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Security at what cost?

The Hindu, 22 August 2007

Garimella Subramaniam

Chhattisgarh’s Special Public Security Act under fire.

Chhattisgarh’s champion of rural public health and civil liberties, Binayak Sen, has been incarcerated in Raipur’s Central Jail for over three months. His detention under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA) 2005 brings into focus the government’s dangerous strategy of countering Maoist insurgency with state-sponsored private armed militias, with grave implications for the exercise of fundamental rights.

The immediate provocation for the judicial remand of this medical missionary, of no religious denomination, on May 14 was the campaign he led to spotlight the killing last March of seven adivasis in Bastar. But the arrest is part of a pattern of repression by the Raman Singh government to quell democratic opposition to plans for large scale acquisition of the mineral-rich tribal land.
No incriminating evidence

It took the police over two months and repeated adjournments from the courts to file a charge sheet. Even so, the voluminous document fails to provide any incriminating evidence against Dr. Sen. Allusion to his many authorised visits to the jail to counsel undertrials — in his capacity as State general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties — is a case in point. The High Court, while rejecting the police demand for remanding Dr. Sen to the custody of the investigating agencies, denied him bail.

The Salwa Judum, a voluntary association of land-owners and contractors backed by the state, has, since 2005, unleashed a reign of terror. Thousands of adivasis have been removed from more than 600 villages in Dantewada district alone. The National Commission for Women and other independent fact-finding teams have highlighted the atrocities committed by Salwa Judum, including assaults on and killing of women, torching of houses, and extortion of illegal levy from passing vehicles.

A public interest litigation filed in this connection has alleged a complete breakdown of the civil administration and sought the Supreme Court’s intervention for the restoration of the rule of law. Eminent personalities, including Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, renowned social critic Noam Chomsky, and Booker-Prize winning author Arundhati Roy, have rallied behind Dr. Sen.

Dr. Sen has for three decades been at the forefront of unravelling the connections between endemic poverty, disease, food security, and macro-economic policies. Elements of the alternative model he pioneered include advocacy of oral medication over intra-muscular injections, a validated mechanism for timely diagnosis of malaria and tuberculosis, and supply of low-cost medicines. This distinguished alumnus of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, served on the official committee for the ‘Mitanin’ programme to train 60,000 women health workers, launched by the previous Ajit Jogi government.

Recent events are a fallout of the overtly political character of Dr. Sen’s social activism. For example, he challenged the CSPSA even before it received presidential assent. The High Court dismissed his petition; but to him, that outcome only underlined the need to raise public awareness about the arbitrary law.

The State can, for instance, declare any organisation as unlawful without specifying reasons and slap a three-year sentence on its members. It can dub routine acts of free expression and association as unlawful activities and pronounce a seven-year imprisonment on those that it disapproves of. As the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative points out, the two-year sentence under the CSPSA for protecting members of an unlawful organisation can be used to harass persons who are forced to shelter to armed groups.

Political parties of the Left and democratic mainstream, including the Congress and the Communist parties, have called for the Chhattisgarh law to be scrapped and, by implication, for Dr. Sen’s release.