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Does America post 9/11 explain Binayak Sen?

The Indian Express, 20 January 2009

Fog of war

by Vinay Sitapati

In a speech to Congress nine days after 9/11, US President George W. Bush declared “war” on terror. It seemed as innocuous a phrase then, as it is commonplace now. But re-categorising a ‘law enforcement’ problem as ‘war’ was a game-changer in two ways. First, war demands that we rally around the leader; questioning abuse of power can be unpatriotic. Second, since war is ugly business, mistakes happen. Some collateral damage is inevitable. Bush’s audience and America’s other public institutions agreed to play by these new rules. His “war on terror” ranged from controversial (the Patriot act, racial profiling) to plain illegal (warrantless wiretapping, Guantanamo bay, Iraq). In every single case, the Bush administration got a free pass from the Congress, Senate, media, judiciary and public opinion. To take just a few examples: the Supreme Court refused to grant habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo bay detainees — in flagrant breach of international law — waking up somewhat only seven years later. While the rest of world cried foul, the Congress and Senate gave bipartisan support to the Iraq war. And the public? Bush’s approval rating post 9/11 shot to 90 per cent — even before he’d taken a single major decision!

This free pass that public institutions give the executive is characteristic of war everywhere. Israeli public opinion accepts a thousand Palestinian deaths in Gaza as unavoidable collateral damage; its human rights community thinks it bad taste to chastise the army in times of trouble. As Sri Lanka stands on the brink of an epic victory, the media self-gags, courts are careful, and executive power is unquestioned. Some of this acquiescence is got by intimidation. Dissenting voices are “burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced”, Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickramatunga wrote in a tragically prescient obituary of himself. But for most part, this institutional ‘group-think’ is done voluntarily, and with the best of intentions: solidarity in times of war, and sacrifice for the greater common good. In America’s case, “war as metaphor” — to paraphrase Susan Sontag — gave Dubya leeway wide enough to preside over what emerging consensus terms “the very worst presidency ever”. Does America post 9/11 explain Binayak Sen?

A practicing doctor in south Bastar, Binayak Sen was arrested by the Chhattisgarh police for “supporting” Naxalites. He’s been in jail-without-bail for 19 months. The magistracy, high court, Supreme Court and NHRC have all reinforced the state’s view on Sen. With so much smoke, surely he must have set something on fire? But as The Indian Express pointed out in a series of articles (IE, January 13, 14, 15) and in an editorial (IE, January 15), injustice on a colossal scale has likely been done. Known criminals arrested on harder evidence get bail quicker. And in the ongoing trial in Raipur, the government’s case against Sen — never strong — has more or less collapsed. Yet, in jail for close to two years, Binayak Sen seems destined to spend a couple more.

One way is to see this as a monolithic state ‘fixing’ its enemy and stifling institutional dissent. But the Supreme Court and NHRC went after Narendra Modi. The media, Supreme Court and public opinion all stood up to Indira Gandhi. India is no banana republic; its institutions no Pakistan. Why then have our public institutions failed Binayak Sen?

Described as India’s “greatest internal security threat” by the prime minister, Naxalites operate in half of Chhattisgarh’s 18 districts. In response, the Raman Singh state Government has re-categorised the threat from ‘law and order’ to ‘war’. Anti-Naxal measures such as para-military deployment (17 battalions), nurturing an extra-legal militia (Salwa Judum), and targeting “supporters” of any kind (the Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Act) — are weapons to wage war, not sticks to keep the peace. The least they require is tough questioning by activist public institutions. But the high court, Supreme Court and NHRC all seem reluctant to play spoiler in a long drawn war against a dangerous enemy. To them, Binayak Sen is a war casualty: an enemy combatant at worst, collateral damage at best. Sen’s incarceration is a political question whose answer is best left to the judgment of the state executive. It would be deemed unpatriotic to do otherwise.

Binayak Sen is only one of 192 charged under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Act; the Act only one of a slew of Indian anti-terror laws; and Naxalism only one (though perhaps most dangerous) of India’s million mutinies. But Binayak Sen symbolises a larger point: tough times may need tough responses, but require tough monitoring as well. Just as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo battered America’s sense of self more than Osama Bin Laden ever thought conceivable, misusing laws destroys the very ideals for which we battle against Al Qaeda and Naxalites. Institutional acquiescence of the “war on terror” did America great disservice. Will we too tell ourselves a generation later: that when faced with a good fight, we fought it the wrong way. And lost.

vinay.sitapati@expressindia.com