West Bengal’s political turmoil is beginning to complicate other serious problems in the state. On Monday, angry relatives of a patient, who died in Kolkata’s Nilratan Sircar (NRS) Medical College, clashed with the institute’s junior doctors. The incident precipitated a doctors’ strike at NRS, which has now spilled over to all state-run medical college hospitals and at least six district hospitals in West Bengal and is spreading. On Wednesday, some of them pulled down the shutters on their emergency services. The matter pertains to the rights of patients and doctors, which are usually seen, in over-crowded under-equipped government hospitals, as antagonistic parties.
But the aftermath of the NRS incident points to a more problematic discourse. The doctor-patient clash has became a rallying point for West Bengal’s political opposition led by the BJP. There is, of course, nothing wrong in a political party taking up cudgels on behalf of aggrieved doctors; in fact, they should. Politics can lend its powerful weight to social sector issues like health or education and maybe an ascendant BJP can prod the state government into cleaning up the mess in hospitals. But what is worrying — and reprehensible — is that the BJP is using this to play the Hindu-Muslim card.
The party’s West Bengal chief, Dilip Ghosh, has alleged that “anti-social people of one community” (read Muslim) were behind the attacks on the doctors. The patient was 74-year-old Md Sayeed and his relatives and their neighbours were part of the crowd that had barged in. The full force of the law should apply to all who have broken it — in fact, five of the patient’s relatives have been arrested.
Using the religion of the protesters to score political points against the TMC may be a time-tested BJP strategy — yes, it worked during the elections — but it will deepen faultlines and make any solution harder to find.
As for the TMC government and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who is also health minister, their handling of the crisis hardly evokes confidence. She asked her deputy to visit the hospital but instead of reaching out to the doctors and listening to them, she has taken an adversarial position threatening them with consequences.
After its electoral debacle, if the TMC government needs to signal that it can govern the state, it should get back to governance and not let the BJP hijack the debate. As for the BJP, its electoral success has clearly affirmed its position as an alternative to the TMC — how it behaves in Opposition matters to voters more than ever. As for the doctors, they need to get back to work, too. Medical care is an emergency service, holding it to ransom isn’t the way to strengthen your negotiating position.