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A triumph for human rights

Herald, Panjim,
27 May 2009


The grant of bail to Dr Binayak Sen by the Supreme Court brings down the curtain on one of the most shameful episodes in the recent history of democratic India. Sen was in jail for two long years before a Supreme Court vacation bench comprising Justices Markandey Katju and Deepak Varma gave a terse six-word order: “Bail is granted on personal bond”.
It is a moment of celebration for the civil rights movement in India – and for Dr Sen’s wife Ilina and his two daughters – but it should also be a moment for introspection. Why should a renowned doctor like Binayak Sen have had to spend over two years in jail, despite the government having little or no evidence against him?
Should we have laws that allow people to be jailed without any real evidence of wrongdoing? It is the judiciary that has now come to Dr Sen’s rescue, but the same judiciary refused to grant him bail on numerous earlier occasions.
Dr Sen is a distinguished alumnus of the Christian Medical College in Vellore. He has worked among the poorest sections of society. He pioneered the setting up of the Shaheed Hospital at Dalli Rajahara for legendary trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi, which became a model for effective low-cost, high quality healthcare.
After Niyogi’s murder, Dr Sen continued to work among the tribals of Chhattisgarh. He developed the innovative ‘Mitranin’ primary healthcare programme, which won numerous awards. His arrest, therefore, caused an international furore. Apart from a sustained campaign in India, 22 Nobel Laureates signed an appeal for his release.
Bail is generally granted as a matter of right, and denial is an exception. Why then, despite the complete lack of evidence against him, was Dr Sen not granted bail earlier? Why, in fact, was he charged at all? Why did the Chhattisgarh government deny him proper treatment for his heart condition? The answer to that question lies in the fear of ‘Naxalism’, which has captured the minds of our elites.
Dr Sen has persistently questioned the economic and political processes that have led to the marginalisation of the poorest sections of Indian society. He has documented the human rights abuses of the state-sponsored, anti-Naxalite goonda force called the ‘Salwa Judum’ in Chhattisgarh. In what was intended as a clear message to all those who dare to question ‘development’ as defined by the Indian industrialist class, Dr Sen ended up being locked up for over two years for his commitment to the poorest of the poor.
It cannot be denied that left-wing extremism has been growing in strength, particularly in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa. But the government’s response has always been to treat it as a pure law and order problem. What needs to be done, instead, is to look into the causes of left-wing extremism and to examine what gives the movement its strength.
In today’s India, the poorest of the poor have nobody to turn to other than Naxalites. No other political group even bothers to take up the task of protecting their rights and livelihood.
The Naxalites use violent methods. But they work among people who regularly have to face violence from the state and from private industry, which is eager to displace them and exploit the natural resources of the areas that they live in.
In such a situation, military solutions are bound to fail. The Naxalites live among the people like fish in water, receiving their support and loyalty. The ‘solution’ implemented by the Chhattisgarh government – the Salwa Judum – has displaced the tribals from their villages, and locked them up in what can only be described as government-sponsored concentration camps. Worse, this outfit of village goons has become a well-armed private militia, setting tribal against tribal. It has a terrible human rights record.
Unless serious efforts are made to make the development process more inclusive, and to ensure that the poorest of the poor have a stake in the system, there is little hope of bringing left-wing extremism under control. The government would do well to pay heed to the likes of Dr Binayak Sen, rather than try to silence them using the might of the state.