|Tehelka, February 23, 2008The untenable imprisonment and victimisation of Dr Binayak Sen, a heroic humanitarian from Chhattisgarh, exposes Indian democracy as increasingly hollow, says SHOMA CHAUDHURY. Photographs by SHAILENDRA PANDEY
FAR AWAY from the glittering salons of Bombay and Delhi, away from its obsessions with booming malls and plummeting stocks, a good man waits in jail. He’s
been in for nine months. But it is unlikely that the story of Dr Binayak Sen would have caught your attention. He’s been written about in bits. Some channels have covered him. But even though he is a mesmeric character — intense, articulate, idealistic, a man of privilege who seeks nothing for himself — and his imprisonment is a scandal that should shame any civilised society, for the most part, news of him here has been overwhelmed by hotter media preoccupations. Lead India competitions. And polls on who should be awarded Indian of the Year. Shah Rukh, Manmohan, or Vijay Mallya? Men like Dr Binayak can wait their turn in jail.
The story of Binayak Sen is the story of the dangerously thin ice India’s democratic rights skim on. The story of every dangerous schism in India today: State versus people. Urban versus rural. Unbridled development versus human need. Blind law versus natural justice. It is the story of an India unraveling at the seams. The story of unjust things that happen — unreported — to thousands of innocent people, the story of unjust things waiting to happen to you and me, if we ever step off the rails of shining India to investigate what’s happening in the rest of the country. Most of all, it is the story of what can be done to ordinary individuals when the State dons the garb of being under siege.
But, first the facts of the story.
A paediatric doctor by profession — a gold medallist, in fact, from the prestigious Christian Medical College (CMC) in Vellore — Binayak Sen, 56, has worked for more than 30 years with the tribal poor in Chhattisgarh, battling malnutrition, tuberculosis, and the lethal falciparum malaria strain rampant in the area. As a young man — star pupil with the world at his feet — he had turned his back on the many rich career options before him to take a job at a rural medical centre in Hoshangabad run by Quakers, where he was greatly influenced by Marjorie Sykes, Gandhi’s biographer. Ideas of public health, sustainable development and a just society obsessed him. Walking the slums of Vellore as a graduate, he had understood very early that there is a crucial link between livelihood, living conditions and health. Bolstering this with a degree in social medicine from JNU, Delhi, he moved from Hoshangabad to Chhattisgarh in 1981, to work with Shankar Guha Niyogi, the legendary mine workers’ unionist. Here, famously, he helped set up the Shaheed Hospital at Dallirajhara, built from the workers’ own mo – ney. Later, he moved away to the Mission Hospital in Tilda, and then, in 1990, joined his wife, Ilina Sen in Raipur, to set up Rupantar, an NGO through which the couple have worked for the last 18 years in training village health workers and running mobile clinics in remote outposts.
Drive 150 kilometres away from Raipur into the unforgiving dustiness of the forest around Bagrumala and Sahelberia in district Dhamtari, where Binayak ran his Tuesday clinic, and the heroic dimension of his work overwhelms you. There is nothing that could have brought a retired colonel’s elite, accomplished son here but extraordinary compassion. Scratchy little hamlets, some no more than 25-houses strong. Peopled by Kamars and other tribals, the most neglected of the Indian human chain, destituted further by the Gangrail dam on the Mahanadi river. No schools. No drinking water. No electricity. No access to public health. And increasingly, no access to traditional forest resources. Here, stories of Binayak Sen proliferate. How he saved young Lagni lying bleeding after a miscarriage, how he rescued the villagers of Piprahi Bharhi jailed en masse for encroaching on the forest, how he helped Jaheli Bai and Dev Singh, how he helped create grain banks. “Do something. Save the doctor,” says an old man in Kamar basti. “We have no one to go to now.”
