Well, what more is there to say? Everything that can be said has already been said, or is being said right now somewhere on the internet.
I received the news from my younger ther while on the way to the airport to catch a flight to Cairo, where I have come on work. I sat in the car, dialling one number after another, getting through to some, to others not at all, since most phones suddenly seemed to have become busy at the same time.
There was a numb sense of relief, and a kind of anti-climax. My mother was beside herself with joy and relief.
What remains? Well, actually, quite a lot.
For one thing, Binayak needs to be released. Apparently this is going to take a couple of days, even in these days of instant messaging and videoconferencing, because of colonial era procedures (like telegrams to send the orders of the Supreme Court).
I don't wish to speak for Binayak and his immediate family, but it shouldn't surprise anyone if they seek some absolute privacy for a few weeks, and also have his heart condition treated as a matter of urgency.
The gentle and compassionate global army of activists, journalists, lawyers, doctors, politicians, peasants, workers, and supporters and friends who have worked, walked, written, agitated, travelled, suffered, composed songs and poetry, and spent huge amounts of their time and resources to publicize Binayak's case, and through him, the case of undertrials unjustly held in jails all over India should feel proud of their ability to move a state. This struggle has just started, and should continue and broaden to include all the issues of justice and survival that Binayak "indexes".
In Chhattisgarh, the BJP administration have shown yet another
example of 'good governance' by destroying the offices of the Vanavasi
Chetana Ashram that has worked non-violently for the advisas
for the last seventeen years, most recently as human shields to protect
adivasis returning to their villages devastated by that so-called
'people's movement' the Salwa Judum. If the BJP had any sense of shame, they might have desisted. But shame isn't something politicians of any sort feel easily.
That's all I wish to write for now. I too need to catch up with the news as it has developed while I have been travelling. But I will not conceal my schadenfreude at the well-deserved defeat of the BJP in the recent elections to the Lok Sabha. (More on that in a later post.)
A SPECIAL WORD OF THANKS to the indefatigable activists who worked on the Free Dr. Binayak Sen Campaign for their ceaseless vigilance for any news and commentary concerning Binayak. I regard that as the principal repository of writing on the internet on him.
Sudeep Chakravarti, author of Red Sun, has started a blog called ChakraVIEW, perhaps a clever reference to Chakravyuha, the military formation referred to in the Mahabharata.
Red Sun is a 'travelogue' through naxalite country, narrating encounters with a motley cast of characters in the tragedy that is being played out in several states of India. If you are looking for a defence of any particular political position, you are unlikely to find it here. But it is a fairly direct attack on state policies relating to both security and development that have added to the problem of naxalite terrorism - sufficiently direct that it has annoyed some defenders of a 'tough' (i.e., exclusively or mainly military) stance against naxalites. Although it was published in 2008, most of it was written before Binayak's arrest on false charges of association with naxalites. But the arrest is mentioned in the postscript.
Not only does the state of Chhattisgarh catch the wrong person, it then refuses
to let Binayak receive the treatment for his serious cardiac condition at
Vellore - a right to which he is entitled both by law and by
precedence. And then with characteristic brazenness, its Chief Minister persists in lying about Binayak even as its case lies in tatters in the local court.
Of course, now the Supreme Court has ordered the state to provide Binayak the "best treatment available in the state at the state's expense". This probably settles the case in favour of the police proposal to allow him treatment only within the state, since the lower courts will very likely not take the risk of allowing Binayak to receive treatment outside Chhattisgarh at his own expense. If the bail petition (to be heard by a vacation bench of the Supreme Court later, not today) is decided in his favour, then the question of his treatment will be settled anyway.
However, Sudeep's posting of May 6 (with the rather grim title 'Killing Binayak and Other Stories') makes it clear why the prospect of being treated within Chhattisgarh worries us.
This isn't paranoid, not in Chhattisgarh. For decades a doctor to the rural poor, public health specialist, human rights activist, Binayak is a declared pain in the fundament for the government of Chhattisgarh. In this part of the world, such status can lead to unique concerns.
"People tell me I may be safer in jail," Binayak told me once, when I visited him in jail. "Outside, anything can happen." An emphatic bullet; an engineered mob; death by bureaucracy; and now, a medical emergency. Ire of the state for what he, as a senior functionary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, ceaselessly criticized for some awful practices.
