Binayak case puts democracy on trial

19 May 2009

India has never before witnessed such mobilisation of international and national support for a person imprisoned within its borders. Twentytwo Nobel laureates from different countries have issued spirited statements of protest against the continued detention of Dr Binayak Sen, a public health activist and civil liberties defender.

India has never before witnessed such mobilisation of international and national support for a person imprisoned within its borders. Twentytwo Nobel laureates from different countries have issued spirited statements of protest against the continued detention of Dr Binayak Sen, a public health activist and civil liberties defender. International medical journals, including The Lancet and the British Medical Journal, have written strong editorials deploring his detention in Raipur, capital of the Central Indian state of Chhattisgarh.

Solidarity in the cause of securing his release has acquired the dimensions of a mass movement, with hundreds of people demonstrating or courting arrest in several cities across the globe every Monday. Health professionals, academics, human rights activists, artists, writers and film-makers have weighed in for Dr Sen’s release. Amnesty International has named him a Prisoner of Conscience.

Dozens of individuals have lobbied the government to free him. Legal fora all the way from a magistrate’s court in Raipur to the Supreme Court have been moved for his release. Public-spirited citizens who support Dr Sen have set up a remarkable website in solidarity with him. It receives an incredible 16,000 hits a day—more than the websites of many major newspapers.

And yet, never before has a government in India proved so thick-skinned and impervious to appeals made on behalf of such a person. Dr Sen was wrongly detained under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Act 2005 (PSA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 2004. On May 14, he completed two years of his detention—a shameful anniversary if there ever was one.

The PSA is a nasty law, which criminalises even peaceful protest, by declaring it “a danger or menace to public order, peace and tranquillity”, because it might interfere with or “tends to interfere with the maintenance of public order [or] the administration of law.” This extremely harsh preventive detention law makes nonsense even of the idea of civil disobedience, a cornerstone of India’s Freedom Struggle. It should have no place in a democracy. Yet, the state government has filed a 750-page chargesheet against Dr Sen under PSA and other laws.

The substance of the numerous accusations against Dr Sen, including sedition and “waging war against the state”, boils down to just one allegation: he acted as a courier for the old and ailing Naxalite leader, Narayan Sanyal, detained in Raipur jail, whom he visited 33 times, and allegedly passed notes from him to his collaborators through a Kolkata-based businessman, Piyush Guha. But Guha has denied that he received any letter from Sanyal, and said that he was forced to sign a false confession that he did.

It goes without saying that as a national and state-level office-bearer of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, Dr Sen had every right to meet Sanyal to help safeguard his rights as a prisoner. His meetings took place with the jail authorities’ permission, and under their watchful eye.

Yet, the main charge against Dr Sen remains unsubstantiated. The prosecution listed 83 witnesses, but dropped 16 and declared six hostile. The 61 who deposed in court didn’t corroborate the accusation. Refusing bail to Dr Sen violates both natural justice and the Supreme Court’s stipulation that “bail denial must be based on evidence”.

This shows that the state is being vindictive and bloody-minded towards Dr Sen. This is further substantiated by the jail authorities’ refusal of permission to him to be treated at a medical facility of his choice for his heart condition, which has now become grave.

This refusal violates the norm that an undertrial be allowed treatment by a doctor of his/her choice. Dr Sen naturally wants to be treated at Vellore Medical College, an institution of excellence, where he studied and earned a gold medal, and where he knows many trustworthy doctors. Denial of treatment could have fatal consequences.

It would have been wrong to detain Dr Sen under a monstrous law like the PSA even if he were a hardcore Naxalite. As it happens, he’s an activist in the Gandhian mould who has condemned all kinds of violence, including that of the Naxalites, the state, and the murderous militia called Salwa Judum, which is sponsored, armed and funded by the state to physically attack and annihilate the Naxalites active in Chhattisgarh. Salwa Judum has created deep divisions within tribal society, and unleashed a terrible campaign of violence, razing whole villages and raping and murdering people. It has made 100,000 people homeless.

