LAHORE: The Young Doctors Association (YDA) Punjab blocked off one side of Jail Road on Sunday after riot police prevented them from marching towards the inauguration ceremony for the Metro Bus Service.
Doctors lay bedding on the road on Sunday evening, setting up a hunger strike camp that had earlier been uprooted from the service lane in front of Services Hospital. Many boycotted their jobs at public hospitals, though the YDA said it had not officially called a strike in protest at what it perceived to be a heavy-handed police response to their march.
DIG Rai Tahir visited the doctors’ hunger strike camp at Services Hospital early on Sunday morning to try and persuade them not to gate-crash the launch of the new bus service, which was heavily advertised over the course of several weeks by the Punjab government. The YDA refused and a heavy police contingent, including women officers, cordoned off Jail Road at 8.30am.
At around noon, the doctors came out of the camp and began marching towards the Canal. As they approached the security cordon, YDA Patron-in-chief Dr Hamid Butt asked the doctors to remain peaceful, and told the police officials to move aside.
Superintendent of Police Malik Awais informed him that they had been ordered not to let the doctors past. Dr Butt responded that they had five minutes to move away, after which the doctors resumed their march forward.
Scuffles ensued and the police launched a baton-charge. Dozens of doctors were arrested. The police also uprooted the doctors’ hunger strike camp at Services Hospital.
PPP Deputy Parliamentary Leader in the Punjab Assembly Shaukat Basra appeared at the scene and got into an argument with police officials. The police briefly beat him with sticks when he was seen lunging at a senior official.
Basra later told reporters that he was visiting his sick father-in-law at a nearby hospital when police officials streamed into the emergency ward to arrest doctors, leaving many patients without care. “The Punjab government’s actions reminded us of past dictatorships. To protest is the right of the people,” he said.
Young doctors withdrew their services from the emergency and indoor departments after their hunger strike camp was uprooted. The doctors arrested earlier in the day were released in the evening. They promptly joined the YDA hunger strike camp on Jail Road.
“The doctors were freed as a goodwill gesture. There were many dignitaries at the inaugural session … we were ready to negotiate with the YDA, but they wanted to create a law and order situation,” said Khawaja Salman Rafique, the chief minister’s special assistant on healthcare, at a press conference in the evening.
YDA Media Secretary Dr Khurrum Shehzad said some doctors who had been beaten up by the police were in critical condition in hospital. He said doctors had withdrawn their services from public hospitals of their own accord in protest at the “brutal torture” by the police. He said the YDA would plan its response to the day’s events once the health of its members improved.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf leaders Umar Cheema and Abdul Aleem Khan joined the protesting doctors at their hunger strike camp on Jail Road. They criticised the Punjab government for its handling of the doctors’ protest and demanded that their concerns be addressed.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 11th, 2013.