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Egyptian Perseverance Needed To Free Dr Binayak Sen

By Agrotosh Mookerjee

23 February, 2011

At an epoch-making time while the incredibly brave and inspirational women and men of North Africa and the Middle-East are shaking off the tentacles of political repression and every dictator worth his salt is quaking in terror of the inevitable, it is worth re-examining the nature of some of the things the people are protesting against- political persecution, judicial tyranny and draconian State-backed violence- no not in a dictatorship but in the world’s largest democracy!

In India, following the High Court’s rejection of bail for renowned doctor and human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen, who has been sentenced to life imprisonment for “Sedition”, a group of academics and students in Mumbai made the foolish mistake of assuming they would not be attacked by the police for exercising their democratic right to free speech. On 11th February 2010, at the Oval Maidan in Mumbai, a motley group of human rights lawyers, university professors, students and Gandhian activists organised a peaceful protest against Dr Sen’s life-sentence and the Chhattisgarh High Court’s rejection of bail. Not to be outdone by their Libyan or Egyptian counterparts, the Mumbai police attacked the protestors, manhandled several men, including septuagenarian activist Mazgaonkar and women, including human rights activist Kamayani Mahabal and dragged them to Colaba police station. In fact the protestors can consider themselves very lucky! In the world’s largest democracy it is increasingly commonplace- indeed quite traditional- for the police to gun down unarmed, peaceful demonstrators in public massacres, where the victims are dissenting poor people, often from indigenous communities. The news of these mass protests and brutal crackdowns and mass killings seldom percolates out of India. How many people outside of India have heard of the police firing and the massacre of fishermen in Chilka, farmers in Nandigram and indigenous people in Kalinganagar? The dozens of women, men and children gunned down weren’t even protesting for political change, they were demonstrating against their forced displacement; they were pleading for their homes, their livelihoods and their communities. It was too much to ask for in the world’s largest democracy.

Public opinion outside of India seems to be blinded by the all singing, all dancing, Bollywood pelvic thrusting musical of shining India, glorious colourful India, all sparkles and sequins with a bit of picturesque poverty thrown in for good measure- Jai Ho! An India of chicken barons and wine-merchants who can afford to buy Premier League clubs and Formula One teams and billionaires who live in the world’s largest mansion in Mumbai and 20-20 cricket stars, who are auctioned off to Indian cities for millions of dollars. Also an India of the great-consumerist “Great Indian Middle Class”, who make up a miniscule percentage of the total population of India but are still a large enough target market for multinational corporations and international governments to start drooling at the mouth.

The other India, which is not so commercially lucrative and good for brand-India, is a country where hundreds of millions of people live in dire poverty and tens of millions face living conditions worse than sub-Saharan Africa. It is a country where the ‘black money’ sloshing around in Swiss bank accounts and the coffers of corrupt politicians and the elite class is estimated to be about $1.6 trillion while an estimated 35% of adults and 40% of children suffer from chronic malnourishment. It is a country where (according to the National Rural Health Mission (2005-2012)) less than 1% of the GDP is spent on public health and where for every 1 rupee spent on the poorest 20% 3 rupees is spent on the richest 20%. It is also a country where vast regions are in the vice-like grip of a bloody, often unreported civil war and civil unrest as the Government forcibly displaces millions of indigenous ‘adivasi’ people to make way for mega-dams and mining companies. The key participants in this dirty, blood-soaked civil war are the Maoist guerrilla troops and the Government funded armed militia groups and millions of the poorest, most vulnerable people in India, who find themselves living in the war-zone. The key stakeholders are the Government of India and Indian and multi-national corporations. According to the Indian government’s own admission, since independence about 40 million people were forcibly displaced to make way for industrial projects and more than 30 million are still waiting for any kind of rehabilitation or compensation!

In addition to being a giant among doctors, Dr Binayak Sen is also a renowned defender of human rights and he has never been afraid to speak out on behalf of millions of the most deprived people in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Following his arrest in 2007, his life-sentence on 24 December 2010 and the rejection of bail on 9 February 2011, thousands of his supporters throughout India- including the brutalised group in Mumbai- have staged protests, signed petitions and written letters urging the government to immediately release the doctor. They are in good company. Along with 55 solidarity groups in the UK, US and Canada, 38 Nobel Laureates
(http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/article1170207.ece) made a statement shortly before the bail hearing, requesting the release of their “fellow scientist” Dr Sen. Three years earlier, in May 2008, 22 Nobel Laureates, including Kenneth Arrow, had asked for his release. In 2009, after incarcerating Dr Sen for over two years the Supreme Court of India granted him bail. Less than 18 months later a local Sessions court in Chhattisgarh sentenced him to life imprisonment.