Binayak helped to publicize the 'Malik-Makbuja' corruption, by which tribals have for years been scammed out of valuable timber on their land by collusion of traders and politicians. He blew the lid off Salwa Judum, 'Purification Hunt' in the local Gondi dialect, that has since 2005, through state sponsorship destroyed villages in south Chhattisgarh and forcibly resettled tens of thousands into concentration camp-like horrors to deny Maoists shelter, recruits and network. Exceeding Maoist rebels they accuse of brutality, police, paramilitary and Salwa Judum recruits have in concert freely killed unarmed men, women and children.
As the state fought back with an overkill of fire and fear, Binayak suggested the play was to help business. He named the Tata, Essar and Jindal enterprises, among others, businesses with the ability to reach far, wide, and all the way to the top. The government, he suggested, hadn't safeguarded the interests of tribal and forest dwellers before trading their futures for Rs 170 billion in memoranda signed with businesses from home and abroad for mining iron ore and diamond, setting up iron and steel and power plants.
Like the criminal investigators in the movies, let us ask ourselves whether the police have the means, the motives and the opportunity to dispose of their 'declared pain in the fundament' in the manner that we all fear. With their record of extrajudicial killings and 'encounters', it is not a feat of imagination or paranoia to guess what the answers might be.
Today completes two years of Dr. Binayak Sen's captivity on charges which the state has been unable to establish in court. Unless the Supreme Court rules tomorrow in favour of bail for Binayak, he will be headed into his third year of captivity.
While hoping for the best possible outcome - i.e., his release and eventual withdrawal of the case against him - members of his family and his well-wishers should also be prepared for the worst.
Why should we hope for the best outcome, and what - in any case - does it mean?
Let me address the second question first. At a personal level, the best possible outcome is not just Binayak's release on bail, but also a quashing of the case against him, based on the inability of the state of Chhattisgarh to sustain any of the charges against him. But I have a hunch that this would not in itself satisy Binayak.
In an interview with Vinay Satpati, Binayak has referred to himself as an "index case", bearing out what I have written repeatedly in this blog. But I wish to cite C P Surendran who provides facts and figures: "There are 1135 prisons in India, housing 322,000 inmates. According to National Crime Record Bureau some 223,000 out of this teeming Republic of the Wretched are under trials or people who don’t know what wrong they have done." Well, they may or they may not be guilty, but this fact alone provides a telling index of the cost of 'security' in our 'vibrant' democracy, and who is bearing it.
There is an important sense, too, in which Binayak is not an index case: unlike the vast majority of the 223,000, he has the good fortune to be linked, through ties of profession, family and association, to a highly vocal and active network of people who can muster attention to his case. The rest of them, "this teeming Republic of the Wretched" as Surendran so eloquently calls them, do not seem to merit the attention of the media (even despite some of the undertrials being journalists), the vast majority of politicians, and certainly not the executive, who seem to all but forget about them.
A preferable outcome would, for Binayak, be a thorough review of all 223,000 undertrials across the country, and the immediate release of those who have been detained on false charges, as Binayak has been. Following this, there would be a review of all security legislation that arms the state with arbitrary and unaccountable powers. This should result in a tightening of the law to restrict the scope for arbitrary detention, and the institution of review mechanisms so that any malicious or wrongful arrests on the part of the state can be rectified with the least possible delay. Also the national and state human rights commissions could be entrusted with this review, and be made directly accountable, responsive and transparent to civil society stakeholders. What is required above all is a legal mechanism that catches and deters genuine terrorists, and a review mechanism that deters police and intelligence officials from abusing their power in the name of curbing terrorism, while quickly identifying and rectifying any mistakes that may be made.
Even this, I suspect, would not be enough for Binayak. What I am sure he will continue to work towards, if and when he is released, is for a genuinely democratic order where the state would uphold and protect the right of people to peacefully go about their daily lives with dignity, and pursue their productive participation in society. Instead what we have now - and what in fact is the cause of much terrorism - is the exact opposite for a substantial proportion of the population of this country. Injustice is inherent in the predatory patterns of development that our politicians and bureaucrats seem to have chosen. Communities of tribals, peasants, fisherfolk, and other groups with no significant power are violently uprooted from whatever meager resources large corporations feel the need to appropriate in the name of 'development'. In this they are assisted not just by the armed might of the state, but by its full administrative and legal machinery as well. This is the model of 'good governance' that the state in Chhattisgarh is defending by incarcerating people like Binayak. In doing so, it is implicitly rejecting the equitable and participatory pattern of development, elements of which Binayak and his wife Ilina have modelled in their own work.
