A Conversation With: Human Rights Activist Binayak Sen


By MALAVIKA VYAWAHARE, NYtimes
Dr. Binayak Sen.Courtesy of The Gandhi FoundationDr. Binayak Sen.

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 topetition 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.

Q.

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

A.

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.

Q.

What was your association with the Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal?

A.

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.

Q.

Could you tell us about your time in prison?

A.

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.

Q.

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

A.

I faced a virulent media trial in Chhattisgarh in the print and electronic media, as well as on the Internet. The ordinary journalist in Chhattisgarh relies to a large extent on government (including police) handouts. It was the contribution of dedicated national journalists who turned their spotlight on the real story.

It was only over a period of time that a campaign against the patent injustice in my case built up, and many prominent citizens at the national and international levels besides sections of national media took a positive view about me.

Q.

What is your understanding of the Maoist problem in India? Does their use of violence overshadow the issues they are fighting for?

A.

It is surprising that so much of the public discourse is about the issue of violence. Large sections of the population in the “affected areas” are living in a state of perpetual hunger, to the point of famine, and lack appropriate and basic health care. Their access to common property resources, essential for their survival, is denied to them as a result of state action, to a point where the very survival of entire communities is called into question – but this does not become the center of the discourse.

I have clarified on many occasions that I do not condone the violence either of the agencies of the state or of those who oppose the state.

Q.

You were recently part of a conference called “Resist the Silent Emergency” in Delhi; what is the “silent emergency” in India?

A.

The conference to which you refer was mainly devoted to documenting and chronicling widespread fabrication of cases and the use of sedition-like laws to suppress dissenting voices across the country. The silent emergency refers to the suppression of fundamental rights to freedom of thought and expression, without the declaration of an actual internal emergency as in 1975.

Q.

You have spoken about the need to establish alternative agencies and systems. What has given rise to the need?

A.

First of all, I want to clarify that I have always engaged with the state to help it function better. I was recently part of the steering committee for health in the 12th five-year plan, and earlier part of the advisory group on structural reforms in health care for government of Chhattisgarh.

However, recent developments make it plain that the planning commission is unlikely to carry out its stated commitments to the universalization of health care. The alternative strategies that most public health workers are advocating, is the universalization of health care and for increased resource allocation in the health and nutrition sector.

Q.

Some suggest we need to involve international bodies in improving health care. Does that signal a lack of faith in the country’s own systems of checks and balances?

A.

The distress due to chronic hunger, lack of health care and widespread displacement of the people, who constitute one sixth of mankind, cannot be constrained only by questions of national identity. These are matters of concern for the entire world community.

(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.)

6 comments on “A Conversation With: Human Rights Activist Binayak Sen

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