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The ongoing war of words over doctors’ strikes in West Bengal

Mamata Banerjee (Bengali: মমতা বন্দ্যোপাধ্যায়; Hindi: ममता बनर्जी, pronounced [mɔːmoːt̪ʰaː bɛːnaːrjiː]; born 5 January 1955) is the 11th and current chief minister of the Indian state of West Bengal. She is the first woman to hold the office. Banerjee founded All India Trinamool Congress in 1997 and became chairperson, after separating from the Indian National Congress. Currently she is also in charge of nine key departments of the government of West Bengal, including Home, Health and Family Welfare, Land and Land Reforms, Information and Cultural Affairs, Minority Affairs and Madrassah Education, Agriculture, Power and Home (Personnel and Administrative Reforms) departments. She is popularly referred to as "Didi" (meaning elder sister) to all her followers. This photograph has been taken during the inauguration of the 'Infocom 2011' exhibition at Milan mela ground, Kolkata.
Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee, whose handling of doctors’ strikes has come under fire from political opponents – including the central government. Image credit: Biswarup Ganguly [CC BY 3.0 (]
What began as an agitation in West Bengal is poised to become a national movement, as the Indian Medical Association (IMA) calls for a doctors’ strike on Monday over safety at work.

A severe attack on an intern at the NRS Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata resulted in the ongoing stir. Exhortations and threats from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to end the strike and return to work fell on deaf ears.

On Friday, doctors from across the country joined the strike in solidarity with their West Bengal counterparts, shutting down outpatient departments although intensive care units and emergency health services remained open. Meanwhile, more than 100 doctors employed at government-run hospitals in West Bengal resigned their posts amidst the stir.

The strike swelled to encompass 30,000 medicos from Delhi, Maharashtra and West Bengal protesting the issue of doctor safety. Unrelated strike action over stipends also occurred in Kerala.

Friday’s strike does not mark the end of the matter, either in West Bengal or at the national level. The Indian Medical Association, having declared a protest day on Friday, is now calling for a national doctors’ strike on Monday.  

The NRS Medical College in Kolkata, where an attack on an intern doctor sparked outrage – and is causing strikes. Image credit: Satybir Sah [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who blamed the strike on “a conspiracy between the BJP and CPM”, has come under fire for her handling of the crisis. Firhad Hakim, a doctor and the state’s Urban Development Minister, lamented Banerjee’s “inaction” and said she was “deeply ashamed at the inaction and the silence of our leader.” She emphasised that emergency health services were not affected by the strikes and said doctors have the right to both “peaceful protest” and “safety at work.”

Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan said that Banerjee “gave the doctors an ultimatum, warned and threatened them because of which doctors of West Bengal and across the country are angry”, as opposed to taking action. “If one chief minister shows sensitivity and changes her behaviour,” he added, “it will end the suffering of patients across the country.” He tweeted that the Chief Minister should not make the strike “a prestige issue.”

In a letter, Dr Vardhan called on Banerjee to “personally intervene in resolving the current impasse and taking steps to provide a secure working environment to doctors in the State of West Bengal.” He stated that “the entire country is being adversely affected due to developments in West Bengal” and expressed consternation that “the agitation…is not heading towards resolution, but seems to be getting aggravated.”

Banerjee should resign from her post as Health and Family Welfare Minister in the state government, her political opponents have argued (Banerjee heads the ministry as well as serving as Chief Minister). Likening Banerjee to “an authoritarian”, state BJP leader Mukul Roy asserted that “she has failed both as the Chief Minister and the Health Minister. She should resign immediately.” Jay Prakash Majumdar, the BJP’s vice president in the state, criticised Banerjee for playing politics with the strike. “She is trying to hide her failures by blaming others,” he said. “If she can’t control the situation, she should resign and let us take over. We would show her how to solve such problems.”

Sujan Chakraborty, a member of the CPI(M) central committee, queried whether Banerjee “is at all concerned about solving the problem, or does she just want to politicise the matter?” Somen Mitra, president of Congress in the state, referenced Banerjee’s duty to maintain “law and order” while appealing to doctors to end the strike for the benefit of patients.

In the Calcutta High Court, a public interest litigation (PIL) was heard concerning the strike. It called on the state government to negotiate with the striking doctors and asked what steps are taken to ensure doctors are secure in their place of work. The High Court gave the state government seven days to respond.

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