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India Must Free Binayak Sen Immediately

By Subhankar Banerjee

07 March, 2011

In 1970 Howard Zinn began his now–famous speech “The Problem is Civil Obedience” with these words: “I start from the supposition that the world is topsy–turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth.”

In 2005 I read Zinn’s speech as part of a Voices of a People’s History of the United States performance in Seattle that was organized by Anthony Arnove—Zinn’s co–editor of the anthology. Those words are as close to the truth as we will get to what’s happening today.

In India, internationally recognized physician–humanitarian Dr. Binayak Sen is in jail with a lifetime sentence, and in the US, young climate change activist Tim DeChristopher was convicted last Thursday and may end up in jail for ten years.

Late last year, I visited my family in India. On December 24 we watched with horror on TV channels and read newspaper articles with dismay that Dr. Binayak Sen has been convicted with sedition charges. My dad was outraged; my mom was outraged; my sister and brother–in–law were outraged; my brother was outraged; and I was outraged.

Some of you may know about him but others might be curious: who is Binayak Sen?

The Physician and His Humanism

As we struggle to fight for “public health for all” in the US, including for the 45 million underprivileged members of our communities, you might perhaps appreciate a brief trajectory of Binayak and his wife Dr. Ilina Sen’s life.

In 1972 Binayak Sen received, first a MBBS, and then in 1976 a MD in pediatrics, both from the prestigious Christian Medical College in Vellore, India. He then joined as a faculty member in the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, one of India’s most well known universities.

After two years of academic career, Dr. Sen began his life–long work to serve the poorest of the poor with both his medical service as well as various innovative initiatives. He moved from New Delhi to Hisangabad in the state of Madhya Pradesh to work at the Friends Rural Centre, a community based health center. There, he worked for two years on the diagnosis and treatment of Tuberculosis, as well as to understand the socio–economic causes of the disease. He also joined the recently formed Medico Friend Circle, a national group of socially conscious individuals who recognized that the, “existing system of health care is not geared towards the needs of the majority of the people: the poor.”

In 1981 he moved to Dalli Rajahara in the state of Chhattisgarh. There, in 1983 he worked with mine workers and fellow physicians to set up the Shaheed Hospital that continues to provide low–cost medical care to mine workers and Adivasis (tribal people) of the nearby region.

In 1987 Sen left Dalli Rajahara and settled in the village of Bagrumnala. He was appointed a member of the advisory group on Health Care Sector reforms in the state government of Chhattisgarh. He helped develop the Mitanin programme that became the role model for the National Rural Health Mission. It’s a great irony that the same state government has now put him behind bars, for life.

In Bagrumnala, Binayak and his wife Ilina began to develop models of primary health care. They founded Rupantar, a non–governmental organization whose mission is to train and deploy community health workers across 20 villages. Here are few words from an article published in the Deccan Chronicle (May 27, 2009): “Ghasia Ram Netam, a health worker with Rupantar, the NGO founded by the Sens, introduced himself as the first tribal youth in his village to be trained as a laboratory technician. Every week, before he was arrested [in 2007], Dr. Sen used to visit the village clinic. ... This timely diagnosis [at the makeshift laboratory in the clinic] and immediate referral to district hospital saved many tribals from certain death. The nearest government–run primary health centre is seven km away and the doctor is frequently absent—an old, familiar story.”

In the late 90s Binayak Sen was as an advisor to the Jan Swasthya Sahyog—a community health clinic providing low–cost health care to the rural poor in the Bilaspur district of Chhattisgarh. If you have nine minutes, you will see in a wonderfully produced video about this health clinic, that the work of Binayak and Ilina Sen have inspired next generation of doctors.

In her recently published book, “A Doctor to Defend—the Binayak Sen Story,” author Minnie Vaid points out that Binayak Sen’s generous heart reached out beyond the underprivileged Adivasis of Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, to also the minority Muslims of India. Here is such a story from the book as recounted by journalist–activist Mahtab Alam, “Binayak Sen was travelling in a second class compartment in a train to Purulia in 1993 along with his friend Dr. Yogesh Jain, when someone came and asked him, ‘Maualana ji, kya time hua hai?’ [Mr. Maulana, what time is it?] It might sound funny but his growing a beard like a Maulana’s was a well thought out act. Dr. Yogesh tells the author [Minnie Vaid] that when he asked Binayak why he had grown a beard, Binayak replied, “(I) wanted to see what it means to be insecure, to know how it feels to be a minority in one’s own country.” He was inspired by the book Black Like Me. Adivasis, Hindus and Muslims lovingly know him as the “doctor with a beard.”

