Dr Binayak Sen seems to have caught the imagination of the mainstream media in India at last. But one has to remember that he has spent a year in a Chhattisgarh jail.
An international award by the Global Heath Council named after Jonathan Mann to Dr Sen for his untiring work in the field of people's health and human rights followed by a strong appeal by 22 Nobel Laureates demanding his release seems to have convinced the media that there is something extraordinary about Dr Sen's arrest and that the issue needs to be probed.
Dr Sen, a paediatrician by training, was arrested on May 14 last year by the Chhattisgarh police under the dreaded Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which are in many ways more draconian than the now repealed Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act.
The police claimed it had evidence to prove that Dr Sen was actively helping out Maoists by providing them logistic support. The only piece of evidence they have been able to show till date is the fact that he made 33 visits to Narayan Sanyal, an old, ailing Maoist leader in jail. They were perfectly legal visits and allowed under the jail manual, not something clandestine. Sanyal was suffering from many diseases and required regular medical support.
As a civil right activist and doctor it was not unusual for Dr Sen to come into contact with extremist Maoists, especially since he was in Chhattisgarh, which is reeling under the bloody conflict between the state and the Maoists.
His plea for bail in the Supreme Court was rejected, which did not find it necessary to verify the claims by the state counsel. It agreed with the state that a free Binayak was a threat to the national security in Chhattisgarh.
The state is a dangerous place for civil right activists. It is the most recent destination for rich capitalists eyeing its mineral rich land and want it to be made available. How do you do it unless the tribals are driven out of their lands?
This is a state where governance is traditionally and criminally tilted in favour of moneylenders and the land and forest mafia. And welfare schemes aimed at the poor, especially the tribals, do not trickle down.
In such a scenario there is bound to be an emergence of a movement for justice. It does not necessarily have to be non-violent as the exploitation of the poor, who have been forced to be part of the developmental state, is extremely violent. National prosperity stands in striking contrast to the increasing impoverishment of the tribals.
Chhattisgarh was fertile land for the Maoist movement as the state failed shamefully to make the mechanism of justice work for the poor. Its loyalty to rich, national and multinational companies creates a compelling urge to eliminate anyone coming in the way. A report by an expert group set by the Planning Commission to look at the developmental challenge in extremist affected areas, says, 'there is, however, failure of governance, which has multiple dimensions and is not confined to the inefficiency of the delivery systems only. It is not fortuitous that overwhelmingly large sections of bureaucracy/technocracy constituting the delivery systems come from the landowning dominant castes or middle classes, with their attachment to ownership of property, cultural superiority and a state of mind which rationalises and asserts their existing position of dominance in relation to others. This influences their attitudes, behaviour and performance.'
'Internal displacement caused by irrigation/mining/industrial projects, resulting in landlessness and hunger, is a major cause of distress among the poor, especially the Adivasis. It is well known that 40 per cent of all the people displaced by dams in the last 60 years are forest-dwelling Adivasis� The law and administration provides no succour to displaced people and often treats them with hostility since the displaced people tend to settle down again in some forest region, which is prohibited by law. The Naxalite movement has come to the aid of such victims of enforced migration in the teeth of the law.'
The report further states that the Adivasis displaced from Orissa and Chhattisgarh, settling in the forests of Andhra Pradesh would have been easily evicted by officials but for the presence of the Naxalite movement.
Suffering from continuing land loss and displacement, dwindling livelihood resources, acute malnutrition and pitched against a formidable combine of profit-hungry companies and a callous administration, Adivasis found some solace from the Maoists. The Maoists therefore are not the cause but a result of the miseries of the Adivasis.
Instead of addressing these issues, the state took recourse to a militarist shortcut by helping in creation of an armed campaign called Salwa Judum which vowed to eliminate the Maoists. It employed Adivasis in its ranks, most of the times forcibly. It is not a coincidence that Salwa Judum started days after the signing of contracts between the state and some companies.