OVER THE YEARS, Binayak’s medical work had morphed into social advocacy — the two umbilically linked in a state like Chhattisgarh. As Dr Suranjan Bhattacharji, director, CMC Vellore, says, “Binayak walked the talk. He was an inspiration for generations of doctors. He stirred us. He reminded us that it takes many things — access, freedom, food security, shelter, equity and justice — to make a healthy society. He was the alternative model.” In 2004, CMC honoured Binayak with its prestigious Paul Harrison Award. In a moving citation, it said, “Dr Binayak Sen has carried his dedication to truth and service to the very frontline of the battle. He has broken the mould, redefined the possible role of the doctor in a broken and unjust society, holding the cause much more precious than personal safety. CMC is proud to be associated with Binayak Sen.”
Yet, barely three years later, on May 14, 2007, in a Kafkaesque twist, the State pressed a button and deleted Binayak Sen’s long and dedicated history as a humanist and doctor. The police arrested him as a dreaded Naxal leader and charged him with sedition, criminal conspiracy, making war against the nation, and knowingly using the proceeds of terrorism (sic). Imagine the bewilderment. “Just a namesake doctor” the prosecution asserted, and with that act of wilful cynicism, a life of soaring vision and service was extinguished. Reduced to the rubble of the Indian justice system.Since Binayak was arrested, three courts have denied him bail, most damagingly, the Supreme Court on December 10, 2007 — International Human Rights Day: an ironic detail. In this august court, Gopal Subramaniam, Additional Solicitor General of India and counsel for the Chhattisgarh government, argued that the Indian State was investigating terrorism in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra and Binayak Sen was not only a part of this network of terrorism, but a key figure in the web. Granting him bail would jeopardise the health of the nation. The evidence available to back this claim would make dishonest men blanch, and honest men weep.
Sometimes the true measure of people is revealed in the small, random remarks of those who know them. When the Supreme Court denied him bail, an old man told an activist at a rally for Binayak, “If the courts are not going to free our doctor, should we storm the jail?” Then he continued ruefully to himself, “But what’s the use? All the other prisoners would run away, but Dr Binayak would stay back.”
DESPITE THIS formidable reputation, nothing has succeeded in bailing out Binayak Sen. Not affidavits by doctors from AIIMS and CMC who, inspired by Binayak, left cash-rich urban jobs to start the rural Jan Swasth Sahyog medical centre in Ganyari. Not 2000 signatures of doctors across the world. Not Binayak’s years in the Medico Friends circle. Not his stints as a member of the government’s own advisory committee on public health, not his pioneering work in creating the Mitanin health workers programme. Not even the fact that he voluntarily ret urned from Kolkata, where he was visiting his mother, to Raipur to confront the police about what he thought was a “simple misunderstanding”. In a crushing irony, on 31 December 2007, seven months after he was arrested, the Indian Academy of Social Sciences conferred the R.R. Keithan Gold Medal on Binayak. Its citation said, “The Academy recognises the resonance between the work of Dr Binayak Sen in all its aspects with the values promoted by Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation.”
Reasonable, one supposes, to incarcerate such a man in jail. As Vishwa Ranjan, the Director General of Police, Chhattisgarh, says, “So what? One can be a humanist and idealist and still be a Maoist.” You could safely take his to be the wise voice of the State.
The most pressing question then, why was Binayak Sen arrested? What catalysed the catastrophic switch of identities that has overtaken his life? The surface details first.
Two years ago, in January 2006, Narayan Sanyal, 67, an elderly Maoist ideologue was arrested in Bhadrachalam, Andhra Pradesh. He was suffering from an extremely painful medical condition in his hand called Palmer’s Contracture. The jail officials at Warangal had sanctioned treatment when Sanyal was let out on bail. He was immediately arrested by the Chhattisgarh police on a murder charge in Dantewada and taken to Raipur jail. In May 2006, Sanyal’s elder brother, Radhamadhab, who lived in Kol – kata, wrote a letter to Binayak Sen, as the general secretary of PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties), copied to other human rights organisations, asking for help in getting Sanyal a lawyer, as well as medical attention. As one of the most eminent human rights activists in the region, Binayak intervened. He got Bhishma Kinger, a lawyer who lived in the flat opposite his, to take up Sanyal’s case, and also began corresponding with jail officials to facilitate Sanyal’s surgery. Radhamadhab, old and himself ailing, came less and less from Kolkata, happy to have Binayak substitute in his affairs. Routine burdens of conscience, as any human rights activist will tell you.
