Free Binayak Sen
By Priyamvada Gopal, Dwijen Rangnekar
and Aditya Sarkar
14 May, 2009
Oddly unblemished by global scrutiny, India’s civil rights copybook is a blotted one, with its fair share of arbitrary arrests, police atrocities, and concocted cases. The most prominent victim of an increasing criminalization of India’s strong traditions of dissent is Dr. Binayak Sen, arrested on 14 May 2007 on charges of abetting Maoist insurgency in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. A paediatrician by training, Sen has been working for decades with adivasis (‘tribals’) in Chhattisgarh. Having helped set up the pioneering Shaheed HospitaI for mine-workers, he was involved with several worker-based health programmes across the state.
As President of the Chattisgarh branch of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Sen was a significant voice against the violence rending the mineral- and forest-rich region, large portions of which have been handed over to private industry for exploitation, leading to large-scale displacement. In recent years Chhattisgarh has witnessed a protracted Maoist insurgency to which the state has responded with draconian anti-terror legislation. The 2005 stablishment of the Salwa Judum, private militias armed by the state government, has accelerated the conflict, leaving hundreds dead and thousands dispossessed. While treading a peaceful and democratic path through this carnage, Sen exposed a number of state-backed killings, violent dispossessions, and human rights violations in the region.
Among these was evidence of police involvement in the killing of 12 tribal people in Bijapur on 31 March 2007. On 14 May, Sen was arrested under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, an enactment that in common with most anti-terror legislation across the world effectively criminalizes peaceful protest and throttles criticism of the state. His visits to a senior and ailing leader of the proscribed Communist Party of India (Maoist) leader in jail were used to charge Sen with involvement in the insurgency. Carried out under strict supervision by jail authorities, these meetings were actually conducted in his capacity as a doctor and civil liberties activist. To date, the authorities have failed to provide a shred of concrete evidence in the case against Sen who has been systematically denied bail.
The last two years have brought global recognition for Sen’s work with impoverished communities and his commitment to human rights including 2008’s Jonathan Mann Award by the Global Health Council. Ironically, the doctor, who suffers from a serious heart condition, has been denied the right to medical treatment of his choice by the judiciary and the jail authorities. Fears that he may be the prospective victim of an ‘assisted death’ while a prisoner of the Chhattisgarh government are urgent and real.
Since Sen’s arrest, a swelling tide of protest in India (most notably the peaceful Gandhian satyagraha outside his Raipur jail) and across the world has publicized the Indian state’s dirty war on dissent, and sought to exert pressures towards Sen’s release on bail, pending a fair and swift trial. Recent solidarity initiatives have included demonstrations in London, San Francisco, New York, and Washington; letters of protest signed by Nobel Laureates, academics and civil liberties activists; and an Early Day Motion in the U.K Parliament. A protest organized by the U.K. Release Binayak Sen Now campaign outside the Indian High Commission in Aldwych, on 14 May 2009, will mark the second anniversary of Sen’s incarceration. We urge readers to join us in the protest. Sen is only one of hundreds of individuals who have been unjustly branded ‘terrorist’ by the Indian state, but the campaign against his imprisonment can act as a rallying point around which we may be able to construct campaigns against the brutality and lies that sustain the Indian state’s variant of the ‘war on terror’.
Priyamvada Gopal, University of Cambridge.
Aditya Sarkar, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
Dwijen Rangnekar, University of Warwick.
(Academics, and members of the Release Binayak Sen Now campaign)