Vijay Ravikumar, a graduate student at Rutgers University, addressed the Committee of Concerned Scientists in New York on Feb. 27 concerning the conviction of, and life sentence imposed upon, Dr. Binayak Sen by the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The speaker is not affiliated with Marxist-Humanist Initiative, but he shared his talk with us after we attended a demonstration in support of Dr. Sen in New York. His talk is excerpted below. People around the world are asked to write letters of protest to the Indian government demanding justice for Dr. Sen, repeal of repressive laws, and disbanding of state-supported militias. For more information, see http:/www.binayaksen.net or http://www.freebinayaksen.org/
Dr. Binayak Sen is a medical doctor in India who has devoted his life to defending human rights and to treating some of India’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. He was recently convicted of sedition and conspiracy under several outdated and unjust laws, and has been sentenced to life in prison. After the verdict was announced in a Chhattisgarh sessions court (a lower court) on December 24, 2010, Binayak Sen appealed the case to the high court of Chhattisgarh, and the appeal was admitted on January 8. However, his plea for bail was rejected on February 9.
In response to the public outcry against the rejection of bail, Brijmohan Agarwal, a senior minister in the Chhattisgarh government, welcomed the judgment as “a vindication of the state government’s stand on Binayak Sen. Now that the high court has dismissed the bail application, it is better for so-called human rights activists in India and abroad to keep away from attacking the Chhattisgarh government and the state police.”
Why would a senior minister make such a statement–which is little more than a thinly veiled threat against any human rights activist who dares to take a stand against them? And under what circumstances does a government attempt to turn “human rights activist” into a pejorative term?
To understand what is going on, we have to look at the history of the Chhattisgarh region and Dr. Binayak Sen’s involvement there.
Chhattisgarh is still a young state, formed in the year 2000. However, Dr. Sen’s involvement there began in 1981, when, at the age of 30, he moved to district Durg to set up the Shaheed Hospital for the miners working there. The hospital, which is still running today, is almost entirely worker-run, and brings health care to people who would otherwise have no reasonable access to it.
Sen worked in district Durg for six years, and then moved to the even more remote Dhamtari district to develop a health program for the tribal population living there. This is a region where almost no doctor will agree to work, due to the remoteness and lack of monetary incentive, so Sen trained a large group of village-based health workers to supply basic medical treatment. This program was also highly successful, and when Chattisgarh was formed in 2000, Sen was appointed as an advisor to the Department of Health and Family Welfare.
The models for rural health care developed by Sen were eventually expanded and implemented in India’s National Rural Health Mission. Sen’s work in community health has also been internationally recognized, most recently winning him the Jonathan Mann award for Health and Human Rights from the Global Health Council in 2008, although he was in custody at the time and unable to accept the award in person.
Had Binayak Sen’s work in Chhattisgarh been restricted to treating the physical ailments of his patients, he may never have come under target by the Chhattisgarh government. However, he naturally saw the medical tragedies he witnessed around him, such as severely undernourished children, deaths by preventable disease, and accidents due to unsafe working conditions, as symptoms of larger injustices.
His initial project, Shaheed Hospital, was done in collaboration with his friend Shankar Guha Niyogi and the Mukti Morcha–the mine workers’ union founded and led by Niyogi. Sen was not directly involved in union politics, but Niyogi was frequently at odds with the local industrialists and the state government, and in 1992 he was shot dead in his sleep by hired thugs. The assassins and the industrialists who hired them were apprehended, with very convincing evidence mounted against them. However, in a perverse reversal of Dr. Sen’s present-day circumstances, they were exonerated by the High Court due to “insufficient evidence.”
Although Sen was not directly involved with the workers’ unions, he has been a member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) since the year he moved to Chhattisgarh. Similar to the ACLU, the PUCL is an organization devoted to the preservation of constitutional civil liberties and human rights in India. In 2004 Sen became general secretary of the Chhattisgarh unit of PUCL, and is currently president of the Chhattisgarh unit and vice president of the national body. It was Sen’s involvement and leadership within the PUCL that pitted him against the state government and the state police. To understand how this happened, I’d like to read from Sen’s final statement to the court:
“In Chhattisgarh, the PUCL has been in the forefront of exposing the atrocities of the police. Atrocities by men in uniform against vulnerable sections continue to be a serious problem in the state … Apart from investigating and documenting the many cases of human rights abuse involving the police, the PUCL has acted as a whistleblower in the matter of exposing the true nature of the Salwa Judum [a civilian militia]. The Salwa Judum … has been represented by the state government as a spontaneous peoples’ movement against the Maoists active in the area. However, an investigation led by the PUCL and involving several other Human Rights Organizations revealed that it is in reality a state-sponsored and state-funded as well as completely unaccountable vigilante force to which arms were provided by the government. The activities of the Salwa Judum have led to the emptying of more than 600 villages and the forced displacement of over 60,000 people [a conservative estimate–it is believed that 300,000 people have been displaced].