On May 6, 2007, the Raipur police suddenly arrested Piyush Guha, a small Kolkata-based tendu patta businessman and an acquaintance of Radhamadhab, who was carrying Rs 49,000 to deliver to Binayak as fees for Kin ger. They also claim they found three unsigned letters on him addressed to a ‘Mr P’, a ‘Friend V’, and ‘Friend’, innocuously complaining about jail conditions, age, the onset of arthritis. These letters, which the police believe are from Sanyal, also contain amorphous advice to P, V, and Friend to expand work among the peasantry and urban centres, congratulations on a successful “Ninth Congress”, and sundry other things. The police claim that Guha confessed that these ludicrously explosive letters of uncertain origin had been given to him by Binayak, acting as an illegal courier from the jailed detainee. As soon as Guha was produced before a magistrate, however, he said he had actually been arrested on May 1, and illegally detained and tortured for five days before being forced to sign a blank statement. The police further claim — in what seems a preposterous leap of imagination — that the Rs 49,000 was “a proceed of terrorism,” despite the fact that, even nine months later, they have not been able to unearth any terrorist act whatsoever from which that money proceeded.
On this flimsy evidence, the police declared Binayak, who was in Kolkata, an absconding Naxal leader. The local media faithfully carried the story. Hearing of this and completely appalled, Binayak — certain of his own integrity, certain of his impeccable track record, and believing in the constitutional framework of the Indian State — returned to Bilaspur to sort out the misunderstanding, contrary to advice by well-wishers to stay away and take anticipatory bail. In Bilaspur, the police asked him to “just stop by” at Tarbahar police station for a statement. He did so, and was promptly arrested on May 14, 2007, under two of the most draconian laws in the country: the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Chhattisgarh Special Security Act: aggravated mirror images of the dreaded TADA and POTA.Under these outrageous laws, merely to think something can land you in jail. As Kinger says, “I knew the judges would deny bail. If you are booked under these laws, you are done for. They are designed to create prejudice and a particular mindset in the judges.”
One of the prosecution’s weightiest accusations against Binayak is that he met Sanyal – a known Naxal ideologue — in jail 33 times. Set aside for a moment the many valid reasons why he might have done so: Sanyal’s medical condition, the surgery, the intricacies of his case. Suppose even for a moment that Binayak was indeed a passive Naxal sympathiser, the moot point here is that each of those meetings were legally sanctioned and conducted under supervision. Is that fair reason to steal a man’s freedom? The prosecution claims Binayak masqueraded as Sanyal’s relative, but his wife, Ilina invoked the RTI Act and extracted all the letters Binayak had written to the jail authorities seeking permission to meet Sanyal: all of them were on official PUCL letterheads, duly signed by Binayak as its general secretary.
SINCE BINAYAK was arrested, the police has continually gone fishing and, post facto, pulled out the most absurd evidence against him, building the case up desperately, bubble by bubble, on the most laughable of things: a confessional love letter between supposed Maoists in which Binayak’s name appears as a possible source of moral advice; a scrap of paper in Gondi allegedly recovered from an encounter site, which no one can decipher but in which the words PUCL and the Chhattisgarh Special Security Act features; a letter by Naxal leader Madan Barkade to Binayak complaining about jail conditions which he published among the human rights community. Innocuous, explainable things. Nothing there to the common eye that suggests Binayak is a grave threat to national security who must be denied bail pending trial.