Why should we hope for the best outcome? If democracy in India is to mean anything at all, it cannot afford to silence dissent in the way it has done for Binayak and many others locked up on trumped up charges. The only way we can express our faith in democratic mechanisms in our country is not merely to vote once every few years, but to expect and demand that our state should serve the people. We also need to work, in whatever way we can, to ensure that this service is more effective.
One of the signs of a democracy that India still retains is that it has been possible - despite many difficulties - for Binayak's supporters to organize a crescendo of demonstrations, lectures, and cultural events to draw worldwide attention to the injustice of his imprisonment. Like our Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but surely with even more merit for Binayak than for Ottavio Quattrocchi, we too feel, "It's not a good reflection on the Indian legal system that we harass people while the world says we have no case."
Unfortunately, these issues of public participation, accountability, responsiveness and transparency, have been notable by their absence in the just concluded election campaigns. Now all that the electorate and the media are looking forward to is a protracted interlude of horse-trading that will bring about a governing coalition promising what might well turn out to be more of the same gridlock of competing predators. As Surendran notes: "Dr Sen’s case is representative of the major failings of the Indian state, be it democracy, development or speedy justice. And none of it, typically, figures in these general elections. That no political party including the morally high-horsed Left has succeeded in mainstreaming these crucial issues is proof of a real problem." The only remaining source of any possible justice now remains the judiciary and the courts, the last bastions of credibility among the many institutions of our faltering democracy.
On the other hand, what if the bail plea is turned down yet again?
A possible rejection of bail - the second in two years - will, if it comes to pass, be seen as a triumph by those who have been silenced by the gradual realization in the public domain that the state has no case against him. The ignorant argument will be revived and trumpeted forth, as it once used to be, that the Supreme Court must know something that lesser mortals do not. Entirely unjustifiably, the law will have been taken to have run its course, and yet again, the Supreme Court's possible refusal of bail will be seen as a vindication of all those entirely unfounded claims about his non-existent links with terrorism. The refusal of bail will also make it hard, if not impossible, for any lower court to examine Binayak's case on merits. It will provide further evidence of the "throw away the key" strategy that intelligence agencies and national security functionaries have designed to make us all feel secure against terrorism, not just in India, but all over the world. Furthermore, it is likely to send a strong, if unintended, message to the world that the needs of corporate and state power will trump the imperatives of truth and justice. The words 'truth' and 'justice' themselves will continue to be used, but the concepts they represent will be defined by the exigencies of power, 'development' and security.
Indeed, to some extent, we are already in this Orwellian world.
Hold those celebrations cheering India as the world’s most populous democracy.
Two years ago today, the Chhattisgarh Police arrested Binayak Sen, a paediatrician who has spent three decades treating the poor in the state’s remote parts, for collaborating with Maoists. Sen was accused of helping communication between clandestine groups that couldn’t interact with each other freely. In fact, he was meeting a sick Maoist leader, with permission from a senior police official.
The State has at its disposal draconian, colonial-era laws—tightened in post-independent India—which it used to arrest Sen, and to keep him in jail. It has vigorously challenged his appeals, despite his deteriorating health. Last year, the Global Health Council gave him the Jonathan Mann Award for health and human rights; 22 Nobel laureates have called for his release; and Sen symbolizes the kind of dignified prisoner of conscience who inspires people who have never thought of civil liberties to campaign for his freedom.
Sen has strong views. He has spoken out against injustice. But he has condemned the Maoists’ violence, and appealed for peace. As Sudeep Chakravarti, author of that authoritative account, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country (2008), puts it, Sen’s advocacy of India’s “wretched of the earth” has upset the cozy, corrupt nexus enriching local politicians. Big business wants access to the state’s natural resources, and forest-dwelling communities are in the way. Maoists, claiming to represent the poor, challenge the state. To counter them, the state and local elite have encouraged Salwa Judum (purification hunt), the vigilante paramilitary group that has terrorized the poor, ostensibly to ensure they don’t cooperate with the Maoists, but in the process alienating them, forcing them to flee—coincidentally freeing land for resource exploitation. Such cynical, myopic policies have led to decades of bloodshed in many parts of the world, most notably in Latin America.
