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Binayak Sen: Prisoner of Conscience

By Anand Patwardhan

29 April, 2009
The Times Of India

May 14 this year will mark an ignominious date for Indian democracy the start of the third straight year of Binayak Sen’s incarceration in a Chhattisgarh jail. I wonder if there are words left to describe this travesty. What is left to say that has not been said?

On Binayak’s behalf, writers, poets, judges, lawyers, doctors, human rights workers and trade unionists have spoken out from across India and the globe. Former Supreme Court justice Krishna Iyer, former US attorney general Ramsey Clark, Noam Chomsky and 22 Nobel laureates are amongst the thousands who grace this impressive list, but so far it has all been to no avail.

For those who may not recall, let me set out a chronology. Binayak is a paeditrician, a gold medallist who eschewed a lucrative urban practice to work amongst the poorest in central India. When i met him in the mid-80s he had helped build a workers’ hospital for the Chhattisgarh Mines Workers’ Samiti led by the legendary Shankar Guha Niyogi. Niyogi and his team were not ordinary trade unionists but visionaries for whom a workers’ union went beyond wage struggles to health care, education, even cinema literacy and, of course, fighting the scourge of alcoholism that inevitably afflicts the unorganised. Niyogi was murdered in 1991.

The liquor mafia was blamed but it is commonly understood that they were merely the medium and that the real killers were politicians aligned to industrialists for whom a union that could not be co-opted had to be crushed.

Niyogi’s murder was followed by widespread repression. As big money entered the mineral-rich region, Adivasis found themselves displaced from their lands. A section joined the Naxalite movement, which in turn spawned greater repression.

Binayak continued his medical work but also began to document human rights violations in his capacity as secretary of the Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties, an organisation founded by Jayaprakash Narayan in 1977. More specifically he wrote against the Salwa Judum operation, through which the state armed and trained local Adivasis as a vigilante militia to fight other Adivasis who had joined the Naxalites, resulting in a brutal civil war.

On a visit to jail, Binayak came across an ailing elderly man, Narayan Sanyal, and began medically treating him. Later this became the trigger for his persecution. Binayak was suddenly accused of carrying letters to and from Sanyal, who was accused of being a Naxalite, even though each jail visit was made under strict scrutiny. Binayak was in Kolkata when he learned about the warrant for his arrest. He insisted on travelling back to Chhattisgarh to clear his name, which is certainly not an act of a guilty man. But guilty or not, two precious years have been snatched from him, just as surely as he was snatched from the marginalised people he so dedicatedly served.

Meanwhile the official case against Binayak is falling apart. Of the 83 listed prosecution witnesses, 16 were dropped and six declared hostile by the prosecutors themselves, while 61 others have deposed without corroborating any of the accusations against him. Why is this man still in jail and denied bail? Is it because no one dares admit he was innocent to start with?

On March 16 this year, a group of 50 satyagrahis from across India marched to the central jail in Raipur, demanding Binayak’s release. We were arrested and set free. The following week a second batch of satyagrahis did the same. This action has been taken each Monday for almost two months now. What more can we do? How much louder can we shout?

But shout we must. At Binayak’s trial we learned he is suffering from heart disease. A court-appointed doctor recommended that he be shifted to Vellore for a possible angioplasty or bypass. An RTI query has shockingly revealed a month later that the police are unconstitutionally insisting that Binayak be treated in Chhattisgarh. Should Binayak, who lost his liberty to an arbitrary state, be forced to trust the same agency with his life? India is a signatory to the International Human Rights Covenant. By definition its human rights activists must be protected. It is our democracy that is on trial.

The writer is a Mumbai-based film-maker. His website is


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