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Doctors and Dictators: Who Jailed Binayak Sen?

Hard News, November 2008

The good doctor is modern India’s historic victim of organised injustice and State terror driven by big profit and the poison of communal politics

Dunu Roy Delhi

In his evocative essay ‘Dr Binayak Sen, My Brother, My Hero’, (Hardnews, September 2008) Dipankar Sen wonders towards the end, “Now that we are convinced that his imprisonment is based on false and trumped up charges, we will want to know who would want to inflict such a fate on this man and above all why? Then we could have a possible basis and a clue to engage in a sensible dialogue with them to secure his release.”

Who has imprisoned Dr Binayak Sen? The answer seems fairly direct: It is the state government of Chhattisgarh acting through its loyal and dedicated servants, including the higher officials in the police, the public prosecutors office, and the associated branches of the executive and judiciary. Why has he been imprisoned? The charges against him, under Sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967, Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005, and the Indian Penal Code, are that he is a member of an unlawful association, gang, or organisation, gives support and aid to and solicits contributions for such organisation, and is guilty of sedition and waging war against the State.

Does the evidence support these charges? Dr Sen was arrested in mid-May 2007 and the first hearing on his bail application took place shortly thereafter. The Sessions Court rejected the bail, saying that there was reason to believe that Dr Sen was acquainted with individuals associated with Naxalite (or Maoist) organisations – even though these individuals were not charged under the relevant Acts at that time. When his bail application came up for hearing in the Chhattisgarh High Court in late July, the judge again denied bail because he was convinced by the prosecution’s arguments that Dr Sen had been frequently meeting a prisoner in the jail who was alleged to be a Naxalite and carrying secret letters from him, and there were no provisions for grant of bail in the sections under which he had been charged.

Five months later, in December 2007, the bail application came before the Supreme Court, where it was dismissed without giving any reason. Thus, the opposing arguments by the defence that Dr Sen had been meeting the alleged Naxalite prisoner with the permission of the jail authorities and in his capacity as the vice president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL); that there was no evidence to suggest he was a member of an unlawful organisation or even supporting one; that he could not be charged on the basis of statements made to the police by persons in the custody of the police; that none of the material seized from his house had been proven as prima facie evidence against him: were all repeatedly disregarded by the courts.

Hence, even after knowing who has formally imprisoned Dr Sen and why, the expectation of a “sensible dialogue” to secure his release has not materialised. In other words, there is probably more to this whole series of incidents than meets the eye.

There are several schools of thought hovering around this. One school firmly believes that Dr Sen was arrested because his organisation, the PUCL, was drawing too much (embarrassing) attention to unlawful killings by the authorities under the “Black Laws” (the Unlawful Activities Act and Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act). Another group of supporters is equally firm in holding that it is because PUCL-Chattisgarh has been one of the few organisations to draw attention to the excesses committed by the BJP-led state government under its Salwa Judum campaign. Yet another view is that Dr. Sen’s “crime” consists of selfless, fearless and uncompromising pursuit of truth, and dedication to his work of pursuing an alternative public health approach.

Others have expanded the context by stating that the Indian State is threatening all those opposed to its neo-liberal development paradigm and Dr Sen was challenging the opening up of the economy by the Chhattisgarh government to large private sector players, the forcible acquisition of native lands, the consequent oppression of tribals and Dalits, and the exploitation of workers in the industrial belt. And a few insist that Dr Sen is paying the price of being branded as a ‘Maoist by association’ because he did not shy away from making the point that the draconian laws should not be and cannot be used to target human rights activists or journalists who are in contact with members of ‘unlawful organisations’, for their human rights or journalistic activity.

Perhaps one has to move a little further away from Dr Sen’s immediate case to understand which of these views is correct and what is the larger context within which Dr Sen has been languishing in jail for almost 19 months.

Firstly, as PUCL itself has documented, Dr Sen is not alone in being harassed in Chhattisgarh. By July 2008, the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act alone had been used to detain 137 citizens, including traders, professionals, farmers, cultural activists, and human rights activists, and only seven members of Maoist parties – mostly under the charge of having “collaborated with the Maoists’ organisations, and provided food, water etc. to its members, and illegally collected funds on their behalf”. The state government has also banned Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), and served an eviction notice on the Vanvasi Chetana Ashram, for providing assistance to the Maoists.

