March 12 was another sad day for the medical profession and the patient-doctor relationship in India. Photos and videos of resident doctors being brutally beaten in a government hospital in Maharashtra’s Dhule have been doing the rounds on social media. As happens so often, the voices of agitating doctors will be given temporary sympathetic ears by the public and by authorities, and then, in a few days, things will go ‘back to normal’. Whether it is violence against doctors in hospitals or against students on campus, we are a society that never collectively condemns mob violence – and that has perhaps been the most important reason we see such attacks happening with increasing frequency and legitimacy.
The socially legitimised hooliganism of the Shiv Sena and its so-called sainiks is a relevant example. I grew up in the Konkan, a traditional power base of the Shiv Sena, and their unique chest-thumping and bullying are part of my childhood folklore. Years later, I encountered these yet again, from an aggressive district leader, during my stint as a medical officer in the region. At 23 years, I was no less aggressive and was was able to shut him down (it was, fortunately for me, just a verbal duel). It helped that I was a local and that he knew that. Otherwise, as happens in most instances, medical officers are forced to give in to the orders (sugarcoated as requests) of politicians – admit this friend to the special ward, sign a month-long medical leave for this gentleman, do not discharge this saheb, often a criminal avoiding incarceration.
Dealing with borderline goonda politicians is a routine for doctors all over the country, and many have learnt to interact with them in ways that avoid trouble both to themselves and to their professional integrity. Dealing with out-and-out goondas, however, is a different matter altogether. It is a unique Indian situation, taking birth from a combination of a generally inept police and judicial system, and a culture that considers violence to be a legitimate form of argument and protest. Dozens of assaults on doctors, especially resident doctors in government hospitals, occur every year. For example, early last month, a BJP MP assaulted some doctors in a Karnataka town. Last year, doctors were beaten up in, among other places, Puri, Patiala, Nanded and Mumbai. The list is endless.
Each of us has a set of reasons we consider ‘strong enough’ to warrant violence, a threshold that legitimises violence. My primary appeal here is that it is high time we got rid of such a worldview. There is no reason whatsoever that justifies mob violence or physical assault.
It has been painful over the years seeing my fellow doctors experiencing the humiliation of being beaten up publicly, and enduring physical and mental and physical trauma after. Often when such assaults happen, we hear news of doctors threatening to strike, demanding (in fact, begging for) government and public cooperation to prevent such incidents in future. But the incidents are soon forgotten. No wonder, when most resident doctors in government hospitals live in constant fear of being beaten up.
When film director Sanjay Bhansali went through a similar violent experience last month, one thus expected doctors to spontaneously empathise with him. I was disappointed when that did not happen, but in many ways, it was unsurprising. Like the average Indian citizen, many Indian doctors too – despite their high level of education – harbour parochial views about religion and caste, and have their own threshold of what they would consider ‘legitimate violence’. While they conveniently exclude the violence that patients and their kin wreak on them, they either openly condone or stay mum about other forms of desi violence.
For example, when in February 2016, I, like hundreds of academics around the world, extended support to the journalists and JNU students who were bullied and beaten up by mobs, many of my doctor friends cursed me. Besides, being a Maharashtrian, I also know of many doctors who have no moral qualms about supporting the mob violence that is typical of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, Sambhaji Brigade and the Shiv Sena.
It is this contradiction of feeling entitled to absolute protection from mob attacks but not raising a voice when other citizens suffer similar violence, that India’s medical community urgently needs to discuss and introspect on. While the medical community regularly (and rightfully) demands and expect protection from mob violence, is it morally justified that it looks the other way when others are subjected to similar violence? Have India’s doctors forgotten that as part of the country’s most educated and respected members they have broader political and social responsibilities too?
Mob bullying and violence is among the most deplorable aspects of our society, and the fearless manner in which Indians assault fellow Indians makes one wonder if the constitution has some hidden special provision of a fundamental ‘Right to Beat Up’. Unless we start strongly condemning each and every instance of mob violence, eliminating such behaviour will remain a distant dream. We must condemn them all as citizens of the Indian nation rather than condemn them selectively as either doctors, academics, Bollywood stars, Hindus, Muslims, Marathas or Rajputs. After all, what we are collectively up against is not a few rogue individuals, but an all-pervasive culture of violence.
There is always strength in numbers. Just ask the mobs. What artists and doctors can hardly achieve through siloed struggles, they can very possibly achieve through a united effort. The most peaceful and the most lasting method to get rid of a dangerous cultural tendency is for more and more citizens to begin openly condemning it, until eventually the wave of condemnation forces that tendency out of cultural norm. With academics, artists and doctors arguably bearing the brunt of the mob bullying, they have sufficient reason to join ranks and begin a nationwide disavowal of the culture of mob violence. They need to speak out against such incidents whenever and against whomsoever they happen, for whatever reasons.
Thus, after the March 12 incident at the Dhule hospital, one expects not just the medical community but the broader citizenry too, to condemn the violence and to put pressure on authorities to punish the culprits. Similarly, when other professionals face mob attacks, one expects the medical community to also be at the forefront of the condemnation and of calls for decisive legal action. It is only as a united society, and not isolated professionals, that we can hope to challenge and tame such an all-pervasive culture of mob violence.
Kiran Kumbhar is a physician and health policy graduate engaged in public health awareness through writing.