The right-wing Chhattisgarh government and the state police had launched a propaganda campaign against Dr Sen ever since his arrest in 2007 on fabricated charges of being a courier for the Maoists and “Sedition”. The translation of the original charge-sheet drafted by the police reads “Dr Sen is certainly a doctor, but is a big zero in terms of actual practice of medicine. During the search of his house, no material as would be found in a clinic or any medicines were found”. Before delving into the details of the charges and “evidence” against him, it is worthwhile remembering just what kind of a medical practitioner Dr Binayak Sen is.

Dr Binayak Sen was a brilliant medical student and paediatrician from Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, who decided to devote his life to working among the poor instead of going abroad to pursue further studies and a financially lucrative career. As a young doctor in a Tuberculosis (TB) clinic in the village of Rasulia, Dr Sen began treating thousands of TB patients and he soon realised the strong relationship between poverty and disease. More people die from tuberculosis in India (about half a million a year) than in any other country in the world. From the late 70s Dr Sen worked for over 30 years combating tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases and providing equitable, affordable, accountable and effective primary healthcare to thousands of the poorest people in India, living in interior villages and forest hamlet of Chhattisgarh. From 1982-1987 he helped set up and worked full-time at the Shaheed hospital in Dalli-Rajhara, which was built using contributions and voluntary labour from contract workers at a steel plant. From 1988-1992 he worked at the Mission hospital in Tilda. In the early 90s Dr Sen and his wife, Ilina discovered a group of 26 villages in the Chhattisgarhi forest, inhabited by adivasis who had been displaced by a dam, had not received any compensation and did not have access to any basic amenities. Ilina started literacy camps and Binayak began training community health workers. The couple started an NGO called Rupantar, which became a pioneering organisation in the state on community based health programmes, particularly in the ‘Mitanin’ scheme of training of village women to become health workers for hundreds of villages. Along with health services Rupantar works on issues of gender rights, education, bio-diversity, forest conservation and agriculture. For example, Rupantar promoted organic farming and after testing over 350 varieties of rice recommended the cultivation of pest resistant local varieties. Dr Sen started a clinic at Bagrumnala, which was used by over 150,000 people from about 250 villages. The clinic provided early diagnosis and treatment for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis and ensured that patients did not have to travel hundreds of kilometres to reach the nearest city for treatment. Dr Sen’s community health programme caused cases of malaria to fall by 80% from 2000-2007. In addition to his own projects, Dr Sen actively worked with the government on public health programmes as a member to the State Health Advisory Board and the government publicly acknowledged his contribution to making the Mitanin programme a thorough success. In recognition for his outstanding work Dr Sen was awarded the Paul Harrison award by CMC Vellore in 2004 and (while he was in prison) the RR Keithan award by the Indian Academy of Social Sciences in 2007 and the Jonathan Mann award by the Global Health Council in 2008. The citation for the RR Keithan awards starts with “Dr Binayak Sen’s work offers fresh and radical interpretation of Gandhiji’s core concerns and his present predicament is a challenge to all who profess and practice similar ideals.” So much for the doctor who the erudite police dubbed as “a big zero in terms of actual practice of medicine”!

As a social worker Dr Sen’s achievements include helping villagers who were victims of loan fraud and organising emergency grain distribution during the drought in Chhattisgarh in 2001. He helped the people set up grain and seed banks, a model which the state government subsequently adopted. But it was his achievements as a human rights activist, which explains the political motivation behind his arrest, incarceration and life sentence.

Dr Sen had worked on the legal entitlements of the indigenous adivasi people for over two decades. He had been an active member of various human rights groups and gatherings including the Medico Friends Circle, the Peoples Health Assembly in Dhaka and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). He became the General Secretary of the PUCL unit of Chhattisgarh and was elected Vice President of the National PUCL. Fact finding missions from the PUCL investigated the extent of poverty; for example a PUCL inquiry in 2004 reported on starvation deaths in the districts of Dantewada and Bastar and recommended measures to adopt to avoid such deaths in the future. The doctor was also raising his voice against the violation of some of the fundamental human rights such as the Right to Health and the Right to Food.

