[VoxSpace Life] Kolkata Medical College Hunger Strike : Do The Principles Of Our Forefathers Still Work?

Future Doctors Fighting for Better Living Conditions In Kolkata Medical College 

It is almost paradoxical, that just a few weeks ago, the people whose hands we trust our lives into were themselves gambling with their lives for better living conditions. During the last week of June, the Calcutta Medical College and Hospital (MCHC) witnessed an uprising of protests regarding hostel allotment from the doctors in the making. Given that the senior students failed to receive allotment in the new 11 storey hostel building of the college, where only the first year students were allowed residence, protests brewed in the corners of the Kolkata medical college demanding lucidity regarding hostel accommodation. The primary reason for the uprising was that the senior medical students demanded a proper and organized counselling procedure to be arranged for the allotment of hostels. However, for the last two years, the college administrative authority had suspended such a provision of counselling for hostel seats. Hence, the senior students were accommodated in the old hostel facilities, where the living conditions can well be compared to what living in hell would feel like.

The demand for the senior students to be accommodated in the new hostel along with the first years rooted from the fact that although the new building has a capacity to hold 800 students at a given point of time, the college authority decided to accommodate only the first years who are 250 in number. Furthermore, besides having a space crunch, the old hostel is also on its last legs. With ceilings falling down, walls breaking, and poor sanitary and environmental conditions, it had become impossible for the senior students to live and survive within the suffocating space of the old hostel. As a result, most of the senior students have been renting places to live and hence, their demand for the reinstatement of the counselling on hostel seat allotment.

Meanwhile, the college administrative authority maintained that in following with the rules of the Medical Council of India, they were obliged to place the students of the first year in a space separate from the students of the senior years to refrain them from being ragged. Protesting against this, the agitated senior students held the principal of the college, Uchhal Bhadra, demanding answers and remedies for their situation. However, with their demands being unmet, the seniors began a mass hunger strike in protest for an indefinite period. Now, most of us must be thinking, what is so alarming about a few students on a hunger strike trying to make their voices heard, for such student protests are most common, especially in a country like India where most issues are politicized to an extent unimaginable. The reason why this particular hunger strike grabbed the attention of so many is that the student protesters, with their sheer willpower, continued their hunger strike for two weeks without so much as even a drop of water. They refused to bow down to their physical conditions, that was deteriorating every hour of every day and stood their grounds in the midst of every possible hurdle that kept coming their way.

Who Says History Taught Us Nothing?

On May 8, 1933, a newspaper heading read “Gandhi Freed by British as He Starts Fast in Jail.” Bapu had decided to starve himself to death unless the rights of the “Harijans” or the “untouchables” were restored. 3 weeks later, on 29th May, 1933, the newspaper headings said, “Gandhi Ends Fast, Weak But Happy: He Greets Untouchables.” Time and again time, history has delivered to us stories about our forefathers, our heroes who made revolutionary changes following on principles of non-violent acts like non-cooperation and fasting. In keeping with his principles of Satyagraha, the Father of the Nation took on numerous hunger strikes protesting against the British and eventually gaining freedom for us. Besides Bapu, unsung heroes like Jatin Das fasted till death, fighting against the British, and Bhagat Singh along with Batukeshwar Dutt went on a 116 days hunger strike compelling the British to succumb to their demands. That violence is not the answer to everything; that non-violent protests like fasting and non-cooperation can help us raise voice against any injustice –history stands witness to that. Thus, following in the footsteps of our forefathers, the students of the Kolkata medical college rose together against the injustice they were subjected to.

The Will Of The Indomitable

The mass hunger strike created pressure within the college administration, shaking them up. However, initially, the college administration marked the hunger strike of the students as “symbolic”, creating turmoil among the students as well as among the public.

The Secretary of the West Bengal Doctors’ Forum, Dr Koushik Chaki, said, “Students are suffering for their rightful demand for a hostel. Most of the parts of those [old] hostels are not liveable.”

With the blood pressures and the blood glucose level of the students falling down rapidly, the college administration gradually realized that they were under immense pressure. Under such desperate circumstances, the Kolkata Medical College and Hospital saw changes in principals thrice in two weeks. Uchhal Bhadra, the principal who was in charge at the time the protests started to grow, excused himself on grounds of ill-health. Ramanuj Sinha, the second principal-in-charge, filed his resignation within a week of adopting his duties, leaving Ashok Bhadra, the third officiating principal, to take up charges into the second week of the protest. In the midst of all the chaos, what added more to the complication for the college administration was that the condition of three of the protesters deteriorated to such an extent that they had to be hospitalized.

Reflecting on the incident an agitated former student of the college commented, “The condition of the protesting students is deteriorating with each passing day. Already three students have been admitted to the hospital. There should be an amicable solution to this current problem, and brisk action should be taken.”

Image result for Kolkata Medical College protest

Unlike the worsening physical conditions of the student protesters, their doughty spirit did not fail them. They stood their ground unwilling to compromise with their demands. What’s more was that they not only received support from the people within as well as outside the fraternity but their families too never left their side. The brave mothers of the student protesters did not blink an eye seeing their children in such poor conditions and continued to support them throughout the strike.

Proving Bapu’s statement, “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will” true, the students of Kolkata Medical College and Hospital continued their non-violent hunger strike for a stretch of 14 days demanding their humane right to quality living conditions and ultimately, victory became them. In a turn of events, on July 23, the students were provided with an assurance in writing from the administrative authorities that the senior students would be allotted two floors of the 11 stories new hostel building following which the students withdrew their non-violent hunger strike. Once again, like many other modern activists among whom Irom Chanu Sharmila deserves a special mention, the students of the Kolkata Medical College confirmed that the principles on which the pages of our history has been formed are true to their every effect –“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”