Dr Binayak Sen, My Brother, Our Hero
By Dipankar Sen
The courtroom was hushed as the prisoner stood awaiting sentence. The judge donned his black skullcap as he deliberately passed the death sentence. That is the sweat drenched nightmare that I sometimes wake up to. The prisoner is no ordinary man: he is my brother, Dr Binayak Sen.
Recently, I went to visit him again in prison in Raipur in Chhattisgarh, just before his last court hearing. I saw him again in court. The courtroom itself was far from the courtrooms that we see in the movies. No pictures of a toothless smiling Gandhi or Subhas Chandra Bose hung from the wall behind the judge, a Sikh, Mr Balinder Singh Saluja. There were just two benches, one for the lawyers and the second for visitors. The dock, a 1.5m x 1.5m enclosure, was just enough space for the three standing prisoners while the lawyers argued their case. Binayak stood leaning against the railing of the dock.
The expression on his face and his body language did not betray any anxiety or distress of this unnecessary prison experience imposed on him through an intricate web of lies. There, standing within touching distance was my Dada, handsome, dignified, ever driven by the force of conviction, all of which showed up in the gentleness of his composure and the calmness in his eyes. I asked him how he was. "Without a purpose," was his reply. And that, I suspect, must have been one of his weaker moments, because he actually said something about himself. His reply would normally be, "I'm ok, don't worry about me. I am just fine. How is Ma? Tell her not to worry. And how are you?"
As the proceedings started, there was a witness in the dock on the other side of the room, closer to the judge. He was identifying the seizure list. The list was long, and the monotonous but hypnotic tapping sound of the typewriter caused my mind to float away. I looked at Dada and my mind drifted to the tune of "Where are the green fields," which he would whistle when we were kids in Pune in 1965. He had just passed his Senior Cambridge exams from Calcutta Boy's School with brilliant results and had every reason to be chirpy. He had a lot of friends and we would go out hiking, which meant a lot of walking through the wild grasslands then surrounding the camp area in Pune.
I was just a fat 11-year-old then and often had problems keeping up. Dada often had to carry me piggy back so that the tall grass would not cut me with the sharp blades. By the time he became a doctor, his care for the little brother had been replaced by constant concern for the health of poor Indians, the tribals, workers, the dispossessed or others that are in the process of joining their ranks.
Around May 9, 2007, I had called my mother in Kalyani, when I was told by my niece that they had learnt through journalists that their father was supposed to be arrested but was reported to be absconding. Binayak and his entire family were at Kalyani then, spending some of their holidays with my aged mother. My mind did not even register the urgency or the gravity of the situation. I just thought it was some stupid mistake that the police had made. After all, who could have anything against Dada...the poor man's doctor and helping hand? I had even nicknamed him Father Teresa, except that he liked Kingfisher beer.
I suddenly realised that I knew very little about The BINAYAK SEN. It had been a long time that we had gone our ways. But the prospect of arrest and prison for Dada were a long way off from anything that we as a family could have imagined.
The next day, and everyday after that, I called Kalyani, and realised that Dada's situation was much more serious than I had thought. That is when I started begging him to come to me, in Belgium. Run... do anything but don't go back to Chhattisgarh. He just said that he could not betray the trust of his patients, who would be waiting for him from the May 14, 2007. He insisted on leaving as scheduled, on May 13.
While sitting in an Italian restaurant in Paris on May 14, I heard of his arrest. His older daughter Pranhita first called to say that he was called to the police station in Bilaspur to give a statement, but that the police would not arrest him. About 15 minutes later she called again to say that he had indeed been arrested. It was around 12.45 in Paris that my life turned its page on political innocence. I suddenly grew up.
During the course of Dada's year in prison, I read about him in the press, both national and international. I found him on Wikipedia. I found his name on numerous internet sites. There were the admiring letters that he received in prison, and that must have helped to keep his sanity. Then came the recognition from the Indian Academy of Social Sciences, the Keithan Gold Medal, the Jonathan Mann award, the 21 Nobel Laureates writing to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the demonstrations in India and around the world.
