Calcutta Catatonia

Since the 11th of June, one of Kolkata’s most prominent medical institutes’ gates have been closed for the first time in years, marking the fifth day of a doctors’ strike that has paralyzed medical services in the state of West Bengal.

The agitation comes after junior doctors were assaulted at Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital (NRSMCH) in Kolkata on Monday night by relatives of a patient who had died there. The state has seen nearly 700 resignations by doctors in government hospitals.

Doctors across the country have come out in support of the strikes. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) launched a three-day nationwide protest on Friday in support of doctors and called for a strike on 17 June with the withdrawal of non-essential health services.

The clash erupted after family members of a 75-year-old man, who died of a heart attack while being treated in the hospital, allegedly assaulted junior doctors on duty, accusing them of medical negligence. Doctors say that nearly 200 people came later that day and threw stones and coconuts at them.

Two junior doctors were injured – Paribha Mukhopadhyay received a serious skull fracture after being hit by a brick while Yash Tekwaniand suffered a rib fracture and spinal injury. Both had to be admitted to the ICU at the Institute of Neuroscience. In the end, the police intervened with a lathi charge and doctors shut the gates of the hospital and have been staging a sit-in demonstration since. Their demands include more stringent laws and security services to protect them from further assaults as well as improved healthcare infrastructure.

In response to the situation, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee visited SSKM Hospital on Thursday and gave the doctors a four-hour deadline to stop the strike and resume hospital services, threatening to use the Essential Services Maintenance Act if the strikers miss the deadline. Despite the threats, striking and protests continue with doctors saying they will not let up until the Chief Minister personally apologizes for her remarks and agrees to their demands.

The pressure is mounting on the state government as Calcutta High Court refused to pass any interim order on the strike, and instead, asking the government to negotiate with the protestors. As of the morning of the 15th of June, resident doctors at AIIMS gave a 48 hour ultimatum to the WB Govt. to accept the protestors demand. The government has requested to talk again with the protestors but they seem unlikely as doctors demand that the CM come down to NRSMCH to apologize for her response to the protest and accept demands.

This protest, however, is not merely in response to the incident on the 10th of June. Indian doctors, especially those in West Bengal, have in the past few years faced physical violence from patients on numerous occasions.

In addition to the doctors’ appeal for protection, this protest is also augmented by it’s politicization. The fact that the assailants belonged to a minority community has resulted in the issue being turned into a communal one, with both sides unwilling to budge. The BJP and TMC have been in violent conflict in West Bengal since the national elections, to the extent that workers from both parties have been found murdered. With the Chief Minister of Bengal calling the protests a BJP led conspiracy, violence in the state has intensified, with Medical colleges allegedly being targeted and vandalized.

In fact, the most affected by this entire situation seem to be the young doctors-to-be. We at DoJMA reached out to some of our friends who are students in medical colleges in the region. The replies we got were deeply concerning. Students’ exams have been postponed due to the protests. Many students who were residing in hostels within the college premises did not leave for nearly a day for fear of being attacked. In a few cases, students were asked to leave their hostels for their own safety.

With conflicting stories of what actually went down as a result of the incident and the response of the doctors to it in the aftermath, the media has been able to successfully divide the public into two factions- one supporting the strike and the other being against it, although it is not as black and white as it sounds.

Everyone wants and expects change. However, Mamata Banerjee and followers of her party seem to offer no consolation to the protesters.

Although she claims to want an end to the protest, at the same time she has inflamed the ones she wants to broker peace with by making various claims like that all doctors are “outsiders” or members of the rival parties BJP and CPM. Many believe that her defensive stance is a result of her vote bank polity and the upcoming elections, where the BJP is expected to be a major player.

While most agree that the attack on the doctors was unethical and their safety is certainly in the best interests of everyone, many believe that it is equally unethical on the part of the doctors to go on strike, potentially harming patients who are in need of urgent attention. Most media outlets used this as an opportunity to put the doctors under harsh light and objected to such a protest, in spite of the fact that all the emergency wards around the state are still up and running.

Many claim that the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors restrict them from taking part in a protest. However, it so happens that the Oath only asks of the doctors to uphold ethical standards and respect the knowledge of medicine.

It doesn’t take away the right for a peaceful protest, especially when their demand is simple: their safety in their workplaces, something that should be nothing short of a basic right. If we look at it from a totally utilitarian basis, we find that only when doctors are allowed to work in a stress-free, safe environment, they can deliver the best results, thereby benefiting a larger section of society than naught.

Hopefully, with all the support that this protest currently boasts, Mamata Banerjee will be forced to fold to the protesters’ demands and bring the region back to a state of peace.