A Conversation With Human Rights Activist Binayak Sen

From the New York Times:

Binayak Sen, 62, is no ordinary doctor. Few doctors, after all, spend three decades working in a region threatened by what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the “single biggest internal security challenge ever faced” by the country. And that was before Dr. Sen was jailed on charges of “waging a war against the state,” which prompted a group of Nobel laureates to petition for his release.

Dr. Sen was released in 2009, after spending two years in jail, but still faces charges of supporting the Maoists, also referred to as Naxalites, which he denies.

The Maoists have been leading an armed movement to capture political power in 13 states in India over four decades, and claim to be fighting for the poor, dispossessed and marginalized. Dr. Sen ran mobile clinics in the interior of Chhattisgarh, one of the states most affected by the Maoist insurgency. In 2005, he led a 15-member team that published a report criticizing the Salwa Judum, which Human Rights Watch calls “a state-supported vigilante group aimed at eliminating Naxalites.”

The Chhattisgarh state government alleged that his work, and in particular his association with the Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal, amounted to helping wage “a war against the state.” Although that charge was dismissed, he was found guilty of sedition and conspiracy, and sentenced to life imprisonment by a lower court in Chhattisgarh in 2010. He was granted bail by the Supreme Court in 2011 and an appeal against the conviction is pending in the Chhattisgarh High Court.

A group of 40 Nobel laureates described him as “an exceptional, courageous, and selfless colleague, dedicated to helping those in India who are least able to help themselves,” in a 2011 letter appealing for his life sentence to be overturned.

India Ink had several conversations with Dr. Sen, both over the phone and e-mail, to discuss how human rights activism grew from his work as a doctor.

Describe your journey from being a doctor in rural areas to being labeled a Maoist sympathizer.

My work in Chhattisgarh was with village communities, some of the poorest in India, and training health workers to look after their needs. Earlier, I had helped establish a hospital for mine workers in the area. As a logical outcome of my work, I was involved with human rights work, and was the general secretary of the state unit of the Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties.

In this capacity I was instrumental in documenting and exposing deaths due to hunger and malnutrition, and to the displacement of over 600 tribal villages by the state-sponsored militia called Salwa Judum, or S.J., in southern Chhattisgarh. Last year, the S.J. was banned by the Supreme Court of India.

But it was in 2007 that I was labeled a Maoist supporter, for reasons best known to the Chhattisgarh state government. I was arrested in 2007 and charged with sedition, as well as under internal security acts, spent two years in jail during the trial, was released on bail by the Supreme Court, convicted and sent to jail again, before again being released on bail in 2011. My appeal against the conviction is still pending in the state high court.

What was your association with the Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal?

I was approached by Narayan Sanyal’s family to help him with his legal cases and his health needs. In my capacity as a P.U.C.L. activist, I visited him in jail several times in the presence of senior jail officials, as they testified at my trial.

Could you tell us about your time in prison?

My time in prison was a time of deep despair, as I was unable to figure out the logic of the juridical action against me. At the same time it gave me an opportunity to know the stories of many fellow prisoners who were undergoing the same trauma as myself.

I came across many such instances where people had spent substantial amounts of time and were later let go. In some instances the judges have indicted the police for fabrication of evidence and illegal detention, but nothing has happened.

I did not do anything that was, to the best of my knowledge, wrong or illegal. I didn’t expect anything like this happen to me; I had in fact worked with the government to provide essential services in these areas. After coming out of jail, I have been part of a nationwide process for the repeal of unjust and oppressive laws.

There was no physical intimidation that I faced in jail. However, I was kept in solitary confinement. Life in jail is itself a form of mental intimidation.

Do you consider yourself fortunate that you received a great deal of media attention when you were arrested?

Page 1 of 2 | Next page