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Battle for Binayak Sen: Beyond India's Ballot War

Battle for Binayak Sen: Beyond India's Ballot War

by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

On May 13, the world's most populous democracy will complete its periodical, primary exercise in popular governance. On this date, India will complete its month-long, five-phase general election.

The very next day, however, will mark the second anniversary of the arrest of a medical missionary and human rights activist of India. The case of Binayak Sen will continue to illustrate the struggle in India, as elsewhere, for democracy beyond elections.

Binayak's story has been told several times (including in my article, The Importance of Saving Binayak Sen, June 03, 2007) since the police took him away from his home on a tribal district in India's central state of Chhattisgarh on May 14, 2007. The reputed doctor, with a widely recognized record in health care for some of the most helplessly wretched of the earth, has been denied bail repeatedly since then and treated as a dangerous criminal.

He has been detained under two draconian Indian laws - the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CPSA), placed on the statute book only in 2005, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Both these laws allow for arbitrary detention without any right to appeal. The string of charges against him includes sedition, criminal conspiracy, making war against the nation, and knowingly using the proceeds of terrorism.

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The main case of the state government of Chhattisgarh, fully controlled by the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), casts Binayak in the role of an accomplice to the Maoist insurgents active in the tribal territory. The case has been spiced up with the specific charge that he was acting as a messenger between the insurgents and a high-security, Maoist inmate of the Chhattisgarh prison, Narayan Sanyal. The charges have been repeatedly refuted.

Binayak visited the prison as a leader of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), with a large number of lawyers in its ranks. According to people close to him, he came across Sanyal as an aging, ailing prisoner and started treating him medically. The charge remains unproven after 24 months. Of the 83 listed prosecution witnesses, 16 were dropped and six declared hostile by the prosecutors themselves, while 61 others have deposed without corroborating this or other accusations against Binayak. He stays in prison, nevertheless.

Well-known filmmaker and activist Anand Patwardhan, who has known Binayak for decades, recalls: "When I met him in the mid-80s. he had helped build a workers' hospital for the Chhattisgarh Mines Workers' Samiti (Association) led by the legendary Shankar Guha Niyogi." Patwardhan points out that "Niyogi and his team were not ordinary trade unionists but visionaries for whom a workers' union went beyond wage struggles to health care...." Niyogi was murdered in 1991.

Patwardhan adds: "Niyogi's murder was followed by widespread repression. As big money entered the mineral-rich region, Adivasis (tribal folk) found themselves displaced from their lands. A section joined the Naxalite movement, which in turn spawned greater repression." It was in this context that Binayak became more than a medical activist, recording growing human rights violations in the grim situation in the region.

That put him in the bad books of the BJP, but what made it worse for him was his public campaign against a state-sponsored militia group, named Salwa Judum, set up in 2005 to fight the Maoists. The name in the tribal Gonda language has been variously translated as the Peace Mission or Peace Festival or the Peace Hunt. The outfit, in practice, has not served the objective of peace, according to many independent observers. Floated by the landowners and forest contractors, and funded as well as armed by the state, the Salwa Judum has, in fact, pitted tribesmen against tribesmen, village against village, and engaged in a wide range of crimes, including extortion, looting and much worse.

A 14-member team of five human rights organizations, including the PUCL, conducted an investigation in 2005. It found that Salwa Judum was "not a spontaneous people's movement, but a state-organized, anti-insurgency campaign." The team also found that the Peace Mission, ironically, had led to an escalation of violence and an increase in human rights violations, especially by the establishment's "anti-terrorist" army. Salwa Judum has emptied hundreds of tribal villages. The villagers have been robbed of their livelihood of farming and minor forest horticulture. Critics say that some of the evacuated land is earmarked for corporate steel plants and mining projects.

As activist-writer Arundhati Roy put it eloquently last month, Binayak stays "in prison because he spoke out against this policy of the state government, because he opposed the formation of the Salwa Judum. His incarceration is meant to silence dissent, and criminalize democratic space. It is meant to create a wall of silence around the civil war in Chhattisgarh. It is meant to absorb all our attention so that the stories of the hundreds of other nameless, faceless people - those without lawyers, without the attention of journalists - who are starving and dying in the forests, go unnoticed and unrecorded."

Binayak's friends in Chhattisgarh are sad about the fallout of his incarceration for public health in the region. They say that his clinic, which provided essential health services, is on the verge of collapse, and many patients with both acute and chronic illnesses have gone untreated.

Binayak had also helped set up a hospital at Dalli-Rajhara, an iron ore mining town in Chhattisgarh, as an example of health care for the helplessly poor. Sunil Kaul, a specialist in rural health care, is quoted as asking rhetorically: "Where else in India can a patient get surgery - whether it is a hysterectomy or surgery for intestinal obstruction - for less than 2,500 (Indian) rupees (US $50] with no support from the government?"

Binayak's friends and admirers are equally concerned about his current state of health. In an appeal to the Chief Justice of India last month, 54 medical professionals noted that "the doctor appointed by the court to examine him recommended that he be transferred to Vellore (well-known for ts medical facilities) for an angiography and perhaps, if needed, an angioplasty or coronary artery bypass graft without further delay." They noted the "hurdles being created" in this regard by the Chhattisgarh administration. On May 4, India's Supreme Court asked the state government to respond within two weeks to a petition for bail from Binayak Sen. His supporters hope this will help them to arrange the medicare he needs, but experience does not exactly encourage undue confidence on this count.

International support for Binayak, of course, has been forthcoming in full measure. As many as 22 Nobel Laureates have signed a petition, calling for his immediate release and characterizing his detention as "a travesty of justice." He won the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights last year, and the occasion was seized again to voice solidarity with him. He is on Amnesty International's list of "prisoners at risk."

All this, however, has failed to move either the state regime or the federal government in New Delhi. There is ground for suspicion, in fact, that the BJP rulers of Chhattisgarh have scored a tactical victory for their party by projecting the violation of Binayak's human rights as part of the "war on terror."

At the end of the general election on May 13, we will hear much about the Indian state's determined commitment to democracy. May 14 will be the day for the nation to remember Binayak - and the need to carry the struggle for democracy beyond the battle of the ballot.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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