly educated lawyers, writers, doctors and journalists, we are aware of the damage to the reputation of a respected professional it may cause. However, our concern for the well-being of future patients, as well as a need for redressal of past wrongs done to victims, outweighs this risk.”
PARA complaint says the testimonies reveal that Dr Merchant did not respect physical boundaries of women patients and that he frequently touched, hugged, held hands, groped and kissed under the guise of showing love and affection. “On therapeutic vacations abroad, Dr Merchant routinely sleeps in the same hotel room (and, in some cases, in the same bed) with his female patients. If anyone objects, they face complete ostracism within their support group, and in some cases, withdrawal of treatment by Dr Merchant,” the complaint says, adding that “male and female patients, even minors are regularly brought to Dr Merchant’s residence in south Mumbai for overnight stays. These overnight visits are unsupervised and take place exclusively when Dr Merchant’s wife and daughter are travelling or are otherwise not present.”
A patient, who was at DAIRRC between December 2015 and February 2017, and often questioned Dr Merchant’s methods, says that he initially tried to bully her by berating her for every small thing. “He soon realised I couldn’t be controlled as well as he would have liked to and slowly started using the silent treatment to show me who was the boss,” she says.
This patient later accompanied another patient a few times to Dr Merchant’s house, where she alleges that the doctor would sit with that patient till well past midnight in a dimly lit room and “would invariably get her into his bedroom with him. On one occasion, I saw that patient leaving his bedroom in the morning as though she had spent the night there,” she says.
PARA has demanded that while the inquiry/investigation is being conducted, Dr Merchant’s license to practice should remain suspended and he should not be allowed to admit any patients at DAIRRC. “We seek a thorough investigation of all the allegations as well as an audit of Dr Merchant’s medical licenses, corporate structure, patient records, and financial accounts,” the complaint says.
Dr Shivkumar Utture, president, MMC, said a copy of the complaint will be shared with Dr Merchant. “We give around 15 days to respond. Once we get a response, we go through both the complaint and the reply and decide whether it needs to be referred to the ethical committee for hearing,” he said.
Who is Dr Yusuf Merchant?
Dr Yusuf Merchant, 64, who has been given the monikers of human dynamo, Doc, Bhai and even messiah by some of his patients, established the Drug Abuse Information Rehabilitation & Research Centre in Kushivali, Ambernath, in the late 1990s. The rehab centre’s administrative office is in Fort, and it deals with 30 people at most at a time.
Merchant has built quite a following: he is a social media darling, has been endorsed by many Bollywood celebrities, and foreign nationals seek treatment with him. He runs a popular helpline and claims an 85 per cent success rate. He has also authored a book called Happyness: Life Lessons from a Creative Addict.
But the patients who levelled the allegation of abuse say Merchant isn’t a qualified psychiatrist. His two websites make contradictory claims. One calls him “an ex-resident psychiatrist of the Department of Psychiatry, JJ Group of Hospitals—a misnomer since it implies that he worked as a resident doctor; he didn’t—and the other appears to corroborate the complainants’ allegation. It says he completed his medical degree and began an internship at JJ Group of Hospitals’ department of psychiatry, but doesn’t confirm if he went on to do a residency and clear an examination—both of which are mandatory for a postgraduate degree in medical education. “During this [hospital] stint, he was drawn to the treatment of drug addicts, who were at that time treated as criminals… He quit his job at the hospital and began treating a small group of drug addicts at his own home,” says the website. It also has no mention of his medical degrees, but says “he used his knowledge of medicine to come up with the best combination of drugs to alleviate even the most terrible mainlining heroin withdrawal”.
When Mirror called Dr Merchant
DR MERCHANT was explained the gist of the complaint – that it involved allegations of rape, including that of a minor and that there were testimonies of victims attached. He, however, refused to respond to the specific charges, only calling them a conspiracy to malign his image. He said he would provide answers in a court of law and would be willing to open all his records for scrutiny. Asked again if that is all he wanted to say because the allegations against him are of rape, he said: “Anybody can say anything.” The correspondent explained that the news article would feature all the allegations and testimonies with just his cryptic response, he said he was fine with that.