And yet, those seeking Sen’s release are told: Not so fast. Let the law take its course. Don’t embarrass the state. Tone down your voice.
Human rights activists shout because the state does not listen. To make yourself heard, you have to scream—it is unpleasant, but necessary. That’s what Teesta Setalvad has been doing in another context: Gujarat. She has sustained a heroic campaign for the victims of the Gujarat riots of 2002, enraging those who believe Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is the answer to all of India’s problems.
Setalvad identifies with the victims: Many have experienced severe trauma, seeing their loved ones being raped, murdered, or maimed. She investigates what happened because the state has ducked its responsibility. She speaks for them because few others do. Her opponents are waiting for her to trip up. Last month, she was accused of tampering with evidence and tutoring witnesses. Those are serious charges—and her critics say the special investigation team (SIT) had made them, even though SIT wouldn’t confirm if it had made such charges, calling the leak inspired and motivated; and the Supreme Court termed the leak a betrayal of faith. Recall as well that in the Best Bakery case, judge Abhay Thipsay had ruled out the possibility of Setalvad having tutored witnesses.
People such as Sen and Setalvad, and other dissenters such as Medha Patkar, challenge the modern Indian state. They sound unreasonable. They seem self-righteous. They speak for others, and they often appear to sit on a high moral ground. That seems sanctimonious to some; it can even appear irritating. Why, hasn’t India just shown the world what a fine democracy it is by organizing the world’s biggest electoral exercise? But just as India basks in that glory, these activists remind us of the rot within. They interrupt the grand narrative.
If only they’d speak softly, or even better, simply shut up! But why should they? Democracy thrives on uncomfortable questions; not recognizing that shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea of dissent. Being stubborn, refusing to reason and remaining steadfast to one’s moral core are the characteristics of such individuals. In Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing (2001), Ian Buruma shows how years in Chinese prisons had so incensed Wei Jingsheng that once in the West, he refused to obey perfectly sensible rules. He’d smoke in rooms, standing under “no smoking” signs; he would drive through red lights. He defied rules because he would not bend.
Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, Mohandas Gandhi fasting in an ashram, Aung San Suu Kyi refusing to acquiesce with the generals and Vaclav Havel ignoring the Party’s lies and living the truth—these men and women were obstinate, and for good reasons.
Think of their adversaries—a racist regime, a colonial power, a military junta and a Communist dictatorship. Is that the company India wants to keep?
Sen, Setalvad and others such as them are India’s jewels. They honour us. Silencing their voices belittles us. They belong in our public arena, not in our jails.
Sen and the Art of Development Posted at May 9, 2009
C P Surendran Open Magazine
There is not much you can do these days without making a festival of. The Free-Binayak Sen campaign scheduled to peak out on May 14, when Dr Sen completes two years in Chhattisgarh Central Jail, is aiming to rally one million people on line. Activists must hope that a few zeroes on the right side of any number will translate to Sen’s freedom. If only democracy were a matter of ciphers.
Again, there is not much you can say about Binayak Sen that is not already in the public domain. Sen is a doctor who decided early on to work among the poor in Chhattisgarh. He is the General Secretary of People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL). In which capacity he campaigned for the rights of those who were victimised by the State, the police and Salwa Judum.
Salwa Judum, for the novice, is a “people’s movement” funded and armed by the respective state government and aimed at resisting Naxal overtures. The resultant violence in Chhattisgarh has killed and mutilated thousands of humans. Quite a few of those Sen helped turned out to be Naxals or Naxal sympathizers. This might be considered natural in a state where tribals and scheduled castes form nearly 50 per cent of the population. They own and occupy substantial amount of forest and mineral land. Since the State has failed in considerable parts of Chattisgarh, the leadership of tribals and scheduled castes for the present rests with Naxals, not with parliamentary parties.
The natural resources in question are in fact central to the understanding of Sen’s personal tragedy. There’s a regular tussle in Chattisgrah for the appropriation of the riches by corporate houses and the government on the one hand, and by the indigenous people led by Naxals on the other.
