Kolkata doctors strike has many lessons

By B. Sivaraman. Dated: 6/24/2019 11:35:36 AM

Mamata was able to foil BJP's game plan

The recently concluded strike by West Bengal doctors had many unusual features to it. There is nothing new in irate relatives of patients attacking doctors. Such outbursts keep occurring regularly in different parts of the country. There is nothing new in the affected doctors going on strikes demanding better protection either. What is new this time is the larger political dimension the entire issue assumed in West Bengal. Even as the State was being rocked by post-poll violence with the BJP being on the offensive, the ruling party at the Centre opened a new front. When the junior doctors in the State went on a flash strike to protest against serious attack on two of their colleagues by the unruly relatives of a patient who died at NRS Medical College and Hospital on 10 June 2019, the BJP saw an opportunity to fish in the troubled waters. The ruling powers at the Centre swung into action.
Then something hitherto unheard of happened. On 13 June 2019, the Indian Medical Association (IMA) called for a four-day nationwide protest including a one-day all-India solidarity strike on 17 June. The entire BJP party machinery among doctors was activised. On 14 June morning meetings were arranged between Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan and no less than half a dozen doctors' associations in Delhi, where they complained to him about attacks on two of their colleagues in Kolkata.
In a highly controversial move, on 15 June, while writing a letter to all Chief Ministers about beefing up security to doctors, Harsh Vardhan also circulated an old 2017 Bill titled Draft Protection of Medical Service Persons and Medical Service Institutions (Prevention of Violence and Damage or Loss of Property) Act, 2017 as a model bill of sorts. The Bill however had been drafted by the IMA and not by the Union Health Ministry, and it prescribed ten years rigorous punishment to those who assault doctors, almost considering them at par with murderers, and the Bill had not been vetted by the Union Law Ministry or approved by the Cabinet!
In another unusual gesture, the Union Home Ministry under BJP strongman Amit Shah sought reports from the West Bengal government not only about the general political violence in the State but also specifically on the attack on these two doctors. In an equally unusual gesture, on 15 June, the AIIMS Doctors' Association, known to be loyal to Harsh Vardhan, gave a two-day media "ultimatum" to the West Bengal CM Ms. Mamata Banerjee though they were at a loss to explain what the ultimatum was about.
On 17 June, from Ahmedabad to Hyderabad, and from Lucknow to Patna, and in Pondicherry and Chandigarh, tens of thousands of doctors went on a strike.
In yet another surprise development, the RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat stooped down to the level of a mofussil politician and criticised Mamata personally for the doctors' strike while addressing the concluding session of a training programme for RSS volunteers at Nagpur on 17 June.
Are the assaults on doctors by patients' relatives too widespread and is the entire medical community too incensed to go on a spontaneous strike in solidarity with the striking West Bengal doctors? Is the issue really so serious at all parts of the country that it was snowballing into a major all-India media and political issue? No, not at all! The local IMA chapters and the BJP wings among the doctors took care to explain to the doctors that there would be no action as the strike enjoyed the indirect support of the BJP governments. In this sense, it was an engineered strike.
But the dramatic anti-climax happened in Kolkata that day. Mamata Banerjee, who had earlier made some insensitive remarks about the doctors' strike and issued an ultimatum to them to return to work on 13 June, realised her folly after sensing the BJP's larger plan, and invited doctors for talks on 17 June. Being a consummate political communicator, she even accepted their precondition for live-streaming of the meeting. On 17 June, the day of all-India strike, she met with an unusually large delegation of 2 representatives each from more than 30 hospitals, and in the meeting she assured them of full protection and accepted almost all their demands. Meanwhile, pressure and public criticism was also mounting against the doctors and one patient even died in Malda allegedly in the absence of timely medical attention. The young doctors were not carried away by the unexpected new-found all-India support from the BJP but withdrew their strike. The BJP which had hoped to further rake up the issue against Mamata ended up with egg on its face!
The high-point of Mamata's agreement with the doctors' was the establishment of complaint redressal cell in each hospital, a sensible institutional option which the patients can use to take up their grievances instead of resorting to blind physical violence against the doctors. Mamata also directed the police chief to appoint nodal officers to oversee security arrangements for doctors in each hospital, who would be answerable for that. These were the most practical and sensible solutions to the vexing issue.
Regarding legislative protection to doctors, Tamil Nadu had already passed an act in 2018 called Tamil Nadu Medicare Service Persons and Medicare Service Institutions (Prevention of Violence and Damage or Loss to Property) Act, 2008, that made any act of violence against any medical personnel or institution a cognizable non-bailable offence and prescribed imprisonment for a term not less than three years but which may extend to ten years with fine. This itself was called too stringent by rights groups which feared its misuse against poor people and nobody has been punished under it though and there has been no review of its functioning by the Centre either. Instead of proceeding in that direction and drafting a realistic Bill at the ministerial level after consulting the Law Ministry, Harsh Vardhan thought it fit to circulate an unofficial Bill prepared by the IMA that made a mockery of criminal jurisprudence and the principle of proportionality.
The young doctors of Bengal remained stuck to their professional concerns and failed to walk into the trap of BJP's political manipulation. Mamata Banerjee also outsmarted the BJP in their own political gameplan.
—(IPA Service)



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