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The good doctor: Binayak Sen and the cost of dissent

Richa Bansal
23 March 2009

When India wraps up its fifteenth general elections in mid May, Dr. Binayak Sen will be completing two years in jail in a cruel inversion of democracy. Held on charges of suspected involvement with Maoist insurgents under the heavy-handed Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA), his guilt has not yet been proven.

Why is this award-winning doctor - who for thirty years worked tirelessly for the tribal poor of Chhattisgarh - still imprisoned?

Sen dared to speak out against the atrocities of Salwa Judum, a controversial state-backed militia group, which armed local tribal people and pitted them against the Maoist insurgents in Chhattisgarh, an impoverished state in central India. He led a fifteen-member fact-finding team in December 2005, which published the first in a series of damning reports about the excesses of the Salwa Judum.

The evidence he produced of police involvement in the killing of innocent tribal people in Santoshpur cost him his freedom in late March 2007. The state moved deliberately to silence him. He was detained under the CSPSA and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) on charges of sedition, criminal conspiracy, making war against the nation, and knowingly using the proceeds of terrorism. Both these laws allow for arbitrary detention without any right to appeal. Also in openDemocracy on the Maoist insurgency in India:

Suhas Chakma on the excesses of the state government and the Salwa Judum

Ajai Sahni on the massacre of policemen in Chhattisgarh in March 2007

The flimsy "evidence" for his arrest - that Sen allegedly passed on letters from a jailed senior Maoist leader to an aide - is not fully substantiated. Sen had visited the Raipur jail as the state general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) to provide legal and medical assistance to prisoners including the said Maoist leader. His request for bail has been consistently rejected at all levels of judiciary since his arrest.

A paediatrician by profession and a gold medallist from the prestigious Christian Medical College in Vellore, Sen turned down lucrative career options to work in the field of community health. After helping set up a worker's hospital, owned and operated by a mine worker's organization, he later founded the NGO Rupantar with his wife. The couple have worked through Rupantar for the last eighteen years in training village health workers to provide basic health care in nearly twenty villages in the state.

Sen inevitably got drawn into social advocacy in Chhattisgarh, one of the states that has been particulary affected by the strengthening Maoist insurgency in recent years. The rise of the Maoists has been abetted by the acute governance vacuum in these areas, which are inhabited primarily by impoverished rural and forest-dwelling people, known within India's complex socio-economic taxonomy as "tribals".

To counter the Maoists, Chhattisgarh state launched in 2005 a paramilitary force called Salwa Judum that armed underage tribal boys ostensibly to fight the Maoist insurgents in the area. The move resulted in pushing the region into a fratricidal war. Caught in the fray were the poor tribal villagers trapped between the Maoists, on the one hand, and the state-supported Salwa Judum cadre on the other. The combined vested interests of the state and an industrial sector keen on the mineral rich land further fuelled the violence.

Since its inception, the Salwa Judum has emptied 700 tribal villages. The villagers have been forced into temporary roadside camps robbing them of their livelihood of farming and minor forest horticulture. It comes as a saddening surprise that some of the evacuated land is earmarked for Tata Steel and Essar Steel's proposed steel plants and mining projects.

Sen's open criticism was an impediment that the state government decided it could not afford. Despite intermittent media outrage and strong condemnation by international human rights organizations at his farcical arrest and trial, Sen continues to remain behind bars. With the second year of his imprisonment now coming to a close, a number of organizations from different parts of India, including the PUCL, have launched the Raipur Satyagraha to step up the campaign for his release.

The Satyagraha - echoing Mahatma Gandhi's belief in nonviolent resistance - will be a sustained movement, in which leading human rights activists, civil society organizations, lawyers, women's groups and other supporters will walk every Monday to the Raipur Central jail, where Sen is being held, and court arrest.