The Human Rights Activist and the Charges Against Him

On May 14, 2007, Binayak Sen was arrested in Bilaspur under the provisions of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act—two draconian laws. The allegation claimed that while Dr. Sen was treating and visiting imprisoned Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal, he had taken letters from Sanyal and delivered them to businessman Piyush Guha, who supposedly would pass them onto the Maoist underground. The state has not been able to provide any evidence that validates their claim. The Hindustan Times reported (December 24, 2010) the charges against him were: “Treason; criminal conspiracy; sedition, anti–national activities and making war against the nation; knowingly using the proceeds of terrorism; links with the Maoists.”

Only a paranoiac and ultra–nationalist state ready to serve the wishes of wealthy industrialists can imprison Dr. Binayak Sen with those preposterous charges.

In addition to being a physician and humanitarian, Binayak Sen is also a dedicated human rights activist. Since 1981 he has been a member of Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), an organization devoted to the preservation of constitutional civil liberties and human rights. He is currently the President of the Chhattisgarh state unit, and Vice President of its National body.

Here are Binayak Sen’s own words about Narayan Sanyal: “I have been concerned with the rights of prisoners in my capacity as a Human Rights worker and was approached by the family of Mr. Narayan Sanyal to look after his health and well being after he was brought to Raipur jail in 2006. My first visit to him in jail was in the company of his family and lawyer. Subsequently, I obtained permission from the police authorities for visiting him in jail, and visited him several times, each time applying to do so in my capacity as a PUCL office bearer. ... I played a role in facilitating his surgery and kept his family informed about the process. During this period there was considerable correspondence between the prisoner’s family, jail administration and medical authorities, of which copies were marked to me.”

Now, let me share a few words about Binayak Sen’s work that has great implications for ecology, climate change, natural resource, indigenous human rights and neo–liberalism that gets little attention in the mainstream media, but perhaps the main reason why he is in jail today. You see, all the focus is on such words as “Maoists” and “sedition.” In the US we have a similar situation: to tarnish one’s reputation, the right wing only has to brand him/her as a “Communist”—the rest will be taken care of by the FoxNews.

The OtherIndia.org reports, “While they [Adivasis] are extremely poor, their land is extremely rich, both in terms of minerals and forests. ... Development, and the lust for mineral wealth, is destroying the environment and shattering the lives of indigenous tribals. ... These [mining] operations use enormous quantities of water, which is a scarce commodity in Chattisgarh, and also destroys the environment. ... In a situation where the state claims rights to the land and the people who live on that land are treated as peripheral to the national economy, a mass base of the Maoists challenging this status quo forms a threat to the state’s plans for heavy industry and profits in this region.”

So how much mineral is there in Chhattisgarh to create all these commotion? Here are the estimates presented by the Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board: 35 billion tonnes of coal; 2.34 billion tonnes of iron ore; 3.58 billion tonnes lime stone; 606 million tonnes of dolomite; 96 million tonnes of bauxite; and 29 million tonnes of cassiterite. Almost all of India’s coal deposit is in Chhattisgarh and two other states. If that’s not enough to lure the profiteers, there is more, Chhattisgarh has diamond, too.

In 2005 the state of Chhattisgarh set up a vigilante army called Salwa Judum to counter the Maoists and forcibly take away lands from the Adivasis. Binayak Sen has to say this about Salwa Judum: “In Chhattisgarh, the PUCL has been in the forefront of exposing the atrocities of the police. ... The PUCL has acted as a whistleblower in the matter of exposing the true nature of the Salwa Judum. ... an investigation led by the PUCL and involving several other Human Rights organizations revealed that it was 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. Concerns regarding the activities of the Salwa Judum have been expressed by several independent organizations including the National Human Rights Commission.”