In short, Sen is a victim of a certain kind of development model which seems to represent the top 25 %t of the population. People like you and me. In India that 20 % translates to nearly 250 million people, and so the economy stays afloat on that critical mass. And land – whether setting up for plants or as a source of metals or minerals — as Ratan Tata would tell you is at the heart of India’s present and future unrest.
On May 14, 2007 Dr Sen was arrested under the Chhattisgarh Public Securities Act for collusion with Narayan Sanyal, a Maoist leader doing his time in the Central Jail. The authorities believe that Dr Sen was carrying letters –that furthered Naxalite activities in the state– from Sanyal to one business man Piush Guha, who too was later arrested and locked up in jail.
Technically, as in the case of Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial, the case against Dr Sen is flimsy. Dr Sen’s meetings with Sanyal took place in the presence of jail authorities. The opening lines of The Trial capture the essence of Sen’s situation as well: “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K: he knew he had done nothing wrong, but, one morning he was arrested.” And since Dr Sen was arrested under CPSA the authorities are exempted from giving an explanation for their conduct in court or elsewhere.
It is unlikely that Dr Sen will be kept in prison for too long in the face of escalating legal and activist pressure. But the appalling reality is that these missing years of Dr Sen’s life have already taken a toll. His wife, Professor Ilina Sen is living an unreal life. Unreal in the sense that she never thought she would be spearheading a public campaign for Dr Sen’s release. “If someone told me the story of my life two years ago, I would have told him, no, that’s not me.”
The family has been broken up. Both Sen daughters are in Bombay away from the primal politics of Chhattisgarh. Professor Ilina Sen, who is Dean at Wardha University, divides her time between her workplace and Chattisgarh. The professor is articulate and brave. But if you meet her you cannot escape the feeling that this is a beleaguered woman holding on to hope and reason by her finger nails, which seem well chewed. The arrest has changed at least the younger daughter’s outlook. She had wanted to do medicine. But after Dr Sen’s arrest, 18 year old Aparajita wants to become a lawyer.
Since these are real people, they must hurt. But of course Dr Sen and his family are not the only ones hurting. There are 1135 prisons in India, housing 322,000 inmates. According to National Crime Record Bureau some 223,000 out of this teeming Republic of the Wretched are under trials or people who don’t know what wrong they have done. A million Josef Ks.
Dr Sen’s case is representative of the major failings of the Indian state, be it democracy, development or speedy justice. And none of it, typically, figures in these general elections. That no political party including the morally high-horsed Left has succeeded in mainstreaming these crucial issues is proof of a real problem.
But equally Dr Sen’s case also showcases a dire possibility that the worst can befall the best among us. Take care. One of these days you and I are just as likely to swell the rolls of the under trials. Don’t ask why. Shit happens. And in such an eventuality, unlikely as it may sound, the shame of our fate may outlive us, which was Josef K’s last thought as well as the knives went in.
There is almost a mythic power in the spectacle of India going to the polls. Just the number of people going to the booths in every corner of the country, the gigantic scale of the organization, the numerous political parties — all add up to a fascinating and undoubtedly significant exercise in democracy. Especially now, with the civilian governments in countries around India gasping for life, or turning into ruthless victory-mongers at the expense of minority populations. Within India, too, tragedies stalk the exercise of the people’s franchise. In the mythic perspective, these endow India’s general elections with something akin to a noble aura.
The last day of this magnificent exercise will also be the day on which Binayak Sen completes two years in prison. The doctor, who has for years been treating adivasis in the poorest and least developed areas of Chhattisgarh, has been repeatedly refused bail, although on May 4 this year the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Chhattisgarh government to provide him with “the best possible medical aid”. Sen is seriously at risk from cardiac problems and has reportedly said in open court that he may get a heart attack any time. To be fair to the Chhattisgarh government, it is willing to offer its hospital facilities to the prisoner. But their prisoner insists on being treated in his old medical college in Vellore. Although he is within the law in choosing his place of treatment, the state government does not see why it should comply.
Worse, his wife, Ilina Sen, has been telling the world exactly what the Sens and their friends fear — that Binayak may not leave a Chhattisgarh hospital alive. Ilina has carefully documented the sequence of events since his application for medical treatment, and recorded her use of the Right to Information Act to find out what means the government used to make the denial of her husband’s request official. At the end, she writes: “Under these circumstances, Binayak is absolutely right to fear that his life may be in danger in any facility controlled by the state in Chhattisgarh.”
