On November 16, 2014, a group of junior doctors and MBBS students of Nil Ratan Sarkar (NRS) Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata tied an alleged mobile phone thief to a concrete pillar in their hostel and beat him to death. It is not quite known whether the incident stirred the conscience of Bengal's doctors or of the state's educated intelligentsia or whatever is left of them.
In January this year, two women nursing students of, yet again, the same medical college and hospital were arrested for killing 16 puppies. A video clip that surfaced at that time showed the nursing students bludgeon to death the helpless puppies with iron rods. This singular act of barbarity may have evoked among Kolkatans only a collective chhi.
Today, after a young MBBS intern at NRS, Paribaha Mukhopadhyay, was brutally assaulted by members of a patient party, believed to be Muslims, following accusations of negligence that supposedly caused the death of the 75-year-old patient, Mohammad Shahid (said to be an imam from Tangra), students and doctors of the medical school took to demonstrations. Two ministers, including Health Minister Chandrima Bhattacharya, were mobbed. OPD services were suspended. Practicing physicians across the city expressed outrage in different forms across different platforms, including social media.
Across Bengal, still caught up in the vicious cycle of post-election violence that has caused deaths and grievous injuries, the assault on Mukhopadhyay has taken an ominous, communal turn: the violence resorted to by the relatives and friends of the deceased patient is being labelled as a manifestation and an outcome of minority appeasement by the Mamata Banerjee government.
The incident, which comes at a time when a resurgent BJP is out to go for the Trinamool Congress (TMC) jugular, will further polarise Kolkata and Bengal on communal lines and will likely be exploited by the BJP to further its political agenda by incendiary rhetoric – 'Didn't we tell you all along that the Mamata Banerjee government has pampered the Muslims to the extent that they now have the temerity to attack even doctors?'. Bengal is charged, sitting on a powder keg, and such rhetoric will appeal to the Bhadrolok whose allegiance and preference has begun to shift decisively towards the right.
The chief minister – who is now certainly a beleaguered one – instead of putting her head down and analysing the cause of the BJP's stunning rise and drawing up a blueprint for bringing the TMC back on its feet, has been doing what she does best: appalling off-the-cuff remarks. For instance, "the cow which gives milk can also kick" – has been interpreted by Bengalis at large as her willingness to continue to appease the minorities even as her own political bastion is under threat. Today, people jeer at her. A proposed beef fest in Kolkata was called off because of threats of dire consequences to the organisers. This, by and in itself, is unthinkable in a city that celebrates food and different cuisines.
The BJP's electoral win across 18 Lok Sabha seats, admittedly a stunning achievement in a state that till a few years ago abhorred the idea of a "saffron seepage", has clearly rattled Banerjee. TMC cadres across a number of districts are daily drifting towards the BJP. There is unease even among the ranks of the party's MLAs who the BJP is trying to take a crack at and wean away. Banerjee's house is in disarray. Suddenly, 2021 – when the Assembly elections are due – does not appear to be two years away. Meanwhile, Amit Shah, now the much-feared overlord in North Block, has begun to draw up plans to effect a political coup d'etat.
But it is not Banerjee's crumbling political edifice alone that should be the cause for worry. Bengal itself has progressed from bad to worse; from decay to ruination. And this has occurred across different fields – the economy, social indices, including education, and, not in the least, human refinement and moral consciousness. Over time, Kolkata's so-called conscience keepers, its intellectuals have exposed themselves as mute, if not self-serving. They seem to have gone into hiding. This has much to do with Bengal's present-day politics: intellectuals have become risk averse and do not want to tangle with a political order that is quick to take recourse to violence and/or public shaming. The other reason for this deintellectualisation is the economy, for, education and intellectual and moral refinement can only deepen when the economic health of the state is in good order or, at least, improves incrementally.
The state of education, or for that matter medical education and services, once one of the finest in the country, is today abysmally poor. There was a time when the five top medical colleges in Kolkata – NRS, National Medical College and Hospital, Calcutta Medical College, R G Kar Medical College and Hospital and Seth Sukhlal Karnani Memorial Hospital (or PG Hospital) – produced crack physicians. Barring the last, the rest are in ruinous condition – not so much the buildings as much as the quality of their services, leave alone the graduates they produce. And yet, because they are affordable, the marginalised sections of the society, including the vast majority of Muslims, are prepared to avail of the pathetic facilities which themselves are in dire need of urgent resuscitation.
The TMC's condition is similar to that of Kolkata's medical colleges. It is fast losing political-electoral ground to the BJP which by itself is not the panacea for Bengal; in fact, far from it. Bengalis know this only too well but like moths to a flame, they are willing to embrace the saffron. For now.
The writer is an independent journalist. Views are personal.