This sentiment is shared by Frazer Mascarenhas, principal of St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai in an article published in The Times of India (February 19, 2011): “Dr. Sen exposed how the objective of the State–sponsored Salwa Judum was to uproot the tribal population, so that their villages could be handed over to industrialists for the vulgar profit of a few that we sometimes call ‘development’. That made him the enemy of the local Government.”

On November 29, 2010 as the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP16 opened in Cancún, Mexico, I published a widely circulated essay titled, “Cancún Opens for GREEN Business But REDD Will Destroy Indigenous Forest Cultures.” I wrote about how the Global North—governments, the UN, and powerful fossil fuel and mineral corporations with support from influential environmental NGOs are converging on a plan to take away the last remaining forests from the indigenous communities in the Global South and sell it back to the polluters—all in the name of solving the climate change crisis, that the developed countries created in the first place.

Can we think of Binayak Sen’s work also as a resistance to the global ecological looting taking place right now in front of our collective eyes?

Dr. Sen ended his recent court testimony with these words: “I am being made an example of by the state government of Chhattisgarh as a warning to others not to expose the patent trampling of human rights taking place in the state. Documents have been fabricated by the police and false witnesses introduced in order to falsely implicate me.”

Binayak Sen’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed either by his country or the world. In 2004 he received the Paul Harrison Award for a lifetime of service to the rural poor from his alma mater, the Christian Medical College. In 2007 he received the R.R. Keithan Gold Medal Award by The Indian Academy of Social Sciences (ISSA) for “his outstanding contribution to the advancement of science of Nature–Man–Society and his honest and sincere application for the improvement of quality of life of the poor, the downtrodden and the oppressed people of Chhattisgarh.” In 2008, the Global Health Council in Washington, DC honored him with the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights, while he was still incarcerated. On a letter dated May 9 2008, twenty–two Nobel laureates from around the world urged that, “Dr. Sen be freed from incarceration on humanitarian grounds to receive his award and to continue his important medical work.” No such permission was granted to him. Dr. Sen is the first south Asian to receive this prestigious award—he sat in his jail cell with the news.

What can we learn from Binayak Sen’s activism? For protests to have any teeth we must also be willing to sacrifice, something. In most cases we’re too polite, either with our words or with our civil disobedience actions—you see, we’re civilized. We join a rally and come back home to a warm meal and a warm bath—nothing is lost but not much is gained either. Those who sacrifice, however, are often punished, but sometimes get rewarded, too.

The Global Protests and Our Demand

Since Binayak Sen was put in jail in 2007 there have been hundreds of rallies across the world demanding his release. The Indian Supreme Court eventually intervened and Dr. Sen was granted bail on May 25 2009, after being in prison for two years. In an op–ed published in Deccan Chronicle journalist Antara Dev Sen wrote (May 28, 2009), “It took two years of sustained shaming to get Dr. Binayak Sen out on bail. The state had been stoutly ignoring the worldwide chorus of appeals and angry protests since the doctor and civil rights activist’s arrest on flimsy charges back in May 2007.”

After a dragged out prosecution, a trial court in Raipur, Chhattisgarh convicted Binayak Sen on December 24, 2010 with a lifetime sentence and charged him with conspiring to commit sedition. Since this devastating news, in the last two months protests took place in: Amherst, Austin, Bangalore, Bhopal, Boston, Chandigarh, Chennai, Dallas, Delhi, Houston, Hyderabad, Indore, Ithaca, Jaipur, Kolkata, London, Los Angeles, Lucknow, Minneapolis, Mumbai, New York, Patna, Pune, Salem, San Francisco, Seattle, Sitapur, Sonebhadra, Vadodara, Vancouver, Varanasi, Washington, and other cities, towns and villages. I’ve put together a small album of photos from these protests that you can see here. The first photo includes Binayak Sen’s mother Anusuya Sen in the center of the frame during a recent rally in Kolkata, the city of my youth.

On January 8, 2011 Nobel laureate economist–philosopher Amartya Sen of Harvard University said in New Delhi, “Even if he did pass [on] the letters, it does not seem to be material of which [allegations of] sedition can be made. In his own writings, Binayak Sen has said that violence is not prudential. He was against sedition and I am amazed by the nature of this decision.”