As a civil rights activist Dr Sen’s work was initially concerned with investigating and intervening in cases of torture, deaths and rape in police custody. The victims were invariably from poor adivasi families. By 2004, Dr Sen raised his concerns over the worsening human rights situation in Chhattisgarh with a growing number of custodial deaths, fake “encounter” killings and state violence against civilians. In particular, Dr Sen was alarmed by the meteoric rise of deadly armed militia groups, such as the Salwa Judum, which involved the state training and arming civilians to allegedly “combat Maoists”. These armed vigilante militia groups began forcibly evacuating villages, displacing thousands of vulnerable tribal people into labour-camp like “relief camps” and committing torture, rape, murder and other atrocities. Within the first 6 months of the Salwa Judum forming about 36,000 tribal people were driven out of over 650 villages. As a first-hand witness of these state atrocities, Dr Sen was extremely troubled by the condition of the poor living in the middle of an anarchic dirty civil war and as a doctor he was grieved by the impact of forced displacement on the health of the poor. By the end of 2005 Dr Sen was desperately appealing to the human rights community to intervene and stop the violence in Chhattisgarh. Consequently a 14 member team from 5 organisations carried out an investigation in Dantewada to document the people killed by the state-backed Salwa Judum and the Maoists. The record of deaths, interviews with the local people and other findings of this investigation was compiled in the publicly available PUCL report- “When the State makes war on its own people”

(http://www.pucl.org/Topics/Human-rights/2006/slawajudum.htm ). Dr Sen was a key person in exposing the State’s use of armed militia to commit crimes against Humanity. If the popular and nosy doctor was allowed to raise more questions about the Machiavellian workings of the state he could jeopardise the re-election of the right wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) state government. In neighbouring Orissa, after the BJP couldn’t hide its active participation in the genocide of Christians in Kandhamahal in 2008, the party suffered a humiliating defeat in the state elections. Moreover, a strong opponent of the policy of forcibly displacing people to make way for corporations could endanger the lucrative Memorandum of Understandings being signed by the Chhattisgarh government and companies like Tata and Essar. The outspoken doctor’s work and views were getting out of hand. Naturally he had to be certified a “danger to national security”. Naturally he had to be shut up.

In May 2007 while Binayak and Ilina were visiting Binayak’s mother in Calcutta, Dr Sen heard reports that the Chhattisgarh police were making allegations that we was a courier for the Maoists. The Sens immediately returned to Chhattisgarh and on 14 May 2007 Binayak voluntarily visited a police station in Bilaspur to challenge these allegations. The police offered him tea and were initially polite before they suddenly turned aggressive and locked him up in what was to be the beginning of more than 2 years in prison without bail. The doctor requested the police to be allowed to attend his clinic one last time to treat his emergency patients and inform them of his arrest. The police refused the request. One of Dr Sen’s patients in Bagrumnala, in need of urgent medical attention, was denied any treatment and died a few days after Dr Sen’s arrest.
Dr Sen was charged with being a “Maoist courier” for having visiting Narayan Sanyal, an old Naxalite ideologue in prison. However there is documented proof that Dr Sen visited Narayan Sanyal in his professional capacity as a doctor and at the request of Sanyal’s brother to treat the old prisoner, who was suffering from Palmer’s Contracture and all these humanitarian visits were approved by the jail authorities. Nevertheless, one of the greatest doctors of our times was imprisoned for over 2 years and granted bail only after a long and persistent global campaign for his release, which included support from the Global Health Council, the Lancet medical journal, two-dozen Nobel laureates, hundreds of groups and tens of thousands of supporters. Before a lower court in Chhattisgarh pronounced the life-sentence on Christmas Eve 2010 the prosecution had continued hounding the doctor with a trial, which even Kafka couldn’t have dreamed up. Their “evidence” against him included highly suspicious testimonies from witnesses, an unsigned typed letter, maliciously linking a sociological Indian think-tank with the Pakistani secret service (!) and pouncing on the “terrorist language” used by Dr Sen in a letter when he referred to George Bush as a “chimpanzee in the White House”!!! Dr Sen was charged with “Sedition”, under a law from the colonial era that had been used during the British Raj to incarcerate thousands, including Mahatma Gandhi.