Professor Ilina Sen, the wife of the jailed doctor, and Kavita Srivastava, National Secretary of PUCL, have also been raising international awareness about the injustice of his arrest by giving a series of public talks at leading universities around the UK. The talks have also launched a public petition to the Indian Home Minister demanding Sen's release. The following is a brief interview with Professor Ilina Sen and Kavita Srivastava when they visited the University of Cambridge on 6 March.

In discussion with Professor Ilina Sen, wife of Dr. Binayak Sen:

Do you feel the media has done enough to generate a sustained campaign through its coverage for Dr. Sen?

The media is sensitive to particular events. It has a very short memory span. So when something happened, it would generate interest.  For instance when he received the Jonathan Mann Award last year, there was coverage. [Dr. Sen received the Jonathan Mann Award in 2008 for Global Health and Human Rights from the Global Health Council]. The Award was also a serious embarrassment (for India) because it was the first time a South Asian was given this Award and he was not able to receive it but was in prison on the charge of sedition. 

How many times has Dr. Sen's bail been rejected? And are you planning on trying for bail again?

The bail had first been denied by the Chhattisgarh High Court in July 2007. Then on 10 December, 2007, which is the International Human Rights Day, the Supreme Court dismissed the bail petition without any reason. After that, the trial started, charges were framed. But once the material witnesses had failed to substantiate any of the charges, the bail application was put once more to the Chhattisgarh High Court as there was a change in circumstances now with the charge-sheet having been filed and a lot of evidence run through, but nothing proved. Yet, once again in December 2008, the High Court dismissed the application stating that there were no fresh grounds for bail. We are now in the process of going to the Supreme Court once more for bail.

Now that a second year in jail seems to be drawing to a close, have you any other plans to expedite Dr. Sen's release?

We are now focussing a lot of our campaign activity in Raipur itself. And the shape it is taking is in the form of the Raipur Satyagraha. Large numbers of activists and supporters will walk every Monday through the city of Raipur in Chhattisgarh to the jail where he is being held. Then they will court arrest. We plan to sustain it over a long time now - till he is out. People from mass organizations, writers, activists will support it. It will start on 16 March. We already have the support of organizations like the Asha Pariwar, Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity, NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan), lawyers associations and people like Nandita Das, Mahasweta Devi, Sandeep Pandey, Kuldip Nayar, and maybe Mahesh Bhatt.

Could you tell us something about the Christian Medical College's support through all this?

They have been very, very supportive. They are doctors from the highest positions in the world. They have been active in writing letters, arranging meetings, supporting the cause and our movement as well as bearing the legal costs of the case.

In discussion with Kavita Srivastava, PUCL:

How is Dr. Sen holding up at the jail?

His spirits are well but his health is not well. He has lost 25 kgs. They had kept him in solitary confinement for some time but now he is back with the lifers. There is nothing much to write about Indian jails, except that he has a bed - a cemented one.

Have you approached the central government in New Delhi and requested its intervention?

We met the Home Minister P. Chidambaram on 23 December. He was very sympathetic but told us, "What can we do?". [The state government in Chhattisgarh is a BJP government, which has just been re-elected to power for another five years.]

What will you talk about this evening?

I will be talking about the use of draconian laws and how in the name of national security, there are two groups of people in India today, who are being targeted. First are those who are fighting intolerant policy, they are being targeted in the name of nationalism and held under draconian laws on charges like sedition or supporting banned organizations. The Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act criminalizes "intent". This is against any kind of criminal jurisprudence. It is "intent", not an "act". The second group are the Muslims, who are being targeted in the name of terrorism. Legislating laws like this in the name of national security represses civil dissent and prevents people from holding views.

What do you hope will be the outcome from your talks at the universities in the UK?

We have come to the UK to build awareness about Dr. Sen's unjust arrest. We want to highlight that Binayak is a "prisoner of conscience". His arrest has nothing to do with territorial boundaries. It is about the subjugation of human freedom - freedom to think, dream and have hope.

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