Please restore normalcy, a mellow Mamata requests doctors on strike
Kolkata: A mellowed Mamata Banerjee put the ball on the agitating junior doctors' court after they refused her offer of a meeting on Saturday, holding out three key assurances and requesting them to rejoin work.
She said all their security demands would be met, no action would be taken against them for the now five-day-old strike, and they would be free to contact her, the governor, chief secretary or the police commissioner for a resolution through talks.
Immediately after Mamata's news conference at Nabanna, the state secretariat, the junior doctors said the strike would continue as the chief minister had not agreed to their demand to meet them at NRS Medical College and Hospital.
Late on Saturday night, the junior doctors rebutted several assertions made by Mamata at the media conference but said a general body meeting would decide if talks can be held at any other venue.
At the media conference, Mamata adopted a tone that was in sharp contrast to the belligerence she had displayed at SSKM Hospital on Thursday, which had escalated the confrontation.
On Saturday, Mamata concluded her opening remarks at Nabanna with an impassioned plea: "Please restore normalcy. Start the service for the people: my humble submission to them. I'm not going to take any stringent action (against the agitators), though we have everything with us. Let good sense prevail."
Redeploying the people skills that had once stood her in good stead, Mamata said: "They are young, they made a mistake, let them be, I forgive them."
After issuing the invitation on Friday evening, Mamata had waited for the junior doctors to turn up, but as they couldn't decide immediately whether to accept the invite, another meeting had been set for Saturday at 5pm. On Saturday afternoon, the junior doctors issued a statement
Mamata addressed the news conference amid a sense of dejection in the administration following the junior doctors' refusal to turn up for the meeting, and amid a perception that her stridency was preventing a resolution.
By then, the Union home ministry had sent an advisory to the Bengal government "urgently" seeking a report on the cease-work by doctors — a move described as unusual by officials in Delhi.
At the outset, Mamata sought to address the perception that the government had done nothing to resolve the crisis. She pressed chief secretary Malay De to describe the steps the administration had taken since Monday night's mob attack on junior doctors at NRS following a patient's death.
Mamata then took the microphone.
"We have taken all possible action. I sent a minister, officers and the police commissioner to talk to them (the agitators)," she said. "The police arrested five of the accused immediately, and stringent charges have been brought against them. The police commissioner has enhanced security at all the medical colleges and hospitals."
She added: "I waited five hours yesterday and three hours today to talk to the junior doctors."
Over the next half-hour, Mamata tried to give her side of the story and hammer home the fact that poor patients across the state continued to suffer -– a factor that can turn public opinion against attempts to prolong the strike. Rarely before have emergency services been affected in state-run medical colleges and hospitals for five days on the trot, with no certain end in sight.
Several senior doctors who had provided moral support to the agitation when it started told this newspaper on Saturday that some of the junior doctors had begun making "illogical and unreasonable demands".
A government source said: "Had Mamata tried sending this message two days ago, there would not have been many takers. But today, people know how the patients are suffering because of the strike."
Some junior doctors have accused Mamata of arrogance for her failure to visit them or Paribaha Mukherjee, an intern severely injured in Monday's attack, and cited her belligerence during the visit to SSKM Hospital on Thursday. Mamata tried to rebut the charges at the news conference.
"When I entered (SSKM), the agitating doctors sitting there created an obstruction…. While I was walking, I was pushed. They were shouting and filthy comments were passed," she said.
"Despite that, I told the police not to arrest anybody. They are young, they had made a mistake, let them be, I forgive them. Had this taken place elsewhere, a lot of action would have been initiated."
Never losing her composure, unlike at SSKM, Mamata was at pains to underscore that she was pursuing a reasonable approach devoid of vindictiveness or rancour.
Mamata repeatedly — and in detail — contrasted her government's approach with that of others elsewhere in the country to doctors' strikes.
She said her government could have taken stringent action, such as enforcing the Essential Services Maintenance Act (Esma), blocking the registration of the agitating doctors, extending their period of internship or filing FIRs against them.
"Such stern steps have been taken by 9 to 10 states in the past few years. But we did not do it," she said.
Sources said that although Bengal had desisted from adopting Esma owing to the erstwhile Left Front government's opposition to the act, the state government could have implemented its provisions through an ordinance.
By explaining what she could have done, sources said, the chief minister had attempted to underline her government's apparent lenience and put pressure on the agitators to call off their strike. She tried to highlight her eagerness for a solution by suggesting the junior doctors could meet other authorities if they were averse to talk to her.
"They had two main demands. First, a heightening of their security; second, action against the accused. Both have been done. Still, if they think I'm not capable enough, they can hold meetings with the governor, chief secretary or the police commissioner. If they have additional demands, those will also be taken care of," she said.
The option of talks with the governor, sources said, was a significant conciliatory gesture on Mamata's part since she has had testy ties with Keshari Nath Tripathi and had as recently as Thursday accused him of exceeding his brief at the behest of BJP leaders in Delhi and Calcutta.
Sources close to Mamata hoped that her news conference would help undo the damage her belligerence had caused on Thursday when she gave the agitators four hours to join duty or face action, and called some of them "outsiders".
Neither the heath department nor the police have initiated any action, though, a point Mamata took care to highlight.
"She had looked overly belligerent till yesterday. But she has deployed her tried-and-tested outreach skills, and this has helped her turn the tables on the agitating doctors," a Nabanna official said.
(With inputs from Telegraph India)