No doubt the chief minister of Chhattisgarh would consider this a wife’s paranoia, since according to him, in “the lanes and by-lanes of Chhattisgarh [Sen] is a non-issue”. Faced with demands for his release, the Union home minister has reportedly said that the Centre cannot do much, since Chhattisgarh has a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government. That does make Binayak Sen into a “non-issue”, a mere object of political balancing acts, of reductive reasoning — or conditioned unreason — that has, in the 62 years since Independence, lost all touch with the desire for justice, equity and human rights which must have once inspired the democracy now going so studiously, so spectacularly, to the polls.
With Binayak Sen, we touch the dark heart of India’s democratic glory. Amid the terrors that reside in that secret place, one of the keenest is the fact that today very few thinking people in India are unaware of who he is, and how much he has achieved in his life before prison. But even the world’s knowledge of what true courage means, what it is to be just, to stand up to all forms of violence — particularly that against the poor, what legal procedure is, how State repression works, has made no difference to Sen’s incarceration.
Last Friday, a group of British members of parliament signed a resolution expressing concern at Sen’s continued detention under “politically motivated and trumped-up” charges, the delay in giving him a fair trial, the denial of his constitutional right to bail and his state of health “due to lack of appropriate medical care”. It asked for the prime minister’s intervention. They are not the first. In April this year, a former Supreme Court judge wrote to the prime minister, saying that the case against Sen should have been dismissed by now, or he should have at least got bail, since the hearings have not thrown up “a shred of evidence” against him.
Earlier, a statement by Noam Chomsky and many others had expressed distress at the grave injustice being done, and asked that Sen be released. Scholars, doctors, lawyers, activists within and outside India have condemned Sen’s imprisonment (part of which was in solitary confinement for no given reason); they have been organizing protests, and constantly writing to the Chhattisgarh chief minister, the president and the prime minister to free the doctor. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties, of which Sen is the general secretary, has been running a ceaseless campaign for justice. Amnesty International has called his arrest “manifest evidence of an increasing trend worldwide to silence peaceful dissent by imprisoning lawful humanitarian activists on charges of terrorism”.
If a system is blind, deaf and ruthless at heart, is it democratic?
On May 14, 2007, Binayak Sen was detained under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2006 and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 that was amended in 2004 to include certain features of the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act. This had been repealed earlier the same year because of abuse and rights violations. Sedition, waging war against the State, using the proceeds of terrorism, being part of an unlawful or terrorist organization are some of the charges. He was specifically accused of couriering letters on behalf of an imprisoned Naxalite leader while pretending to treat him (although Sen treated the prisoner with official permission, under supervision, and in his own identity).
In spite of unremitting efforts by the police, nothing against him has been established. By March 2009, of the listed 83 witnesses, 16 were dropped by the prosecution, six were found “hostile”, and 61 deposed without corroborating any of the charges. The distortion of the justice process is only one part, although a major one, of the monstrous list of violation of rights against the doctor. He is still in prison.
Sen’s work for the health of the poor led him to the belief that health is impossible without equity, livelihood, justice and the access to human rights. But fighting for the rights of the poor in a state like Chhattisgarh, where Maoists overrun districts in which development is almost non-existent, is, as he remarked in the context of deciding to treat the Naxalite leader in prison, like walking into the lion’s den. What damns him is his opposition to all kinds of violence, whether perpetrated by the Naxalites or by the State. In the darkness of the lion’s den the State meets anti-State violence with equal force, and devours anyone who tries to come between. Here the champion of rights for the disenfranchised appears to be as dangerous an enemy as those who organize mass killings.
Sen has been sharply critical of the Salwa Judum, the so-called “popular resistance” to Naxalites, created by the state government by arming and training a people’s militia: a programme that has set adivasis against one another in perpetual conflict. In March 2008, a bench in the Supreme Court said that arming a civilian and allowing him to kill is tantamount to abetment of murder. That Sen, with many others, objected to murder is what makes the state so adamant about silencing him.
Alongside his medical work, which included setting up a hospital for the poor, membership of the government’s advisory committee for public health, pioneering work for the Mitanin health workers programme, founding an NGO with his wife to train rural community health workers and running mobile clinics, Sen has been working with the PUCL in investigating human rights abuses, especially fake encounters and extra-judicial killings — most recently that of innocent villagers, lined up and shot point blank by the police.
