Trial of Dr Binayak Sen begins
The trail begins on April 30th of Dr Binayak Sen, pediatrician, doctor for tribal peoples and General Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) for the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Sen is being charged with participation in a conspiracy to wage war against the government of India or a state of India: the apparent basis of this charge is that Sen is accused of carrying letters for a Maoist leader in prison: the absurdity of the charge is shown by the fact that these prison visits where he was allegedly given these letters were closely monitored by the prison authorities at all times
The background to this political trial is the recent upsurge of unrest in India resulting from economic liberalisation, especially in response to land acquisition policies facilitating the corporate seizing of land, including land intended for Special Economic Zones (SEZs). This popular revolt against neoliberalism has occurred alongside the expansion of Maoist armed struggle groups, whose activities now extend across a wide swathe of territory in nine Indian states –Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jarkand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal- while they also have an armed presence in almost half of all 28 Indian states.
Dr Sen’s arrest, detention and trial can be seen as an example of the recent Indian government’s ‘Maoist scare’ in which inconvenient and troublesome activists – whether civil libertarians, environmentalists or supporters of peasant or tribal rights – are tainted with the brush of ‘left wing extremism’ and denounced as Naxalites. (Naxalite is the common term for the variety of Indian Maoist groups who are following the path of armed struggle). It is of course easier to arrest public NGO leaders than to actually track down and apprehend the Naxalite leaders themselves, and cheaper also. Thus opponents of the state’s attacks on human rights in their anti-Naxal campaigns are arrested and presented as the real Naxal thing.
In the state of Chhattisgarh, state strategy against left wing extremism changed in June 2005 when the state unleashed an armed anti-Naxal militia, called in Orwellian fashion Salwa Judum (Peace March) as a cost-cutting anti-insurgency strategy. Thus the state’s Director General of Police told the Business Standard (6/4/08) “The government had been providing protection to the villagers from Naxal attacks. It was too expensive. So it was better to support the Salwa Judum.”
Use of armed militia against rural armed struggle was first implemented by the British in their anti-insurgency campaigns in Malaya after the second world war, theoretically formulated in British counter-insurgency expert Richard Clutterbuck’s theory of ‘counter gangs’, utilised in the manipulation of loyalist paramilitaries in the north of Ireland during the IRA campaign and most recently successfully implemented against the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) Maoists in Peru.
Just as counter-gangs and militia in other insurgencies increased violence, the Salwa Judum looted and burned the villages of those accused of supporting the Naxalites, then moved the peasants from their villages to camps to “protect” them from the Naxalites, in a manner reminiscent of the creation of fortified villages or strategic hamlets by the Americans during the Vietnam war. The Wall Street Journal estimated some 100,000 people have been displaced -many into camps- in Chhattisgarh, while other estimate some 50,000 have been moved into camps as a result of the Salwa Judum campaign. This creation of strategic hamlets empties the land and the former villages become deserted: thus there is no longer any sea for the guerrillas to swim in. Anyone remaining must be a guerrilla or at least a sympathiser.
Thus the Salwa Judum tactic leads to a displacement from the land of peasants and tribals under cover of war, a displacement that in other areas of India undergoing economic development (as SEZs for example) is strongly contested. The land is then empty for development and the need to move armed elements against the Naxal threat leads to the creation of roads through the forest and the opening up of hitherto inaccessible areas for economic development.
In May 2006, the Manchester Guardian reported that inhabitants of these camps denounce them as prison camps and forced labour camps whose inhabitants are forced to dig roads through the forest. (www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/may/09/india.randeepramesh/print) The Guardian pinpointed the economic interest behind this struggle also: mineral rights. Chhattisgarh is rich in iron ore, coal, limestone and bauxite. By coincidence two days after the Salwa Judum was officially launched, the Chhattisgarh state government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Tata Steel for a steel plant and captive iron ore mine in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh. The same day the state signed a similar MoU with the Essar group for a steel plant. (www.flonnet.com/fl2418/stories/20070921501101800.htm) In 2005 the state signed deals worth 130 billion rupees (£1.6 bn) with industrial companies. As a local commentator noted ‘One cannot miss the relation between the launch of the Salwa Judum and the entry of companies like the Tatas, Essar and others in mineral rich Chhattisgarh. Yes there was Maoist-led unrest here but violent reprisals by the Salwa Judum on tribals defying it meant that the State was determined to secure land for big capital…The idea [behind the camps] is to…make the evacuated villages uninhabitable and available for the companies.’ (www.tehelka.com/story_main38.asp?filename=Op190408callthe.asp)
The Salwa Judum strategy was accompanied by repression of all potential critics of this state-sponsored violence, when the state adopted the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA) in September 2006, prohibiting media reporting of ‘unlawful activities’. The state also targeted the activities of civil libertarians such as PUCL. Dr Sen’s wife, a human rights activist and Professor of Women’s Studies at Mahatma Gandhi University in Wardha says: ‘Legal instruments like the CSPSA have been systematically used by the state government to silence all voices of dissent.” www.flonnet.com/fl2418/stories/20070921501101800.htm Dr Sen was arrested in May 2007 under the CSPSA. The PUCL in Chhattisgarh had called for the Central Bureau of Investigation (a federal police agency) to investigate ‘encounter killings’ in Chhattisgarh since 2005, which had resulted in the deaths of a minimum of 155 people over two years. ‘Encounter killings’ is police code for extrajudicial executions of inconvenient activists and citizens. Thus rather than gather evidence and charge suspects with illegal acts, the police shoot them and report that they died during an ‘encounter’ between the police and armed bands.
Dr Sen said, in a speech before he was arrested, ‘For the past several years we are seeing all over India…a concerted programme to expropriate from the poorest people in the Indian nation their access to essentials, common property resources and to natural resources including land and water.” In comments to the Wall Street Journal Dr Sen argued ‘Salwa Judum displaces tribals and negates their land rights. This will do away with the tribes’ entitlements and open the field for industrial development and land acquisition.’
In response to Dr Sen’s arrest and detention a wide variety of initiatives have been organised by his supporters, including a web-based petition and the holding of free medical camps among the rural and urban poor to draw attention to Dr Sen’s detention. In Chhattisgarh a series of public meetings began on the 13th April culminating in a public demonstration on the 14th May, the anniversary of Dr Sen’s illegal detention. Dr Sen’s trial represents a test case as to how far the state will be allowed to go to silence dissent and voices of opposition to the repressive policies that have accompanied India’s embrace of neoliberalism.
For information on, and to support, the campaign visit www.freebinayaksen.org
To sign the petition go to http://petitions.aidindia.org/Binayak/index.php
For a useful collection of articles on Naxalites see the cover story of Frontline at www.frontlineonnet.com/fl2418/fl241800.htm
For the report When the state makes war on its own people: violation of the people’s rights during the Salwa Judum see www.pudr.org
For the Wall Street Journal coverage see http://archives.econ.utah.edu/archives/cubanews/2009w46/msg00024.htm