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State of Chhattisgarh Versus Dr. Binayak Sen

By Radha Surya

21 February, 2011

There is an image that torments our collective conscience. This is the image that shows Dr. Binayak Sen sitting inside a police vehicle after he was awarded a life sentence by the Raipur Sessions Court in Chhattisgarh. An observer who was present on that bleak December day said that he looked completely defeated when the judgement was delivered. On December 24 as in the widely circulated photo from the years 2007-2009, Dr. Binayak Sen’s hand rests on the barred window of the police van. But this time he looks straight ahead rather than the world outside the van. His clouded, despairing gaze is that of a doomed man who already in his mind’s eye sees the inexorable prison walls closing in on him.

It has been said many times before by those who have first hand knowledge of the situation in Chhattisgarh. An all-powerful nexus consisting of the Chhattisgarh government, police and judiciary and acting on behalf of business interests had set its sights on Dr. Binayak Sen. In his capacity of human rights activist, he had played a key role in exposing the true nature of the state sponsored vigilante group the murderous Salwa Judum. Under the pretext of being a spontaneous anti-Naxalite people’s movement, the Salwa Judum ran amok in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh killing large numbers of villagers and herding survivors into refugee camps. This forcible clearing of villages by the government paved the way for the appropriation of the resource rich areas of the state by mining and manufacturing interests. Dr. Binayak Sen’s outspoken condemnation of the perpetration of state violence for advancing the interests of private capital made him an enemy of the state—someone who had to be silenced at all costs. The Chhattisgarh police force had its own vendetta to wage against Dr. Sen. For them he was a marked man from the time he drew attention to encounter killings and other atrocities committed by the police.

The rejection of Dr. Binayak Sen’s bail application by the Chattisgarh High Court on February 10 is the most recent in the series of blows that have been dealt by a vindictive state apparatus. It had been hoped—not unreasonably--that at least the High Court would uphold ordinary standards of legally permissible evidence. The hearing of the bail application took place over the period from January 24-February 10 with a lengthy break from January 25-February 8. As it happened one of the judges absolutely had to go on leave during this critical period. Concomitantly national campaigns seeking justice for Dr. Binayak Sen went into high gear. A group of artists that included well known and respected film personalities wrote to the Prime Minister appealing to him to press for a judicial review of the verdict and urgently undo the injustice being done to Dr Binayak Sen. The international campaign too stepped up its efforts and conveyed unmistakable anxiety to secure justice for Dr Binayak Sen. All the signs were propitious. The European Union Human Rights Commission obtained permission to attend the bail hearing and a number of Nobel Laureates rallied behind their imprisoned colleague. In response, the all powerful Chhattisgarh state apparatus and its loyalists struck back by representing the expression of international concern as a matter of controversy.

Supposedly the EU representatives who were present at the Chhattisgarh High Court hearing of Dr. Binayak Sen's bail application had overstepped their boundaries. So had the Nobel Laureates forty of whom had signed a statement that was released on the eve of the court's announcement of its decision. The statement referred to the blatantly unfair trial of Dr. Binayak Sen and made an appeal for his release on bail. The call for justice made by the Nobel Laureates and the presence of EU observers in court evoked howls of protest among some speakers in TV debates that followed the refusal of bail to Dr. Sen. The talking heads were irate that the Nobel Laureates had failed to pay due deference to the Indian state and its institutions. For them the scandal consisted not in the travesty of justice that has been witnessed in the persecution of Dr. Binayak Sen but the taking cognizance thereof by international observers. The obvious seemed to elude the comprehension of the ultra-nationalists. Or maybe they understood and were left frothing at the mouth because the shining work of Dr Binayak Sen, uncompromising human rights activist and physician selflessly devoted to the service of the otherwise abandoned and neglected tribal inhabitants of Chhattisgarh, had won him friends and admirers and garnered respect and recognition across the world.