Sen has called himself “an index case”. We are ashamed before the world that we are unable to get justice for this winner of the 2008 Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights, which is the latest in a string of honours for a doctor who has been called the true “alternative model”, and has inspired other doctors to reach out to the unempowered. But we do not always remember Irom Sharmila in Manipur, fighting for nine years against a law similar to the CSPCA; we barely recall the journalist, P. Govindan Kutty, or the documentary filmmaker, T.G. Ajay, arrested for alleged links with terrorists, later released on bail; we hardly know of other human rights activists and journalists, such as Lachit Bordoloi in Assam, Vernon Gonsalves in Nasik, Prashant Rahi in Uttarakhand, Praful Jha in Chhattisgarh, Arun Ferreira, Ashok Reddy, Dhanendra Bhurule and Naresh Bansode in Vidarbha, Pittala Srisailam in Andhra Pradesh, all arrested under the UAPA and charged, sometimes tortured, for alleged Maoist links. And Sheila Didi, an adivasi women’s activist among the most deprived women of Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Bihar, a former president of the Nari Mukti Sangh of Bihar, arrested, released on bail, rearrested, interrogated and tortured for waging war against the State.
But is our democracy really such a failure? Surely such things would not have been possible if the empowered classes did not isolate and disown those who speak for the rights of the poor? Can it be that the rights of the poor are totally wrong for the rest of us?
Those who claim that Dr. Binayak Sen is actually a closet maoist have chosen to cloak the mendacity of their claim by ignoring his repeated condemnation of violence - both of the state as well of the maoists themselves. However, it comes as a dismaying revelatıon to me - from the piece by Apoorvanand below - that among those responsible for the campaign raised in his support, there is at least one for whom Binayak's abhorrence of violence is a matter of "unnecessary detail".
With friends like these, who needs enemies?
But here is Apoorvanand making a wholly welcome plea to those who stand with Binayak to be clear about where we stand on the question of violence. If violence by the state is to be condemned with any sincerity, then the violence of those who claim to speak on behalf of the oppressed cannot be excused as 'revolutionary resistance'. The only violence that can reasonably be justified is violence in individual or collective self-defence (e.g., against foreign occupation). The violence of the maoists - bombing polling stations, police stations, murdering people labelled as class enemies or collaborators with the police - hardly ever meets this description, and is certainly not against foreign occupation. The violence of the maoists is designed to send a message to their enemies, just like the violence of the state when it engages in terrorism, and deserves as much condemnation.
And so I would like to add my support and voice to Apoorvanand's message, here reproduced below with thanks to Tehelka.
The Serpent We Forgive And Forget
It is high time civil society owned up to and condemned the violence inflicted by revolutionary groups.
APOORVANAND Writer & Literary Critic
THE FIRST three phases of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections have passed peacefully. Not taking into account the Maoist killings of poll officials and police personnel during elections. Although in Maoist strongholds, they pressed civilians to boycott elections, the people chose, instead, to risk their lives and exercise their right to vote. Most recently, the tribals of Lalgarh in West Bengal defied the Maoist boycott call and voted. Unable to convince the masses, the Maoists have resorted to the old strategy of ambushing poll parties and demolishing public property to mark their presence. Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Maharashtra, Bihar and West Bengal witnessed violence by armed groups of Maoists. Interestingly, they have not, in any statement issued, owned up to these acts.
In West Bengal, men from the CPI(M) cadre were killed for defying the Maoist diktat ordering them to leave the party. To consolidate their position in the state they are taking advantage of the anger and frustration of the people toward the arrogant and violent CPI(M) party machinery. None of us who have been vocal against the violence of the CPI(M) in Singur and Nandigram have voiced our opinion on the Maoist killings. Last year, in Bihar and Jharkhand, members of the CPI(M) and JD(U) were killed for being in the ‘wrong’ parties. And yet, not one word of condemnation from us who find every single act of state violence repugnant! Do we see natural justice taking its rightful course in the killings of the CPI(M) cadre?
