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‘Rights Activists’ Such as Dr. Sen Caught in Middle

Wall Street Journal, Monday, November 12, 2007

Indian Unrest Ensnares a Doctor

By KRISHNA POKHAREL and PAUL BECKETT
November 12, 2007; Page A8

NEW DELHI — A rebel movement that seeks to overthrow the Indian government is gaining ground across a swath of the country’s center and south, a region rich in mineral resources but where many of the poor feel left out of the nation’s economic boom.

India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, last year called the Maoist rebel movement the most serious security challenge facing the country. The rebels are known as Naxalites, after the Naxalbari region in the state of West Bengal where the movement was born 40 years ago.

Governments in states affected by the rebellion, including the impoverished state of Chhattisgarh, have backed crackdowns on indigenous villages they suspect of supporting the Naxalites. But many of these villages sit on valuable mining lands, prompting human-rights activists to complain of a murky line between state-backed security operations and clearing the way for resource development.

In Chhattisgarh alone, an estimated 100,000 villagers have been displaced — many into temporary camps — as the state solicits foreign and domestic companies to exploit its trove of iron ore, bauxite, diamonds and other minerals.

This clash between development, the rights of the poor and the rebel movement has ensnared some people in the middle. Among the most prominent is Binayak Sen, a doctor to tribal villagers in Chhattisgarh for 25 years. He is also a human-rights activist, frequently visiting jails where he treated prisoners, including prominent Naxalites.

In May, the 57-year-old Dr. Sen was arrested and put in prison in Chhattisgarh’s capital of Raipur, charged with passing notes from a Naxalite leader he was treating in jail to someone outside the prison. He has been denied bail. Dr. Sen denies passing notes or committing any crime, and says his activities in the jail were constantly supervised by prison authorities.

Dr. Sen was a vocal critic of how the state’s development drive is hurting tribal villagers. So far, investments totaling about $21.33 billion have been proposed in the state by Indian and foreign companies, according to the Chhattisgarh State Investment Promotion Board. Most of the investments in the region have come from large Indian companies, including Jindal Steel & Power Ltd., Tata Steel and Essar Steel Ltd.

In a speech just before his arrest, Dr. Sen said, “For the past several years, we are seeing all over India … a concerted program to expropriate from the poorest people in the Indian nation their access to essentials, common property resources and to natural resources including land and water.”

The state government claims by arresting Dr. Sen it was enforcing state antiterrorism laws, enacted in 2005 to beef up the legal framework used to jail Naxalites and their supporters. “It is very much according to the laws. We have enough proof,” says Ramvichar Netam, the state’s home minister in an interview. The government claims Dr. Sen broke the law by taking letters from a Naxalite leader in jail out of the prison.

His backers say he was targeted simply because of his government critiques. “Dr. Binayak Sen is an unfortunate victim,” says Mukul Sharma, director for Amnesty International in India, saying Dr. Sen is one of several “rights activists” subjected to harassment, arrest and torture in a nation that often takes pride in being the world’s largest secular democracy.

After Dr. Sen’s arrest, Chhattisgarh police searched his house and seized his computer, a letter from a jail inmate describing deplorable conditions in prison and copies of newspapers and magazines.

Dr. Sen’s lawyers say the police used the content from these publications — including articles on jail reform, the Naxal movement and American imperialism — to criminalize “free thinking.” They have petitioned India’s Supreme Court for the denial of bail to Dr. Sen pending trial be overturned. The Supreme Court is expected to continue the hearing in coming weeks.

In written answers to questions, Dr. Sen acknowledged meeting a jailed Naxalite leader several times in prison as part of his human-rights work, adding that “the visits to the leader in question were with police permission, and always in the presence of jail authorities.” He adds, “I am not a believer in violence, and have several times critiqued Naxal violence.”

He says it was his criticism of vigilante groups, designed to root out Naxalism in villages but which also clear those villages for development, that made him persona non grata with the state.

The groups, known as Salwa Judum, have become an increasingly powerful force by filling a void left by ineffective government. “The government doesn’t have the self-confidence to maintain law and order in the state,” says Puran Lal Agarwal, chairman of the Chhattisgarh Chamber of Commerce. Instead, the Salwa Judum — “purification hunt” in a local dialect — regularly searches villages for Naxalite sympathizers, removes villagers from their land, purportedly for their own protection, and, say human-rights activists, regularly engages in killings, looting and rape.

“Salwa Judum displaces tribals and negates their land rights. This will do away with the tribes’ entitlements and open the field for industrial development and land acquisition,” Dr. Sen says, an argument he made before his detention.

The state is widely suspected of providing support for the Salwa Judum. A Chhattisgarh government spokesman said the state provides “moral support” for vigilante activities. “What can a state with a weak police force do other than help the people to defend themselves?” the official said.