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Indian Doctors Tell Us About the Times They Were Threatened and Abused

“There were days when the birth of a girl child would lead to verbal abuse because the patients’ family would say that just because a female doctor had conducted the procedure, it was a girl child.”

by Pallavi Pundir
19 June 2019, 8:59am

A medical student participates in a nationwide protest in Kochi, India, on June 17, 2019. Photo via Reuters/Sivaram V

On the night of June 10, a mob of reportedly 200 people gathered outside Nil Ratan Sircar (NRS) Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata, West Bengal. According to Sneha Bhowmick, a 26-year-old first-year post-graduate trainee at NRS’s ophthalmology department, who was working at the hospital just hours before the attack, the mob came in two lorries, armed with laathis (sticks). The reason? A 75-year-old patient had died in the same hospital a few hours before, and his kin alleged medical negligence of the NRS doctors.

“They attacked anyone they could catch hold of; it wasn’t just the doctors, but literally anybody,” she tells VICE. One of the staff attacked that night was a junior doctor called Paribaha Mukherjee, who, among other injuries, suffered a fracture in his skull.

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A scan of the fractured skull of Paribaha Mukherjee, who was attacked by a mob in Kolkata last week. Image via Sneha Bhowmick

The next day, more than 300 staff members of the NRS hospital walked out in protest, shut the gates and stopped all medical services (except OPD). Soon they were joined by other hospitals in the state. On the third day, almost 500 doctors resigned en masse in West Bengal as a sign of protest. On June 17, around 8,00,000 doctors from across the country walked out on an all-India strike, holding placards and wearing mock bandages, to demand the one thing that has been taken for granted: protection.

“The most important part is that, this was the first time all doctors, be it senior or junior, private or government, united on such a large scale even though such incidents have taken place before,” says Bhowmick.

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Protestors outside NRS Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata, West Bengal. Photo: Sneha Bhowmick
indian doctor violence
Photo via Sneha Bhowmick

According to a 2015 study by the Indian Medical Association, 75 percent of Indian doctors have faced verbal abuse, while 12 percent of them have been subjected to physical attacks. The survey also records 50 percent of violent incidents taking place in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), while in 70 percent of the cases, relatives of patients were actively involved.

Over the last one week, as the all-India strikes crippled the country where the stats in government hospitals are depressingly skewed—one government doctor for every 10,189 people—it made us wonder: Is this no country for doctors? While countries such as Australia have strict laws to protect their medical community, Indian lynch mobs have almost always enjoyed impunity. Except this time, the doctors have had enough.

On June 18, the strike was called off and immediate demands met in the state, but the Supreme Court of India, the country’s largest judicial body, said, “We understand it is a serious issue but we can't provide security to doctors at the cost of other citizens. We have to look at the larger picture. We are not against protection to doctors.”

As the community steps into the next phase of this movement, VICE reached out to a few junior doctors in West Bengal, where the first strikes took place, about how real the struggle is, and how the coming days may just change their lives:

Udita Nag, 28

india doctor mob violence

During my internship days back in 2017, something very small but impactful happened. We used to go for rural postings in West Bengal. I, along with a female colleague of mine, were the only doctors present there handling all the patients. One day, after a patient was brought dead, we had to face the wrath of those who were with the patient, some 15-16 of them. Most of them were not even from the family; they were local goons who damaged the hospital property, pulled our clothes and used unparliamentary language with us. Thankfully, we had the nurses and ambulance guys who pacified them. But we were so afraid that we didn’t even lodge a complaint in the police station—who were we going to file it against? There were so many of them, we didn’t even know all of them.

Victor Sinha, 27

I have seen this kind of mob violence first-hand, but I was very fortunate that I was not beaten up. It was my internship and I was in surgery with a 45 or 50-year-old patient with a diabetes background. When we followed up on his treatment, after a blood culture, we found out that the antibiotics were not working and he was in a critical condition. When we shifted him to the ICU, he suddenly expired. We had informed the patient party and counselled them too but, later on, some 50-60 odd people turned up, and started shouting outside the ICU. At that moment, I was prepared to be beaten up. This is very common during rural postings and in community health centres, where the facilities are limited. During the passing away of another patient, some 20-30 drunk men turned up, and, again, I was fortunate that I didn’t get beaten up.

Sameeha Mandal, 26

india doctor mob violence

Our profession is such that we can’t go on strike at the drop of a hat. It’s almost inhuman. But this anger has been building up over several years. This time, it was completely outrageous. Acts of violence against medical community have become a culture, irrespective of social stature. I completely understand when a patient or family is aggrieved but that must never justify violence upon the doctors. No other profession is as easy or soft a target. Personally, I faced it when, during a rural posting, I had to face uncomfortable comments from drunk men in the OPD on an almost daily basis. There were days when the birth of a girl child would lead to verbal abuse because the patients’ family would say that just because a female doctor had conducted the procedure, it was a girl child.

Subhashis Saha, 27

I have two stories. In one, a diabetic woman—about my mother’s age—became critical within 24 hours, and had a sudden multi-organ failure out of septicemia. She immediately passed away. Even though I wasn’t on duty, I went and spoke to her daughters, but one of them just kept staring at me. That still haunts me, also because that was the first death of a patient I had witnessed. The second story is way scarier because in this case, after the passing of a patient in the ICU, I was called to sign some forms. When I was on my way there, more than 50 people were right in front of the ICU. One of them grabbed me and asked me if I was an ICU doctor. I said no, and thankfully, a woman asked them to leave me. When I went inside, I saw more people, who went on to throw around chairs. We had to file a case against them.

Sneha Bhowmick, 26

india doctor violence

In the last one or two years, many cases of violence against doctors have been reported but there are no strict laws against the culprits; even if they are arrested, it’s done so under bailable offence. When you lose a family member, it’s definitely painful but doctors are not gods, and beating up a doctor is not a solution.

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