With the appropriateness of the so-called internationalization of Dr. Sen's trial becoming a topic of discussion on the news channels, the family members who spoke on his behalf were placed in the unimaginably bizarre position of having to explain and even apologize for the international dimensions of the shock and outrage with which Dr Sen's conviction has been received. On CNN-IBN--and no doubt other venues as well--Dr. Ilina Sen was asked if she had recruited foreign support because she had lost faith in India's judicial system. She answered that the Nobel Laureates had not acted at her request and that she had not approached them. That she should have been required to make this disclaimer is nothing short of outrageous. Consider the facts. Ever since Dr Binayak Sen was convicted on December 24 a searchlight has been trained on the trial proceedings. Fabrication of "evidence" by the prosecution, inconsistencies in key facts such as date and place of arrest of alleged co-courier Piyush Guha, reliance on inferences shown to be incorrect to the point of being laughable--all of these have been brought out by a flood of commentary. The term kangaroo court has been used by credible observers in connection with the Raipur court that handed a life sentence to Dr. Binayak Sen. In view of all this it is rather rich that Dr. Sen's wife while still reeling from the trauma of the rejection of the bail application should be called on to implicitly refute the charge of being anti-national and to affirm her faith in the judicial process. The fact that she kept her self-possession is further testimony to the remarkable fortitude and courage of a woman who has been made to go through hell since Dr. Binayak Sen's arrest in May 2007.

At every step the reasonable and legitimate hopes and expectations of Binayak and Ilina Sen, family members, supporters and well wishers have been dashed to the ground by a vindictive state apparatus. With the Chhattisgarh High Court refusing to loosen the coils that have been wound around the life, liberty and work of Binayak Sen, Ilina Sen has declared her intention of moving the Supreme Court in an expedient manner. In the mean time Dr Binayak Sen is suffering out his incarceration in the Raipur jail's maximum security division where the living conditions are worse than those of zoo animals. Ilina Sen has said that the cells in the maximum security unit are merely five iron cages with no facilities in a large courtyard. Dr. Sen is known to be a heart patient. Unsurprisingly the otherwise vociferous ultra nationalists have not alluded to the savage treatment meted out to a sick man by the State. Dr. Sen is kept in isolation and is not allowed to read newspapers. Can we at least hope that the apex court will give a favorable hearing to the call for a modicum of justice? Even Home Minister Chidambaram, an unquestioning proponent if any of state power, has acknowledged that a miscarriage of justice could have taken place. There is no remaining recourse if the Supreme Court refuses to overturn the judgement which has committed Dr. Binayak Sen to a tomb while still alive. That Ilina Sen has mentally confronted that eventuality is clear from her calm statement--they would then join the thousands of others in India who live and die with injustice.

Why did Dr. Binayak Sen give room to the remorseless forces which are rending apart his life? Why oh why did he not ask in 2007 for transference of the trial to a state other than Chhattisgarh? This question has been answered in an interview given by Ilina Sen. She said they believed they would get justice in Chhattisgarh. Another reason may also be surmised. Dr. Sen moved to Chhattisgarh in the early 80s and dedicated his life’s work to alleviating the hardships of life for a tribal population whom the state regarded as undeserving of its services. Maybe he reasoned that his seeking a change of venue for the trial would result in feelings of hostility being engendered amidst the general populace of Chhattisgarh. This in turn would have made his remaining in Chhattisgarh untenable and necessitated the abandonment of the tribal inhabitants whom he served and who depended on him. Such speculation is far from implausible in light of what is known about the selfless nobility of Dr. Binayak Sen. The day he was arrested he had requested the police for permission to attend his medical clinic as some of his patients needed urgent medical attention. The scale and reach of his work as a physician has been brought out by the human rights activist Nandita Haksar. In her book on Dr. Binayak Sen she has written that by jailing the doctor, the state has effectively deprived people, living in more than 200 villages, of access to any medical care (“Binayak's patients await treatment,” Times of India, December 31 2010).

For his well wishers and those closest to him there is reason for anguish in each additional day that Dr. Binayak Sen remains in incarceration. Looking ahead into the future one can foresee that the activists will recover eventually from the shock of the rejection of the bail appeal. They will regroup and resume their efforts. Once again the rallies will be held and calls made for justice. The campaigners have to continue in the hope that the mighty and the powerful can be made to see that it is in their interest to undo the mockery of justice implicit in the persecution of Dr. Binayak Sen. What other recourse is there?




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