“Concerns regarding the activities of the Salwa Judum have been expressed by several independent organizations including the National Human Rights Commission. International organizations like UNICEF have also voiced serious concern and have invited me to dialogue with them about the restoration of normalcy in the region ….”
“The PUCL has also, during 2006, organized two major conventions, opposing the proposal to enact the Chhatisgarh Special Public Security Act, because it has been, and continues to be, our view that this Act contravenes the civil liberties assured to us in the constitution.”
If the claims of the PUCL, and of Dr. Sen, are indeed valid, one can see why the state government would want him out of the picture. After all, they are accusing the state of terrorizing villages with its police force, supporting an inherently unstable civilian militia, and enacting a draconian “security” act that infringes on civil liberties.
To understand this, you need to know that the Chhattisgarh region is extremely poor, with 96% of its population made up of lower caste Hindus and indigenous Tribals. However, it claims on its government website to be “[India’s] richest state in terms of mineral wealth, with 28 varieties of major minerals, including diamonds.” The government website continues: “The State is lucky to have large deposits of coal, iron ore, and limestone in close proximity, making it the ideal location for the lowest cost of production. There is great scope for private participation in the mining sector of Chhattisgarh …. The State is ensuring a minimum lease area with secured land rights so that investors can safely commit large resources to mining projects.”
It is rather incredible that the State can promise secured land rights to private investors, when the majority of the mineral-rich areas have been continuously inhabited by India’s indigenous populations for many centuries, and possibly millennia. However, that is exactly what the state government has done, and at the moment it has signed 117 separate MoU’s (Memorandums of Understanding) with different national and multi-national corporations. In addition to issuing MoU’s, the Chhattisgarh government has become the first in India, and quite possibly the world, to sell its rivers to private corporations. The Sheonath in Durg was the first river to be sold, in 1998, to the company Radius Water Limited. After it gained ownership of a 23.6 km stretch of the river, iron gates were promptly built to prevent locals from accessing the water for drinking, fishing, washing, and irrigation. The water was instead diverted for industrial use.
In light of all this, the accusations by the PUCL and Binayak Sen of a frame-up seem plausible. The state certainly has a motivation, and in some cases a self-imposed obligation, to clear the land of villagers and make space for industrial development.
If questioned, any state official would paint a different picture, however: invariably he would claim that everything the police and the state government are doing are necessary steps in combating the growing Maoist insurgency, which is the only true threat to the region. And on May 14, 2007, Binayak Sen was arrested under the charge of carrying letters from the alleged Maoist Narayan Sanyal to the businessman Piyush Guha, who is also accused of having links to the Maoists.
After being arrested, Sen was held without proper charges for seven months, which is possible under the very Chhattishgarh Special Public Security Act that he and the PUCL had previously criticized. When he was formally charged, it was with that same act, in addition to two other repressive and controversial laws: the law against sedition (article 124(a) of the Indian Penal Code) and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which is similar to the Patriot Act in the U.S.
Binayak Sen was denied bail and remained in detention for two years before bail was granted by the Supreme Court in consideration of his heart ailments. His freedom did not last long, and after the verdict on December 24 of 2010, Sen was again imprisoned, this time sentenced to life in prison. Amnesty International immediately issued a statement that “[t]he life sentence handed down against Dr. Binayak Sen … violates international fair-trial standards and is likely to enflame tensions in the conflict-affected area.” Indeed, the evidence mounted against Sen was extremely weak by any standards. The prosecution’s narrative hinged on just two suspect pieces of evidence: a letter which Sen has stated from the beginning was fabricated, and an instance of third-hand hearsay of his admitting to being a Maoist.
Even were one to believe the evidence and the narrative presented by the prosecution, there are serious flaws in the interpretation of the laws that Sen has allegedly violated and in the laws themselves. The British-era sedition law, which was used against Gandhi, “prohibits any words either spoken or written, or any signs or visible representation that excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government.” This law is clearly outdated and in violation of the right to freedom of speech, and in fact the Supreme Court long ago ruled that unless the accused actually incited violence by his speech or action, it could no longer constitute sedition. The judge in the Chhattisgarh sessions court blatantly ignored this ruling.
Secondly, Sen and two others convicted with him, all of whom were handed down life sentences, were convicted of somehow being affiliated with the Maoist party, which is a banned organization in India. However, on February 4, the Supreme Court of India ruled that mere membership in a banned organization is no longer a crime. Whether or not this ruling will be upheld in Sen’s upcoming trial before the High Court is another question.
If this could happen to somebody like Binayak Sen, who has an international presence and has great legal resources at his disposal, one wonders how many other unknown people are being persecuted by these same forces. There are already convictions of and charges against a number of human rights activists and journalists, and those are just the known cases.
The Committee of Concerned Scientists wrote a letter to the president of India in January, and a group of 40 Nobel Laureates wrote a letter in February, just before Sen was denied bail by the high court. This international pressure is making headlines in India, but we have to keep up pressure. The Indian government must understand that it will be held accountable.