What then explains the State’s inordinate zeal to put away Binayak? What explains its intractable need to erase his gentle, morally unim-peachable, identity and erect a dread criminal in its place? Why is it literally manufacturing evidence against the good doctor? For instance, DGP Vishwa Ranjan claims Piyush Guha is their main evidence against Binayak. Yet, in a seemingly desperate attempt to make Guha look more incriminating than he does, weeks after he was arrested, the police suddenly took him to Purulia on June 4, 2007, and made him an accused in an old bomb blast case in Thana Bundwan — a case in which his name was not even mentioned in the original FIR, filed a full year and a half earlier in October 2005! Why this inordinate zeal to paint Binayak black?
TO UNDERSTAND the full horror of Binayak Sen’s case — to get a grip on its significance for the sanity of this country at large — one needs to take a close look at
the state of Chhattisgarh. The story of Binayak is just the most high-profile example of hundreds of unnamed individuals like him, caught in the cross-hair of a State at war with its own people. Like theirs, his story is the story of suspended reason, suspended logic and suspended freedom that is the inevitable outcome of a State that paralyses itself with the scare of “national security.” In many ways, Chhattisgarh is now seen as the epicenter of a Maoist insurgency that cuts across 13 states. In Chhattisgarh, by the government’s own admission, most of Bastar and Dantewada are out of its jurisdiction. This is undoubtedly a difficult situation. Each year, hundreds of policemen, hapless tribals, and symbols of the state — bridges, jails, telegraph poles — are blown up by extremists. By Home Ministry estimates, there were 311 casualties in Chhattisgarh in 2007; 571 nationwide. Sympathisers will tell you Maoists have local support — how much of this is voluntary, how much coercion, one can never accurately tell: the only way you can report on the Maoists is if they take you into the jungles to their camps. What you get then is obviously selective information. Typically though, all the regions under Maoist influence are regions where the government has been culpably remiss. Either schools, primary health care, roads, electricity, livelihood — all the benign functions of State — are completely missing. Or, the government is on a rampage of development and industrialisation, which is at odds with local aspirations and needs.
With predictable myopia, the Indian State has been meeting grievance with violence, illness with extermination. Not cure. Draconian laws. CRPF battalions. IRP battalions. Increased militarisation. Thousands of crores for upgrading police. Special funds for Naxal-affected States. An invitation to competitive violence: that has been the government’s response to grassroots militancy. In Chhattisgarh, this manifested itself particularly harmfully in 2005 as the government-sponsored counter-revolution: the now infamous Salwa Judum, which pitted villager against villager and triggered a bloody civil war. 644 villages have been forcibly evacuated by the government, their residents forced into sub-human camps. Smoke out the support, is the State’s war cry. Civil rights activists tell you, the State’s real quarry is not even the Maoists, but the iron-rich soil, ready to be handed to private corporations, Nandigramstyle. There are rumours that the makeshift camps are now going to be turned into official revenue villages, which will force tribals to abdicate all the original evacuated land to the government. All of that is speculation still; but the excesses of the Salwa Judum are real.
It is against this backdrop that Binayak Sen caught the self-serving eye of the State. Narayan Sanyal is perhaps the least controversial case he had espoused. Santoshpur fake encounter. Gollapalli fake encounter. Narayan Kherwa false encounter. Raipur false surrender. Ram Kumar Dhruv’s custodial death. Ambikapur. Lakrakona. Bandethana. Koilibera. Each of these hieroglyphs has a searing back story: some excess of State that Binayak and other human rights activists investigated and criticised. Most damningly, in December 2005, Binayak led a 15-member team from different organisations and published a scathing report on the Salwa Judum. It was the first of many reports that would expose and embarrass the government.