Since his arrest the State controlled Chhattisgarh media have carried out a propaganda campaign to vilify Dr Sen, printing and broadcasting all kinds of absurd stories about him and calling him a “Naxalite dacoit”! Despite this demonising by the media, the public support for Dr Sen in Chhattisgarh throughout his ordeal has been overwhelming. The police tried to prevent crowds from swarming the courtroom by having the trial through video-conferencing so that he would not be physically present in court. Ilina immediately challenged this and prevented this video-conference trial. By imprisoning Dr Sen the State has denied about 250 villages of essential and accessible medical care. Tens of thousands of patients at the Bagrumnala clinic will not receive any medical services. Some will have to sell their valuable assets or take out exorbitant loans in order to afford treatment at the nearest town. Others will die. In 2007, after Dr Sen’s arrest, the number of patients treated at the Bagrumnala clinic every week decreased to one-sixth of the average numbers in 2004-2006. On the first anniversary of his arrest hundreds of his patients gathered at the clinic to show their solidarity with the doctor. Shortly before his bail in 2009 thousands of poor people from all parts of Chhattisgarh and indeed from different regions of India travelled to the capital of Chhattisgarh, Raipur, for mass protests and Gandhian hunger strikes. All for the sake of the man whom the Chhattisgarh government portrays as a “danger to national security”!
The police have manhandled Dr Sen, kept him in solitary confinement for a while and once in court they even denied him drinking water for an entire day. In prison Dr Sen lost an alarming level of weight and his health condition worsened. Yet the atrocity which pained Dr Sen the most about prison was that he was not allowed to treat any of his fellow inmates in prison, many of whom suffered from suffered from various illnesses including tuberculosis. Denying a passionately humanitarian doctor, like Dr Sen the right to practice medicine in prison amounts to torture.

For those who know enough about Dr Binayak Sen’s work, about the conditions in Chhattisgarh and the persecution of activists (dozens of activists have been killed in recent years simply for requesting information under the Right to Information Act (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/27/india-rti-activists-deaths )) Dr Sen’s incarceration and life-sentence doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Thousands of concerned people in India have grown immune to such travesties, such national disgraces. And yet we must continue campaigning for Dr Sen’s release. We must continue voicing our demands for his immediate and unconditional release, for the intervention of the Indian Central Government to secure his release. Governments outside of India must urge the Indian Prime Minister to intervene in the case. Of course it is a lot easier to condemn dictatorships, which are committing atrocities in a mass revolution than it is to criticise democracies, which are playing by the rules to oppress human rights defenders and millions of anonymous, voiceless, faceless poor people. At the back of the £1bn cheque the British government is giving India for “development”, the British taxpayer may feel like scribbling a question- “What’s the fair market price for Dr Binayak Sen’s work in Chhattisgarh for over three decades?”

With the bail appeal due to be heard at the Supreme Court of India, now is the time for all supporters of Dr Sen, around the world, to rise up like never before. Now is the time for farmers in Chhattisgarh to march in Raipur and doctors in Calcutta to take to the streets and students and academics in Mumbai to continue their vigils despite the police brutality. Now is the time for the campaign groups in the UK, USA, Canada and in Europe to write and meet their MPs and senators and to lay siege to Indian embassies and high-commissions. Now is the time for us to demand a full and thorough public enquiry into the circumstances of Dr Sen’s arrest and incarceration and into the involvement of political and corporate stakeholders in his relentless persecution. We cannot rest till he is freed, till all those responsible for his nightmarish ordeal are made accountable for their horrendous actions and till true justice is done.

Our sisters and brothers in North Africa and the Middle-East have demonstrated that nothing, not even the most parasitic and tyrannical dictator can survive the torrents of intense, powerful public opinion. It may be the case that the only hope for Dr Binayak Sen, for the people of violence ravaged Chhattisgarh, for the displaced millions, for hundreds of human rights activists and journalists who are being hounded by the Indian State- the only hope for all of them may be the force of public opinion. And we have all seen what a thunderous force that can prove to be!

Dr Sen summed up modern India’s dilemma in his acceptance speech of the Paul Harrison Award in October 2004. He concluded by saying “And let us not forget the situation closer home- unborn infants in Gujarat, torn from their mothers’ wombs, the women raped and killed in Manipur, or the sustained violence of chronic hunger across this land. D.T. Niles tells us, “Once in the life of man or nation comes the moment to decide.” Neutrality is not a luxury that is available to us. Let us hope we will have the wisdom to choose so that we will be able to live with the choices we have made.”




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