Recently, while addressing a gathering on the Sri Lankan crisis, Varavara Rao, the public ideologue of the Maoists, tried hard to justify the violent methods used by the LTTE. Rao has been consistently justifying the violent attacks by the Maoists in India by calling them “acts of resistance”. Were the recent killings of the poll officials also acts of resistance? Resistance against the assault of parliamentary democracy? When asked, Rao trivialised the killings of innocent people by revolutionaries, asserting that “these were matters of details”.
To defend Maoist killings, Rao could have as well used the term ‘collateral damage’, invented by the Americans to justify the killings of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. He seems to suggest that this is an inevitable price the masses have to pay when they are passing through a phase of class struggle. This utter lack of remorse is reminiscent of the tough Stalinist era, which saw lives disappearing in the maze of the continuum of revolutions. Going back even further, Lenin was condemned by Maxim Gorky for encouraging the proletariat violence after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. In 1917, he wrote in Novaya Zhizn: “Lenin, Trotsky, and their companions have already become poisoned with the filthy venom of power, and this is evidenced by their shameful attitude toward freedom of speech, the individual, and the sum total of those rights for the triumph of which democracy struggled… On this road Lenin and his associates consider it possible to commit all kinds of crimes, such as the slaughter outside St Petersburg, the destruction of Moscow, and the abolition of freedom of speech and the senseless arrests.” He further asks, “Does not Lenin’s government, as the Romanov government did, seize and drag off to prison all those who think differently?”
It was the courage and honesty of a true writer which enabled Gorky to speak in the face of ‘revolution’. We, however, seem to think differently. We let the crimes committed by revolutionaries pass off. Last year, when there was a move to issue a statement condemning such violence, there were efforts to dissuade people from signing it by asking questions like: “By doing so would we not be equating people’s violence with state violence?” and “How do we know that these killings were committed by Maoists and not the state forces themselves to discredit them?” While the first question involves a theoretical position, one cannot miss the clever opportunism behind the second question, which seeks to fudge facts when they are not comfortable.
Fudging facts is not something unique to the bourgeoisie. Some months ago a leaflet was printed as part of the campaign seeking the release of Binayak Sen, who is imprisoned for allegedly providing logistical support to the Maoists. His crime was that as a human rights activist he helped an ailing, old Maoist leader, Narayan Sanyal. But does Sen support violent means in the name of the ‘people’? He has categorically said several times that killings cannot be condoned, whatever the justification. This statement, explicitly mentioned in the leaflet, was deleted by one of the campaign members who thought it an unnecessary detail. That the deletion of this sentence was a conscious act of political editing was proven when it was justified with this question: “By writing such sentences, are we not trying to distance ourselves from certain forms of struggle which could be violent?” The person responsible for this editing forgot that he was censoring a fact very crucial to Sen’s case, a fact about Sen’s political stand. He was, instead, imposing his own political stand on the campaign and on Sen, who is contesting the false charge by the State that he subscribes to a violent political ideology. Incidentally, the Maoists have not thought it necessary to contradict the false claim by the State that Sen is part of their organisational structure. Are they relishing this expansion of their zone of influence?
Whenever there are attempts by civil society or rights’ groups to question ‘revolutionary violence’, there are counterattempts to abort them. We have heard arguments like: Is it necessary to give so much importance to such sporadic acts? By doing so, would we not be diverting the attention from the regular acts of State violence? Do we not realise that we would be falling in the trap of the State, which, through a complicit media is trying to magnify this violence? Strangely, these arguments have been employed by all apologists of violence. The State says that cases of violation of human rights are negligible. The CPI(M) claims its violence was restricted to very small areas of Nandigram. The RSS and BJP plead that criticism against them was disproportionate to the 2002 massacre, which was limited to very small pockets of Gujarat.
We are seeing a dangerous trend of civil society turning a blind eye to violence inflicted by revolutionary groups. More than 90 years ago, there were writers like Gorky who, condemning the summary trials and killings in the name of revolution, pleaded, “Murder and violence are the arguments of despotism, they are base arguments and they are powerless, for to violate somebody else’s will or to kill a man can never mean killing an idea…” One should conclude by repeating the question he put forth to his countrymen, or perhaps all of us: “The most dreadful enemy of freedom and justice is our stupidity, our cruelty, and all the chaos which has been cultivated in our souls by monarchy’s shameless oppression, by its cynical cruelty. Are we capable of understanding this?”