An octogenarian gentleman was brought into the emergency room of a government-run hospital, the Nilratan Sarkar Medical College and Hospital, colloquially known as NRS, a respected medical teaching institute in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. The gentleman, however, failed to respond to treatment, and unfortunately, expired. The patient’s family was, expectedly, distraught. However, their grief took a vicious expression. Within hours, two truckloads of local goons, armed to the teeth, stormed the ER, rampaging around in blood lust. They assaulted all the available healthcare professionals, though the on-duty interns bore the worst of their wrath. One of the interns, whose plight has become the face of this nation-wide agitation, suffered a dangerous blow to the head, sustaining a depressed fracture of the frontal bone. This required neurosurgical intervention to ensure that the damage was repaired. He has since then been on the road to recovery, thankfully.
As the images of this hapless doctor went around social media and WhatsApp, the embers of dissent started to glow. All non-emergency services were halted for 12 hours in NRS and as more and more doctors got to know, several other government and private institutions in the state of West Bengal joined in. As the day drew on, the 12 hour-long strike, which met with unanimous support from across the board, was met with orchestrated, planned mob-led violence. Motley crews of intimidating crowds thronged the striking hospitals, threatening physical harm, rape and even going to the extent of public exhibitionism of genitalia, particularly targeting women doctors. Miscreants scaled the walls around a hostel which housed medical students, and set fire to the ground floor, using petrol bombs. The Fire Service stepped in and saved the lives of the students, who lost all their possessions.
Medical College and Hospital, Kolkata, my alma mater, the first medical teaching institute in Asia, which opened its gates 184 years ago, on 28 January, 1835, and which kept its gates opened throughout a hundred and twelve years of Indian freedom struggle, two world wars, and numerous upheavals since, was forced to shutter its gates to protect the cowering doctors, medical students, residents, nurses and other healthcare professionals from murderous mobs marauding the streets.
Things got particularly heated after a controversial statement from the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Ms. Mamata Banerjee, where she declared that the agitations were set off by outsiders, that the doctors were partisan in treating patients and then she delivered an ultimatum of 4 hours within which all doctors were to resume their services. No information was given out about the five individuals allegedly apprehended for this heinous attack. No assurances regarding safety measures for on-duty healthcare professionals were made. This further disturbed the agitating doctors, who were just looking for a little support from the de facto leader of the state, and were hoping to resume work with assurance of protection from her.
Once it was clear that no such assurances were forthcoming, the entire medical fraternity decided to stand with the struggling medical students, residents and young doctors. Even as messages of solidarity poured in from across the country, students lined the corridors of medical schools in and around Kolkata, as their mentors, teachers, bosses, walked out of administration buildings after tendering their resignations, their heads held high, their spines straight!
As things continued to devolve, the message went out from the West Bengal colleges, and from across the nation, it met with messages of solidarity. The World Medical Association, from its meeting in Tokyo, decried this violence. The British Medical Association came out with a condemnation. Hon’ble Dr. Harshvardhan, himself an eminent doctor, and the Minister of Health for the federal government of India, condemned violence against doctors, and entreated all sides concerned to be more patient. Messages from across the world poured in, decrying the shameful attack on healthcare professionals.
The national medical fraternity joined hands to protest the atrocities being committed towards doctors. Today, 14th June, 2019, stands as a day of protest, as doctors from across India – from AIIMS Delhi, to JIPMER, Pondicherry, from Medical Colleges of Bengal to the shores of Mumbai – stand with the hurt healers, demanding the very basic right to a safe workplace.
As I was leaving for work today, my mother texted me, entreating me to stay safe, to take things calmly, to keep my wits about me… may no parent ever have to worry about their child’s well-being in this manner.