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Need Spine, Not Muscle, To Fight For Human Rights

Deccan Chronicle, May 28th, 2009

by Antara Dev Sen

It took two years of sustained shaming to get Dr Binayak Sen out on bail. The state had been stoutly ignoring the worldwide chorus of appeals and angry protests since the doctor and civil rights activist’s arrest on flimsy charges back in May 2007.

Now the Supreme Court has finally ordered his release from custody on a personal bond, on grounds of ill health. While this is lovely news, it is not really a victory of civil rights over state repression. In fact, that the state had managed to keep Dr Sen behind bars for so long without evidence, ignoring the international outcry and unrelenting national protests for two years, shows us what our wonderful democracy has been reduced to.

No, I am not being churlish at a moment of jubilation. Just cautious. Remember that Dr Binayak Sen is just the most high profile of many civil rights activists around India who are being harassed, tortured and even killed by government agencies for speaking up against state repression. Remember that the horrific terror laws they are held under are still firmly in place. Remember that Dr Sen had been protesting human rights violations of the tribals in Chhattisgarh by a state government keen to label critics Maoists and kill them in fake encounters, that he was arrested following his investigations into the murder of villagers by the police and state-supported Salwa Judum. The vicious Salwa Judum that carries out ethnic cleansing in the tribal areas (many say to further corporate agendas in this resource-rich belt) and had reportedly clapped almost 50,000 people in concentration camp-like conditions. Remember that more than a year ago, the Supreme Court had declared that band of vigilantes illegal.

“How can the state give arms to some persons? The state will be abetting in a crime if these private persons kill others”, Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan had said. “You will be an abettor of the offence under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code.”

In short, the Supreme Court had pointed out that the Salwa Judum makes the state an accomplice in murder. But Dr Sen was still behind bars — partly in solitary confinement — for more than a year after that April 2008 judgement. And it was only because of his urgent need of medical attention that the court could order bail. So after all those marches, fiery speeches, hard-hitting articles, public discussions and appeals that many of us have vigorously participated in for two years, after all those prestigious international prizes and grand awards and worldwide appeals, including one by two-dozen Nobel laureates, Dr Binayak Sen got bail on medical grounds. This moment of freedom underlined how merely demanding human rights is not enough, how we still need fig leaves like heart ailments to bail out our heroic activists who are unlawfully incarcerated.

But India is, after all, a well-oiled democracy. Our civil society does make a difference. We do have some control over the fate of our nation and our fellow citizens, even if the wheels of justice turn slowly and we need fig leaves to smuggle in justice. We are still far more fortunate than our neighbours in the failed and failing states around us. There has been a prolonged dearth of human rights in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Tibet and the jewel in the crown, Burma.

But the power of civil society is not limited to the democracy it lives and breathes in. Its power lies in being able to reach beyond local and national boundaries, beyond ethnic, religious and language barriers, in being able to come together to demand basic rights for unknown people far away simply in the name of humanity and justice.

And just as we need to get our government to stop its own human rights abuses, we also need to put pressure on it to be a responsible, ethical neighbour that protests human rights abuse elsewhere.

Right now, India has an excellent opportunity to help the government of Sri Lanka be fair in its rehabilitation and protection of the long-suffering Sri Lankan Tamils. It is not just M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa’s concern, not just a matter of Tamil sentiments and vote-bank politics. The plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils is the concern of anyone who believes in human rights. And as the world’s largest democracy that wishes to be a regional superpower, India must rise to the occasion. Yes, our earlier intervention in Sri Lanka was a disaster, so we know what not to do this time.

Flexing muscle is not the point, but showing some spine has its merits. Take our screaming silence on Burma, even as the junta carries on its shameless attempt to jail Aung San Suu Kyi for a further five years as her house arrest ends this week. Like our earlier silences over Burma’s enormous human rights abuses and political wrongs, we have kept politely quiet on this make-believe trial to jail the Nobel peace laureate over a curious case of an unknown American swimming into her house and thus violating the terms of her house arrest just before it was to end.

This seems to be a clear attempt by the Burmese junta to deny Suu Kyi freedom yet again, to clap her in jail now to make it easier for the generals to win the elections next year. But why go for such lugubrious measures to retain power, you may ask, when all they need to do is reject the results of the elections? That’s what they did when Suu Kyi won with 82 per cent votes in 1990. She has been in and out of house arrest for decades, and has been in detention for a total of 13 years. Her supporters have been jailed and badly abused, hundreds of them killed by the military regime.

Burma, once an integral part of the Indian consciousness, is now a lawless jungle that we don’t even think about. Other than occasional squeaks, India has not had much of a say in the junta’s atrocious affairs.
Today, as Suu Kyi’s trial continues and the world demands her release, India looks away. The European Union, the United Nations, America and practically every civilised country has spoken up against the junta and appealed for her release.

There is further talk of sanctions against Burma and of dragging Burma to the UN Security Council. But India, scared of China’s wrath, keeps its head down. Hopefully, our civil society will show more spine. And we will not have to hang our heads in shame in the world out there.

* Antara Dev Sen is editor of The Little Magazine. She can be contacted at: sen (at)