In other words, the thrust of the campaign against Dr Sen and these 137 citizens is the same – the allegations are of being associated in some way with the Maoists (or Naxalites) who come under the rubric of “unlawful” or “terrorist” organisations. Under the law, this association seems to require little evidence to be provided by the prosecuting agency and, in fact, the onus is on the detained person to prove his or her innocence – something that goes against the basic tenets of justice. Thus, the illegality of the State’s ability to terrorise ordinary (and perfectly lawful) citizens has been legitimised by manufacturing consent within various parts of civil society of the urgent need to “wage war against terror” by whatever means possible.

This illegality can be clearly observed in the case of the petition against Salwa Judum filed in the Supreme Court. Under the directions of the apex court, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) appointed a committee composed entirely of police officers. When they visited the villages they were accompanied by anti-mine tanks and a huge contingent of security forces, including armed Salwa Judum ‘officers’ – which was obviously their interpretation of an ‘appropriate’ mode of unbiased investigation. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that they have selectively chosen what to highlight and have justified the government-sponsored arming of the Salwa Judum by calling it a “spontaneous revolt of the tribals against years of atrocities and harassment suffered by them at the hands of the Naxalites”.

Such targeting of a particular group or sect is not unique to the Naxalites. The Muslims have been equally vilified in the “war against terror”. The Srikrishna Commission investigating the Mumbai blasts of 1993 put the blame squarely on the role of the police, the Marathi newspapers Saamna (Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece) and Navakaal, and the Shiv-Sena-BJP combine. Yet, most of the people apprehended in the case were Muslims – as were most of the victims. When the accused Memons returned to India in 2004 because they had faith in India’s judicial system, they were immediately prosecuted and sentenced on the same logic of association since the prosecution could not establish a direct link to the conspiracy involving a single one of them.

The recent Batla House/Jamia Nagar shootout in the capital has already been widely criticised in the media for this kind of association and weak, concocted evidence. Questions are already being raised about the alleged seizure of weapons, laptop, etc, being done in the absence of any witnesses. None of the members of the flat or the locality said they were witness to the high profile ‘seizure’. Even the story about the escaped ‘dreaded terrorists’ does not appear to hold water because there was only a single entrance which the police had already covered and it was patently impossible for anyone to jump from the fourth floor flat. Inexplicably, one of these young ‘terrorists’, surrendered to a TV news channel within hours of the encounter, another was regularly being quoted on TV, while another went with his father to the police station.

A People’s Tribunal on Atrocities organised in mid-2008 at Hyderabad, received depositions and statements in over 40 cases and found that a large number of innocent Muslims were arrested on charges of ‘terrorism’ but were not shown to be arrested until many days later, their families were not informed, they were tortured in police custody, and made to “confess”. Courts were routinely allowing police remand and not granting bail, while the media uncritically publicised the charges and allegations levelled by the police. And Human Rights Commissions were, by and large, treating complaints with casual indifference.

A similar People’s Tribunal on Torture held at Kolkata received 82 depositions, but the police subsequently raided the office of the organisers and registered a criminal case against them.

In sharp contrast, the CBI chargesheet into the Nanded Blasts of 2006 completely covered up the role of the Sangh Parivar’s network that was training youth in the manufacture of explosives and bombs after indoctrinating them in hate propaganda against India’s Muslims. These were the same persons who had been involved in bursting bombs at Parbhani and Jalna. The same pattern can be seen in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Manipur, Kashmir, Karnataka, Kerala, Delhi, Tamilnadu and, now, Orissa.

Thus, it is estimated that the violence in Orissa affected 14 districts and 300 villages. Almost 4,300 houses, 149 churches, and 13 schools/colleges have been destroyed, 50,000 turned homeless, women raped and burnt alive, and 57 people killed. Yet, superficial action has been taken against the Hindutva activists and RSS/VHP/Bajrang Dal leaders (Praveen Togadia and others) who orchestrated the brutality.

What the above indicates is that a “sensible dialogue” between those who imprison and those who are imprisoned is no longer a possibility in the real world of ‘shining India’. The supporters of Dr Sen and others like him have to, therefore, deal not only with the ‘truth’ as it should be but the ‘reality’ as it is. And while that reality appears to be fractured, in fact, it is the reflection of a society rapidly retreating from openness, justice, and equality.

In a curious twist of history, the “evil” face of the rich exploiter has been replaced by the “terrorist” face of the exploited. Hence, the call for a more “disciplined” society governed by an “enlightened” elite. This is the benevolent face of fascist brutality.

The writer is a chemical engineer, development researcher and political ecologist

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