Dr Sen has done exemplary work in providing primary and preventive healthcare to people long deprived of access to health facilities. As I noted during a visit to Dhamtari district one-and-a-half years ago, there are no medical personnel in the area, often not even a chemist within a 30-kilometre radius. Even in emergencies, the public is forced to depend on quacks, and corrupt, apathetic, incompetent, and usually missing, government employees.

The clinic set up by Dr Sen in Dhamtari used to offer numerous services at nominal cost, including rapid testing of the deadly Falciparum strain of the malaria parasite. This saved scores of lives. Many of these services were provided through local volunteers and “barefoot doctors” trained by Dr Sen, who give the public invaluable advice on nutrition and preventive medicine. The clinic now lies closed.

Why has the Chhattisgarh government been so vindictive towards Dr Sen? A combination of factors is at work, including the personal prejudice of Director General of Police Vishwaranjan, and resentment at Dr Sen’s attempts to expose Salwa Judum’s atrocities and his role as a bridge or link between the human rights movement and other civil society organisations, who has created a forum of empowerment for disadvantaged people.

The prejudice angle isn’t trivial. Mr Vishwaranjan’s numerous media interviews suggest that he makes no distinction between Gandhian social workers, civil rights defenders, Social Democrats, people belonging to legally recognised Communist parties, critical sympathisers of the Naxalites, and members of the Communist Party-Maoist who actually practise violence. For him, they all form a continuum and cover up for one another. They are all equally undesirable because they are critical of the state.

Ultimately, it’s a terrible comment on Chhattisgarh’s political leadership, in particular, Bharatiya Janata Party Chief Minister Raman Singh, that they should allow a police officer’s illiterate and irrational prejudices to wreak havoc on civil liberties. Dr Raman Singh, however, plays a double game. On the one hand, he says he’d like to see Dr Sen released on bail, but claims he’s helpless in the face of the courts which deny him bail. On the other, his government doggedly opposes Dr Sen’s bail application in every single forum. He has also refused Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s appeals in favour of bail.

The Chief Minister’s double standards must be understood as part of a larger game-plan: to perpetuate the status quo based on the rapacious exploitation of Adivasis and Chhattisgarh’s staggering natural wealth which is used to subserve Big Business, forest contractors and traders. Horrifying inequalities of income and wealth are at the very foundation of Chhattisgarh. At one extreme, it has millionaires who display ostentatious affluence through palatial homes, spanking hotels and glittering shopping malls. At the other extreme are the dirt-poor in tribal districts like Dantewada, which present a dismal picture of starvation deaths, rampant illiteracy, and severe scarcity of health facilities and of safe drinking water.

Literacy among tribal women is one-third the national average—just 13 percent. (It’s an abysmal 30 percent for men.) Of the state’s 1,220 villages, 214 don’t even have a primary school. Worse, 1,161 villages have no medical facility. In Bijapur, Dantewada’s most violent tehsil, only 52 villages have 25 percent literacy; 35 villages have no literate people at all. The difference in life-expectancy between Kerala and tribal Chhattisgarh is a shocking 18 years. The two regions could well belong to different continents like Europe and Africa.

It suits predatory interests to maintain these inequalities so they can loot Chhattisgarh’s staggering wealth in forests and natural resources, including high-quality iron ore, bauxite, dolomite, quartzite, granite, precious stones, gold, diamonds, tin ore, limestone and coal. Whoever is seen as an obstacle to this exploitative function of the state must be isolated, victimised, even physically eliminated. This was the fate of one of India’s most remarkable and creative trade unionists, Shankar Guha Niyogi, who founded the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, and ignited a mass awakening on social, cultural and economic issues. Niyogi was assassinated at the behest of the state’s powerful, politically well-connected industrialists in 1991. Those who planned and financed the murder still roam free. It’s only logical that Dr Sen, who was a disciple of Niyogi and ran a clinic for his union, would be in the line of fire.

Freeing Dr Sen and quashing the trumped-up charges against him is thus linked to a larger agenda of promoting justice and fairness for Chhattisgarh’s underprivileged. Only a radical change in the balance of social forces can give democracy real meaning. Dr Sen’s case has put Indian democracy on trial.