Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Binayak Sen: A Prisoner of Paradox?

May 14 2008 marks the first anniversary of the detention of Dr Binayak Sen by the State of Chattisgarh and his incarceration in the Raipur Central jail since then. It is ironic that Dr Sen, who has been recognised the world over for his dedication and commitment to the health, nutrition, safety, medical care and human rights issues of the adivasi people, is being projected by a State Government as a "threat to national security" . His "crime" is his open indictment of the Chattisgarh Government's actions through the Salwa Judum and a critique of a development policy that is going to increase displacement and dispossession of adivasis. At a moment when every Indian should be proudly celebrating the fact that Dr Sen has been selected for the highest international honour in Global Health and Human Rights, the Jonathan Mann Award 2008, a few concerned citizens will be holding candle light vigils, medical camps and film festivals to campaign for his release and to urge a fair trail.

His detention raises very uncomfortable questions about the use of the Chattisgarh Public Security Act 2005 and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967. More importantly, it forces a serious examination of how human rights activists are treated when they directly criticise or expose state policy or actions that have violated basic rights of citizens. Is such criticism and expose a right and duty of citizens or does that construe a crime under these laws? The subjective and vague manner in which these laws are interpreted could land several journalists, academics, environmental scientists and social activists, including erstwhile members of the judiciary, behind bars- as these "watchdogs" of democracy are bound to critique state and society in their quest for the truth or justice.

However, this hyper-sensitivity has been largely restricted to issues concerning the Naxal movement and the actions of the state administration in response to the Maoists. As long as Dr. Sen was serving the people of Chattisgarh, setting up the Shaheed Hospital, working on TB related problems, established Rupantar to provide low cost primary health care and even advised the State Government, he was perceived as a do gooder and a noble soul. When he linked ill health and survival issues to state development policy, adivasis marginalisation and social structure, he moved from being a doctor to a health activist as he grounded his medical interventions in social reality. A closer engagement with the politics of ill health led to his active role in the PUCL where he came face to face with the effects of state discrimination towards those adivasis who refused to join the Salwa Judum- - the controversial "civil" militia movement funded, armed and backed by the state to counter the Maoists.

As part of his health activism, he discovered how 1200 villages in Dantewada and Bijapur district have been caught in this crossfire between the Maoists and the Salwa Judum forcing almost half the villages to abandon their homes and live in miserable camps.

He has been expressing his concern that whole villages are excluded from government health care, some burnt, others destroyed in this process. Adivasis have also been killed for being "supporters" of the Naxalites, when they displayed reluctance to cooperate with the Salwa Judum. The PUCL took up the difficult and complex task of looking into such "encounters". In fact, the immediate provocation for Dr Sen's arrest came in the wake of his statements regarding the March 31st 2007 killings of adivasis in Sahthoshpur in Chattisgarh. While the Chattisgarh government has alleged that the killings were done by Naxalites dressed up as police, the PUCL findings implicate the police forces and Salwa Judum Officers in the massacre.

By this time, Dr Sen had become a thorn in the flesh for the State Administration. His correspondence and his meetings with imprisoned Maoist leader, Narayan Sanyal, held under the scrutiny of the jail authorities provided an opportunity to accuse Dr Sen with complicity with the Maoists and arrest him as a threat to national security.

While a free and fair trail will hopefully establish the truth in this matter, unravelling such an allegation itself is a complex process which involves questioning of certain presumptions. Several activist intellectuals share with the Maoists an analysis of social issues, but differ on issues of identity and on the use of violence to bring about change. Yet they are often projected as a Naxalite sympathisers or as those who condone Naxal violence, even though their solidarity is for the adivasis, rather than for those who have opted for armed conflict to resolve adivasis' problems- be they Naxals or Salwa Judum forces. Does this make them Maoist accomplices? Surely, this could be tantamount to a distortion of activists' commitment to justice and perspectives on change. Is the arrest of Dr Sen by the Chattisgarh Government's and his portrayal as a Maoist accomplice, a similar exercise in extrapolation? Or is it an attempt to silence voices that could expose state brutality?

Similarly, another paradox of double-speak revolves around the Salwa Judum itself. It is indeed incongruous that while the Supreme Court, the Planning Commission, the Tribal Affairs and Panchayat Raj Ministries have questioned the Salwa Judum and requested withdrawal of Union Govt Support, such criticism is met with studied silence. Yet when someone who has spent a lifetime striving to bring basic health care to some of the world's poorest people raises the very same issues, he is accused of being a threat to national security and shoved into jail.

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