It’s this back story that made Binayak so unpalatable to the government. Consciously or subconsciously, it wanted to make a lesson of him. Perhaps even that is to accord more coherence to the State than it deserves. The real story of Binayak is the myopia of an unintelligent, scare-mongering State. Having declared Maoists as the “gravest threat to national security”, the Indian government has got itself into a George Bush like-twist. It sees weapons of mass destruction where there are none. Men like Binayak Sen start to look like Osama Bin Laden. Such are the perception tricks the “national security” prism can play on you.
In a mellow moment, DGP Vishwa Ranjan will admit there has been a miscarriage of justice. “Left to myself, I would have kept Binayak under surveillance, not arrested him,” he says. A big admission. In the same breath though, he will tell you conspiratorially that they have a mountain of evidence gathering against him. Evidence they can neither show you, nor yet present in court. Binayak Sen however can moulder in jail, while they construct their paranoid jigsaw.
ON FEBRUARY 2, 2008, a windy, brisk morning in Raipur, Binayak Sen is produced in the sessions court, nine months after his arrest, for the framing of charges. A surreal mood descends. The jostling cops contrast badly with the dignified calm of the frail handsome man who climbs down from the police van. A cold, firm handshake, a clear, refined voice, “Thank you for being here.” Then everyone is in the court room. Judge Saluja mumbles out the charges, distinctly uncomfortable. He can drop some of the inflated accusations, but he doesn’t. Binayak, listening in the witness box, denies all the charges, then asks for some time with his wife and lawyers. The judge concedes.
There is a palpable fear in the air. Several doctors who’ve come in solidarity are afraid to talk. There have been a series of arrests across Raipur the previous day: two women making an arms drop, a travel agency owner, a journalist. Everyone’s feeling hunted. It’s difficult to tell truth from lie. The framed from the genuine.
Binayak Sen, however, seems curiously aloof from all of this. As the police hustle him into the van, he presses his face against the iron bars and says urgently, “You must understand, there is a Malthusian process of exclusion going on in the country. You cannot create two categories of human beings. Everybody must wake up to this, otherwise soon it will be too late.” The concerns of the humanist are apparent even through the imprisoning bar. “If they arrest people like me, human rights workers will have no locus standi. I have never condoned Maoist violence. It is an invalid and unsustainable movement. Along with the Salwa Judum, it has created a dangerous split in the tribal community. But the grievances are real. There is an on-going famine in the region. The body mass is below 18.5. Forty percent of the country lives with malnutrition. In Scheduled Castes and Tribes, this goes up to 50 and 60 percent respectively. We have to strive for more inclusive growth. You cannot create two categories of people…”
Hardly conversation designed to dismantle the Indian nation. Ask him why he lent his services to Narayan Sanyal, a self-confessed Naxal, and Binayak’s answer captures the essential sanctity of civil rights across the world. “I knew I was entering the lion’s mouth,” he says quietly, “but if you start stepping back, where do you stop? You cannot discriminate. Everybody has the right to legal aid and medical care. That is written in the Constitution. That is the basis of individual, human rights.”
One of DGP Vishwa Ranjan’s grouses is, “Why does he criticise the Salwa Judum more than the Maoists?” Binayak’s answer would be that the Indian State has a greater responsibility to abide by the Constitution and due process of law than Maoists who’ve abdicated from the State. But that’s a moral nicety official India obviously finds difficult to grasp.
Ask Ilina Sen where she finds the strength to fight this battle, and she says, “I realise this goes beyond Binayak and my family. We are part of a much larger fight. We are struggling for the right to dissent peacefully. Our commitment to that gives me strength.” Again, a moral nicety official India would find difficult to grasp. Take Medha Patkar: 20 years of peaceful resistance. No result. Take Sharmila Irom: 7 years of heroic fasting. No result. Take Binayak Sen…
Binayak Sen will soon be on trial. To continue his imprisonment during this period is to foreclose the space for peaceful protest in India. It is to nurture weapons of mass destruction. It is to invite violent conversations. It is to further rent a tattered Gandhian dream.