Binayak Sen however, is not the first person to be charged with this maximum punishment. Mahatma Gandhi was also charged with conspiring to commit sedition. Gandhi admitted his charges and said, “... to preach disaffection towards the existing system of government has become almost a passion with me. ... The only course open to you ... is ... either to resign your post or inflict on me the severest penalty.” In 1922 Gandhi was sentenced to six years in prison.

In an interview published on February 14, 2011, Binayak Sen’s wife Dr. Ilina Sen—well–known social activist and feminist scholar, who currently heads the Department of Women’s Studies at the Mahatma Gandhi University in Wardha said, “I have only seen him once, on the 27th. As a convicted prisoner, he has fewer rights, and can have visitors only once in 15 days. I was told that he is in a maximum–security cell. This is a small courtyard with five cells (cages with iron grills like in the older zoos), in which Binayak, Piyush, Sanyal and three others are kept. ... I do not know the legality of this but know that this kind of treatment for a prolonged period can drive one to insanity. The jail superintendent refused to discuss prison conditions with us, and said they would be having a meeting to discuss how the enemies of the state were to be kept.”

In January Amartya Sen organized another letter campaign, this time with 39 other Nobel laureates from around the world to demand immediate release of Binayak Sen. I’m sharing with you verbatim parts of their letter published in The Hindu (February 9, 2011):

“Several months after voicing our concern about Dr. Sen’s detention, one of us travelled to Chhattisgarh; met government officials; consulted Dr. Sen’s family, lawyers, and colleagues; visited his remote clinic to learn more about his selfless work with the Adivasis; and, after a few days and many hours spent waiting in the Raipur prison yard, finally met with Dr. Sen himself in the presence of the prison warden.

We have seen that Dr. Sen is an exceptional, courageous, and selfless colleague, dedicated to helping those in India who are least able to help themselves. Yet his recompense has been two years in prison under difficult conditions, a blatantly unfair trial lasting two years in the so–called ‘Fast Track’ Sessions Court, an unjust conviction of sedition and conspiracy, and condemnation to life imprisonment.

We earnestly hope that our renewed appeal is heard. We know that there are leaders in India who have the power, humanity, patriotism, and decency to speak out against this injustice. We entreat those leaders to act now, to urge Dr. Sen’s immediate release on bail, and insist that this time his appeal is heard without delay under the highest standards of Indian law.”

They ended their letter with these words: “Surely, those who would see the largest democracy in the world survive and thrive can do no less at this crucial time for both Dr. Sen and for the future of justice in India.”

Other prominent activists in India are urging for a major movement to free Binayak Sen. Mahasweta Devi, one of India’s most beloved novelist–activists said during a February 9, 2011 press conference in Kolkata, “the Constitution gives many rights to people, but the state does not uphold them. The result is that people like Binayak Sen, who has been working for the cause of humanity, has to languish in prison on false charges.” She also drew media’s attention to the forest rights of tribals and said, “It is people like Sen who have dedicated their lives towards making people aware of the rights of the tribals.” For those of you who might not know, Mahasweta gave up her most successful career as a novelist to dedicate her life to work on behalf of the Adivasis. She is in her eighties. A few years ago, I visited her with my dad—my parents grew up with Mahasweta and her siblings in Berhampore.

Amartya Sen is hopeful, “He [Binayak Sen] served a great cause and does serve and will serve. I hope this [his sentencing] is just an intermission, like an interval in a film and then the second part will begin.”

Ilina Sen is hopeful, “I try to hope that I will live again with Binayak in my lifetime.”

On Friday March 11, the Supreme Court of India will hear the plea for admission of the petition. If it is admitted, actual bail hearing could begin in mid April.

India must unconditionally release Binayak Sen immediately and put an end to the great suffering that he and his wife have already endured since May 2007. Binayak Sen deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, not lifetime imprisonment as an enemy of India.

Further Resources: FreeBinayakSen.org | BinayakSen.net | Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties | OtherIndia.org

Subhankar Banerjee is founder of ClimateStoryTellers.org. He is an Indian born American photographer, writer and activist. Over the past decade he has been a leading international voice on issues of arctic conservation, indigenous human rights, and global warming, and over the past five years he has also been focusing on forest deaths from global warming. He received many awards, including Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellowship. Subhankar is currently editing an anthology titled, “Arctic Voices“ (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012) and has been appointed Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for fall term 2011.

Copyright 2011 Subhankar Banerjee




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