Wednesday, May 14, 2008

‘Friends have kept me going’

Raipur, India // Dr Binayak Sen, a 58-year-old paediatrician renowned for providing health care to some of India’s most impoverished communities for more than three decades, was arrested in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh one year ago today.

Campaigners for Dr Sen’s release are expected to hold a series of protests in India and abroad today.

Dr Sen, whose trial opened on April 30, was charged with sedition, conspiring to wage war and waging war against the federal Indian government. They are allegations he denies.

His lawyer said the charges relate to the doctor’s helping of a communist insurgent wanted for murder to get access to medical and legal assistance.

Ilina Sen, his wife, said he was arrested for his open opposition to the policies of the Chhattisgarh state government.

“I’m leading a schizophrenic life,” said Mrs Sen, 57, who teaches at the Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University in Maharashtra state. “On one level I have my job, and then there is the life that is completely different – seeing him in jail.

“The state is trying to suppress dissent, but I don’t think it will work. It’s part of a psychological war. There’s this huge police presence and the power they have: we have no power, except the power of conviction.”

Dr Sen was awarded the 2008 Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights by the Global Health Council in April. This week, 22 Nobel laureates appealed in a letter to Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, to allow Dr Sen to travel to the US to collect the award this month. His wife may collect the prize on his behalf.

Dr Sen’s work in public health extended into a career working in human rights in 2000. As vice president of the national chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), an Indian human rights group, he openly criticised the Salwa Judum, an armed militia that has been fighting Naxal-Maoist insurgents in the region since 2005.

Both the counterinsurgency group and the underground Naxal-Maoist guerrillas fighting against Chhattisgarh have been accused by some rights groups of widespread abuses, including rape, torture and murder.

In 2006, Mr Singh said the armed Maoist rebels were “the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced” in India.

The Chhattisgarh government admits to funding and organising the Salwa Judum, and the federal government has said it provides some counterinsurgency funding. But both deny the militia has been responsible for human rights abuses, as alleged by such groups as the People’s Union.

Dr Sen was charged, according to his lawyer, after he helped Narayan Sanyal, an alleged Naxal-Maoist ideologue imprisoned in the Chhattisgarh capital of Raipur on a murder charge, to get health care and legal counsel two years ago.

Involvement in Naxalist activities or supporting some Maoist groups is illegal, and the prosecution alleges that Dr Sen is a Naxalist leader. People found to be members or supporters of Naxalist groups can be arrested and imprisoned under the Unlawful Activities Act.

“Why is this happening?” Mr Sen said. “The Chhattisgarh government needed to show that they were able to cope with the Naxal-Maoist problem. And it was partly to send a message to other civil rights activists, that if you step out of your place, this is what will happen to you.

“Where is the proof that the road that Binayak Sen was taking led to Maoism? He was talking about people’s entitlement to health care and food, and he was critical of the Salwa Judum. So he was a dangerous person.

“Friends have kept me going: personal friends who believe in our work and believe in the positions we have taken.”

A reputed public health expert, as well as a federal government adviser on public-health issues, Dr Sen and his wife set up a nongovernmental organisation called Rupantar in 1995. The NGO runs a health clinic in Chhattisgarh’s Dhamtari district, about 120km from Raipur.

Rupantar provides low-cost medicine to adivasis (tribal people) and trains people in about 20 villages to be health workers. The volunteer health workers provide basic health treatment and refer people with more serious illnesses to hospitals in the area.

The training has proved vital, according to villagers, in fighting diseases including malaria and tuberculosis in a region that lacks health care facilities.

“Dr Sen’s work is good,” said Bhukao Ram Pinjam, 49, a volunteer health worker from Dhamtari who works in three villages.

“We don’t get any government help, so we were the first people helping villagers. There is no electricity … It’s very difficult to carry on work without him. People come from 100km to 150km away to get help – men, women and children.”

Rupantar is continuing its work in a region that is populated almost entirely by tribespeople.

Many live isolated in dense forest areas. Chhattisgarh does provide some health care in the area, but the majority of people there still have little or no access to basic amenities, including clean water, health care and electricity.

Moreover, they are now caught up in the state’s internal conflict.

Suba Chandran, assistant director at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, a New Delhi-based think tank, urged caution when accusing the federal and state governments of suppressing dissent.

“I have a lot of respect for groups like the People’s Union, but despite that, some of the civil society groups only see it from one side,” Mr Chandran said.

“They don’t see it from the government perspective. What happens is that some overenthusiastic police officers on the ground can’t handle the criticism and fake some stories.

“But to say that there is a larger scheme behind it, that the federal government does not take criticism, is totally untrue.”

Sanjay Pillai, a secretary at the government of Chhattisgarh’s department of home, refused to comment on Dr Sen’s case because it is in the courts.

Vishwa Ranjan, director general of police in Chhattisgarh, also refused to comment. “This case is sub judice. It is for the courts to decide whether he [Dr Sen] is guilty or not guilty.”

As well as Dr Sen and Narayan Sanyal, Piyush Guha, a businessman, is also on trial and will face the same charges.

Mr Guha was arrested last year in Raipur carrying 49,000 rupees (Dh4,300) that his defence lawyer said was to be given to Dr Sen to help pay Mr Sanyal’s legal fees.

The trial could continue for more than a year, lawyers said.

Proceedings were adjourned on May 3 and are set to resume on June 25.

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