Last week, almost a year after he was arrested in Chhattisgarh as an alleged 'Naxalite', Dr Binayak Sen became the first South Asian to be awarded the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. He remains in prison.
I first met Binayak in the mid eighties when I went to screen my documentaries for the Shankar Guha Niyogi led Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM). Under Niyogi's leadership the CMM had brought hope to thousands of exploited adivasi mine workers. Binayak and two other doctors volunteered their services to the union and with the shram daan (volunteer labour) of the workers set up a small but wonderfully efficient 15-bed hospital, an element of a larger dream.
The dream was cut short in 1991 when Niyogi was shot dead as he slept in his hut. Some of his hired killers were jailed briefly but those who had masterminded the murder reportedly enjoyed the support of BJP Chief Minister Sunderlal Patwa and escaped punishment. After Niyogi's death the CMM, led by Janaklal Thakur and other workers, fought on valiantly, but times were changing. Corporations were eyeing Chhatisgarh's mineral wealth. By the nineties the mantra of privatisation was sweeping the nation clear of all talk of justice and equal opportunity. In this atmosphere, rapacious corporations stepped in where the hired goons of corrupt politicians had hesitated. The non-violent methods of the CMM failed to contain the advent of those whose X ray eyes could see the profit that lay beneath the ground once the adivasi skin on the surface had been scalped—profits so large that State connivance was easily procured. Mainstream media grew tired of reporting the daily atrocities heaped on the people.
In the vaccum, a Naxalite armed struggle grew. The State and its entrepreneur partners responded with the Salwa Judum, a privately funded vigilante army, recruiting, arming and training adivasis to fight Naxalites. A lawless frontier of murder, counter-murder and fake encounters was created, the brunt borne by adivasis.
Binayak added a new duty to the self-imposed duty of being a doctor in a forgotten land. Recognising the link between health and human rights, he joined the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and eventually became its regional general secretary and one of its national vice presidents. As PUCL secretary, Binayak criticised Naxalite violence, but drew the ire of the State when he documented its nexus with the Salwa Judum and exposed the fake police encounters.
In the course of medical and civil liberties work, Binayak and his team made authorised visits to accused Naxalite prisoners in jail. One prisoner was an elderly man with a painful palmar contracture. Binayak visited him on several occasions and arranged for him to have surgery. These repeated visits were later cited as evidence that there was a special relationship between the two. Binayak was also charged with secretly smuggling out a letter although all visits had been subject to search and no objections raised at the time.
Only after Binayak openly criticised the Salwa Judum and extrajudicial killings, did the police bring charges against him, arresting him under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act that allows individuals to be held indefinitely without bail and without evidence being produced against them. When the Supreme Court was moved they delayed, and then denied bail without citing a single reason. Emboldened, the Chhattisgarh jailors went a step further, putting Binayak in solitary confinement in violation of all human rights codes.
Binayak, now 58, has lost 20 kgs in prison. In response to public outcry, his solitary confinement has ended though. This so called 'Naxalite' is no longer unknown. He has won prestigious awards including the Paul Harrison award for distinguished service to the poor and the Keithan gold medal from the Indian Academy of Social Science. National and international medical and human rights organisations, including Amnesty, have asked for his unconditional release.
Sanction for his arrest seems to have come from the Centre and the very ruling elite. As the system we live in successfully crushes or co-opts all movements of opposition, the term Naxalite has become synonymous with any form of uncompromising protest. The charge that somebody believes in violence or abets violence need not be substantiated. In a corrupt system it is enough that a person cannot be bought to mark him as a mortal threat.
Binayak is no Naxalite but Naxalism is growing. Why is that? Is there a Chinese cultural invasion? Is the youth of today seduced by sexy pictures of Chairman Mao? The fact is that our development paradigm cannot but breed widespread poverty and injustice and as non-violent movements fail, the people will have nowhere else to turn.