But I began feeling guilty and embarrassed. Because of my long absence in Europe since the 1970s, I learnt about Dada's greatness, above all about his work, through the press and through the mail of his admirers from distant lands. I did not know about the hospital he helped build in Dalli Rajhara, his work in Ganyari near Bilaspur, the Mitanin project, the Right to Food campaign.
Nor had I heard of his work with the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), or of the dedicated band of people that worked with him. They included doctors, lawyers, journalists, filmmakers and the man on the street. His circle of supporters included doctors from all over the world, the most active among them being his own former teachers and class mates, as well as some who were not his contemporaries at Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, but had attended the same college. I learnt details about his career from his former teachers and colleagues at the Christian Medical College, which bestowed on him the Paul Harrison Award to recognise his work that exemplified their best ideals of a doctor.
There were two images of my brother - the more familiar one of a fun-loving man who liked good food, good music, and enjoyed horsing around with his family and his many good friends; and the other of a serious doctor with concerns - expressed even while he was a student -- about the health of poorer communities, and its roots in their social and economic deprivation. This is what his former teacher, Dr P Zachariah, wrote in a tribute to his student:
"Binayak is a very rare doctor - a man with a deep understanding of the social and political dimensions of health. The governments of the world, the World Bank and other organisations are now worrying about food security and alternative food policies; Binayak was decades ahead of them all."
None of this apparently moves the State, which refuses to budge from its position. If you ask someone in the government why Dada is in prison, the reply is standard: "He is a Maoist leader and sympathiser, and we have enough evidence against him."
So I asked the DGP of Chhattisgarh, so why is he not returning the computer seized from Dr Binayak Sen over a year ago, especially since forensic examination of the hard disc had failed to turn up any incriminating evidence. He said that the Forensic Institute in Hyderabad could not break into a code. When I reminded him that teenagers are hacking into banks and the Pentagon everyday, his reply was patently evasive.
I also reminded him that I had heard that not one of the police witnesses gave any credible witness/evidence against Binayak. He countered with the possibility of a supplementary chargesheet that was in preparation based on some 53 pages of telephone conversations with someone who is a known Maoist. Like an astrologer, he predicted that the lower court would probably convict him but the higher court would release him.
Now, how long the process would take is anybody's guess. Common sense tells me that it could be years.
Back in the courtroom, my mind suddenly woke up to the noise of some strong protests from defense lawyer Mahendra Dubey. He had just found that a letter had been planted by the police and had clearly stirred some excitement in court. The insistent tapping of the typewriter had stopped. The judge looked worried.
A letter to a senior Maoist party member which the police were claiming had been found among the documents seized from his apartment was printed on a plain sheet of computer paper, and did not even have his signature. Moreover, it did not appear in the list of seized documents that Dada and the police had co-signed at the time they were seized. It was indeed a plant. The old public prosecutor did not bother to look embarrassed, he simply denied any knowledge of it or how it got there.
I left the court dejected and heartbroken as he was driven away in the police van. An entire State was conspiring to subject upon my brother a life without a life... without a purpose, without any privacy, without any space of his own, denying him the very means of contributing to society in a way that even the State itself had acknowledged when it had implemented his ideas to start the Mitanin programme. They are imposing a punishment upon an innocent man in the full knowledge that they are doing wrong.
Now that we are convinced that his imprisonment is based on false and trumped up charges, we will want to know who would want to inflict such a fate on this man and above all why? Then we could have a possible basis and a clue to engage in a sensible dialogue with them to secure his release.
My Dada was one who, at a very early age, wondered why we could not invite the servants in our home to eat with us. At the age of five, he had the sensitivity to write:
I saw a bird in the morning sun
Flying high up in the sky,
A man shot it down with his gun
And I began to cry.
He does not deserve this fate. But for someone who has withstood more than a year-and-four months of prison, solitary confinement, harassment, humiliation but not shame, we have a simple message: Tum akele nahin ho Dada... My brother!
The writer is an options trader in the commodities market based in Antwerp, Belgium. The print version of this article will appear in the September edition of Hardnews magazine. The magazine will hit the stands on September 1, 2008