Every side in the confrontation between doctors and the West Bengal government wants justice; it is a demand that is being kicked around like a football, in the play-off for the clinching goal. Meanwhile the ill, injured and incapacitated proletariat who need the low cost or cashless services of the public health system have been converted into spectators, desperately hoping that a solution will be found.
The doctors, junior and senior, working in public hospitals or in private moth-eaten or plush establishments, in West Bengal and across the country, are like a tribe, bound together by their induction into an elite order of knowledge and practice that bestows on them the power of being almost omniscient. The regularity with which emotionally hyper “patient parties” violently confront staff, nurses and doctors across the country does not make what happened in West Bengal a singular instance of violence. Nor does it make what happened at Nil Ratan Sircar Hospital excusable or defensible, in any way.
What makes the situation singular is, however, the fusing of politically generated violence in general in West Bengal with the violence against a tribal order, namely doctors. What makes it intriguing is that there is at the same time the cross-country, far bigger and better orchestrated, tribal mobilisation against the injustice to their brethren in specifically Kolkata and only by reluctant extension, the rest of West Bengal. What is different is that the protests are not against coercion tactics of the State, armed with absolute authority, against agitating doctors. West Bengal, unlike other state, has not as yet invoked ESMA (Essential Services Maintenance Act), followed by arrests or deregistration or other lawfully permissible measures to break the protest.
The two advisories issued by the Union home ministry on Saturday point to the link between spiralling political violence under Mamata Banerjee's watch and the expansion of this violence into other spaces, namely hospitals and a specific class of persons, that is, doctors. The violence, the degree of injury and the identity of the organised mob that attacked the junior doctors and caused serious injury was already linked in the articulation of political support for the doctors on strike; Dilip Ghosh, state party chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party said, “Providing security to the doctors is the responsibility of the chief minister of any state. Mamata Banerjee is not controlling or arresting the anti-social elements because they are her voters.” Other voices, including a not-so-junior, already-employed, doctor working in a different healthcare facility in Kolkata, spread outrage about the attack, criticising and comparing the chief minister’s actions in other situations, the CBI raid against the Police Commissioner, her largesse to community clubs et al to her reaction to the NRS incident.
Disentangling the jumble of facts, interests and issues is complicated by the new dynamics that the agitation has revealed as the likely trajectory of politics and activism in West Bengal. The war cry of the activists in the state is very similar to the war cry of doctors in Delhi — Save the Saviours. It reeks of exceptionalism, converting the entirely natural demand of the junior doctors at NRS into an elite mobilisation as a backlash against proletarian pampering by the Mamata Banerjee-headed government.
An aggrieved and disillusioned upper crust is hitting back at Ms Banerjee; they are either disappointed or disapprove of the ways in which she has mobilised the masses, empowering and including what was once the fringe and making them pillars of the establishment. Part of the inclusion is what the BJP consistently attacks — Ms Banerjee’s politics of appeasement of the Muslim community at the cost of the majority community. The same intelligentsia had in 2007 lined up for Ms Banerjee when she fought the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front on the Singur-Nandigram land acquisition issue. The faces are the same — Aparna Sen, Kaushik Sen et al. This suggests that the Save the Saviour slogan of the doctors is part of a bigger call — Save the State — because it has been overrun by the Trinamool Congress’ recruitment of overindulged wastrels vividly captured in Ms Banerjee’s invitation to unemployed “bokhate chhele” to join her party.
The welter of voices has not succeeded entirely in drowning out the anguish of patients and their families who need urgent attention in the public hospitals affected by the doctors’ agitation. But these other voices are not part of the line-up that is demanding a honourable solution to the problem, the first of which is that Ms Banerjee should dump her “ego” and visit the site of the violence, NRS. The problem with this demand is that it is the craving of the injured ego as well as injured bodies of the doctors on strike.
Outbreaks of lower levels of violence have happened across West Bengal since the NRS incident. The six-day strike has meant hardship, death and deteriorating services in public hospitals in the state and across the country. A day or two into the strike, the insistence of the doctors and those standing in support with them that the government, meaning Ms Banerjee, should meet them at the specified location was forgivable. Tempers were raised, feelings ran high and the shock of the encounter was recent. Six days on, the insistence on NRS as the only place for the meeting with the government and only with Ms Banerjee is worrying.
Reaction, resistance and retribution are acting against restitution of normalcy. The efforts of senior doctors, all of them eminent professionals, have failed. The agitation has escalated to the level of an all-India movement by doctors and the Union government against Mamata Banerjee.
The mobilisation is, notably, not all doctors against all random episodes of violence by the public in government hospitals and even private establishments. It is not all doctors demanding safety and security at the workplace. If it were, then Ms Banerjee’s announcement that all demands have been met and the State is putting in place measures to make the workplace safer should have been seen as a cave-in by the government and the intermediate steps to get back to work would have been taken. The rejection of her invitation to talks suggests the agitation is about more than doctors concerned about their safety. It is a mobilisation by forces determined to deliver a backlash.