West Bengal doctors' stir brings into focus India's habit of embracing empty gestures rather than substantial solutions

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire


The strike by doctors around the country that started with an assault of doctors by relatives of a patient in Kolkata has ended for now. Leaders of the striking doctors in West Bengal met the state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee aka Didi, who apparently told them “Lakkhi chele, ebar tomra strike tule nao”, which means, “good boys, now lift your strike”. She also promised to increase security at hospitals and suggested that a position of public relations manager to deal with patients should be created so as to relieve young and overworked resident doctors from the difficult job of handling anxious, frightened and often exasperated relatives of patients.

Incidents of assaults on doctors at government hospitals, which are horribly overcrowded and frightening places for patients, have unfortunately been common across the country for many years. There are laws in 19 states including West Bengal against assaults on doctors, but the laws have not stopped the assaults. Now the BJP, which fanned the flames of the doctors’ agitation to discomfit staunch opponent Mamata, is talking about a 20th law, this time at the national level, to further outlaw assaults on doctors. The idea seems to be that the 20th law will achieve what the previous 19 have failed to do.

 West Bengal doctors stir brings into focus Indias habit of embracing empty gestures rather than substantial solutions

Incidents of assaults on doctors at government hospitals have unfortunately been common across the country for many years. Reuters

This is, of course, a questionable proposition, because there must be good systemic and institutional reasons that have prevented the previous 19 laws from working. However, Indian politics thrives on empty gestures and show. We are a country of endless rituals. It is not necessary that anything substantial must actually be done. It is enough if feelings are properly assuaged through the appropriate rituals. Thus, when there was a horrific gang-rape in Delhi in 2012, the ensuing outburst focused on hanging all rapists, etc, and passing the most stringent possible laws against rape, because this would satisfy people’s anger. It was not considered necessary to actually do serious police and judicial reform, or set up forensic facilities in hospitals to deal with medico-legal cases, because that would be too complicated, and hard work.

Similarly when the doctors come in for assault, there is no talk about improving public healthcare facilities so that bright young resident doctors at government hospitals – who are probably there on merit, unlike the ones whose parents pay tens of lakhs or more so that their children who can’t pass entrance tests can eventually become rich doctors through exploiting patients by metaphorically slitting their throats – don’t have to work inhuman shifts that at times stretch to as much as 48 hours straight. There is no talk of ensuring that patients don’t die from entirely preventable diseases and accidents because the people manning the system simply can’t be bothered to save lives. There is no talk about fixing any of the deeper problems – and there are many — because of which the assaults happen. It is enough if one more law is passed, even if 19 similar laws have failed to solve the problem. Then the circus can move on to the next issue, and life and death in callous India can continue as usual.

Life and death here are enmeshed in the idea of hierarchy. The fights in India between groups are never about equality, which means the flattening of hierarchies; they are always about overturning the old hierarchy, so that hierarchy remains, but with themselves in an advantageous position. At the time of Independence, the new ruling elites moved into the slots vacated by the departing British. Now their rule is ending and a fresh set of allegedly rooted elites are scrambling to establish themselves in the very same manner in every institution. They do not want to end any unfair systems; they merely want to be the latest beneficiaries.

Every aggrieved group in India is satisfied when it gets special laws for its own benefit and protection. The castes that were historically considered low and discriminated against in India’s brutally hierarchical society, therefore, enjoy the benefits of reservations and special laws that protect them, in a reversal of the historical oppression which they suffered at the hands of higher castes for centuries when the rules were stacked against them. Women, who faced the oppressions of patriarchy to differing degrees in most religious and ethnic communities of this vast and diverse land for centuries, are similarly happy to receive special legal benefits now, through laws rooted in the outdated notion of “modesty of a woman”, that make them more equal than men before law.

Doctors, as a group, will be happy to receive special status and a special law against assault to protect them. Many journalists, who also face daily and increasing risks in their work – there was a recent attack by Railway Police in Uttar Pradesh, for instance - want similar special status and protection. Although assault of any citizen is already against the law and there are more than enough laws to cover attacks and threats in Indian law, the solution is not sought in making the existing laws work better for all, because that would be an abnegation of status. Status means becoming a VIP. Being a VIP means being protected, being special; the ultimate symbol of having arrived is protection by the Special Protection Group. Being a VIP means special rules because ordinary rules are for ordinary folks. It means having the right to enter a hospital emergency with shoes on, which a BJP MLA was caught doing in Bihar, a state currently in the middle of an ongoing encephalitis outbreak that has led to deaths of more than 100 children. It means being able to enter a temple where the ordinary devotee lines up all day in the sun without standing in queue and heading straight to the sanctum sanctorum for darshan.

The idea of hierarchy pervades all aspects of life in this country. It is a place in which maids must use visibly different utensils though they cook your food and wash your dishes, because you might be a woke feminist but you don’t want, even by mistake, to eat from a plate the maid might have used. It is a worldview in which even our Gods, like the doctors who think of themselves as “Bhagwan ka roop” (avatars of God), give preferential treatment to VIPs.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

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Updated Date: Jul 02, 2019 13:01:10 IST