Salwa Judum is a law unto itself. Though it is claimed to be a peaceful people's movement in reality it is a State-sponsored peoples' militia which marches into villages, forces people to join or burns their houses, destroys their cattle, livelihood and drives them out. More than 640 villages have been evacuated in this drive. Lakhs of Adivasis have been forcibly removed from their habitations and some 40,000 of them live in Salwa Judum camps set up by the government, living in hellish conditions as another state-sponsored Administrative Reform Committee report found out. The committee was lead by senior Congress leader Veerappa Moily.
The Supreme Court was forced to express its displeasure of Salwa Judum by observing that the government cannot arm people and instigate them to kill others. Defending Salwa Judum was not a state lawyer but counsel for the central government who made an astonishing admission that the state police were unequal to the might of the Maoists. They were employing as special police officers only those who have been at some point, in some way been victimised by the Maoists, he pleaded. It was extraordinary for a state to openly defend an army of revenge.
Dr Sen's consistent opposition to Salwa Judum is the real cause of the state's ire. It was all good and rosy till he confined himself to providing health services to the poor. In fact, the government had invited him to advise on its health programmes.
Binayak Sen was a gold medallist from the prestigious Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu. He decided to leave his teaching job at Jawaharlal University in New Delhi to move to Chhattisgarh in 1978 to work with the legendary trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi, who built up the formidable Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. Niyogi was later killed by the industry mafia. Dr Sen moved around in villages, establishing clinics and providing healthcare to those who were damned by State-run systems.
But as Dr P Zachariah, his teacher at CMC, says, "His interest in civil activism grew out of witnessing malnutrition deaths among children. The lack of governance worried him deeply. Chhattisgarh is a complicated state with a complicated history. The government did not meet the people's needs and it was easy for Naxalites to exploit that. The government found it difficult to deal with militants who operated out of dense forests and took a very repressive stance. In the end, it led to the creation of Salwa Judum."
"The police machinery too was getting large funds to fight the Naxalites. In the dark days that followed, people began to disappear. As a member of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, Binayak couldn't help but get involved. The PUCL was constantly approached by villagers saying that their relatives had disappeared. The police had to be approached, FIRs had to be filed, and Binayak began to help," Dr Zacharaiah said.
Areas of disagreement between Dr Sen and the state government were bound to emerge. He could not have approved of measures like Salwa Judum. His work as the general secretary of the state's PUCL became a pain for the government. He was also staunchly anti-communal and critical of the activities of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Adivasi-dominated areas. Otherwise a quiet man, this English-speaking doctor was increasingly becoming a cause of worry for the state government. He was, like other law-abiding activists, a critic of unlawful encounters by the police and thus an impediment to national and multinational companies. He needed to be silenced and removed from the scene.
This was done by the state symmetrically, with an active help from the local media. In April and May last year, the Chhattisgarh police stared a vilification campaign against him when he was away in Kolkata to see his ailing mother. He was declared an absconding Naxalite doctor who had fled to evade arrest.
Dr Sen's brother circulated an open letter telling the world that he was not absconding, had gone to visit his mother and the police was in fact indulging in this vilification only to justify his arrest. His fears came true. Dr Sen returned to the state capital Raipur and was immediately arrested under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
These laws do not need actual acts of conspiracy to make you criminal, even a perception that you may, even in future entertain thoughts which would be potentially against the state interest is sufficient reason for arrest.
Appeals by several civil right activists and individuals demanding the repeal of such absurd laws and the release of Dr Sen have been treated with disdain by the Chhattisgarh and central governments.
There is a strong belief in the establishment that all civil right activists are nothing but a respectable cover for extremists of all kinds, including the Maoists. They very conveniently ignore the criticism of Maoist violence by these individuals. What is disturbing is that if this liberal middle space is gone, there would not be a counter voice to violence.
It is only appropriate that the Global Health Council chose Dr Sen for its Jonathan Mann award. His international colleagues cutting across disciplines have asked the state and central governments to create situation for him to be able to receive this award in person which would be given in a public ceremony in the US on May 29. Given the arrogant insensitivity of our state institutions, it is unlikely that the appeals would be heard.
Can we expect our judiciary to help redeem the promise the Constitution makes to the people to safeguard their right to hold opinions and express it even if goes against the official line the state would like all of us to follow?