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The Year of Living Seditiously

January 2, 2011

Image sourced from People Tree

It really hasn’t been a great year for Indian democracy. For a long time, the Indian public got along by telling itself that it had a ‘functioning democracy’. “The bureaucracy may be screwed”, went the reasoning, “and our politicians sure as hell are corrupt, but at least our judiciary and our press is still decent and fair.” The Radia Tapes took care of the latter part of that dream. And a recent order by a lower court in Chhattisgarh, the state at the heart of the Naxal (Maoist) insurgency, has seriously shaken the former.

The sentence in question regards Dr Binayak Sen, a 60-year old paediatrician with a long and impressive record of public service, which won him the prestigious Jonathan Mann award in 2008. At the heart of the affair is the accusation that Dr Sen was passing messages for a jailed Naxal leader and supporting the Maoist insurgency in the state. He was arrested in 2007, and released on bail in 2009 after a lengthy legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. On Dec 24th, the lower court sentenced him to life imprisonment. The good doctor has been convicted, amongst other things, of sedition, under an act dating back to the days of the British Raj. It could have been worse. He was acquitted on the charge of waging war against the nation.

Here’s something funny about sedition. MK Gandhi was tried under the same charge, by the British government, in 1922. So was another freedom fighter, Bal Gangadhar Tilak. More recently, a metropolitan magistrate in Delhi ordered the police to register a complaint against writer Arundhati Roy and others on charges of sedition. Roy had criticized government policies in Kashmir and demanded independence for the state while speaking at a public seminar. 2010, it seems, was the year of living seditiously.

Inured as Indians are to gross miscarriages of justice, the sentence against Dr Sen has come as a blow to the gut. The image of the soft spoken doctor being taken into custody is at the heart of a howl of protest that is echoing across the country, against all that is rotten in our ‘functional’ democracy. In part, its about the timing. The sentence came at the fag end of a year that has been marked by scams and scandals. There was a $40billion swindle pulled recently by the telecom minister, embezzlement in cricket’s Indian Premier League, and houses for war widows in plush Mumbai localities were allotted to top defence brass and a minister’s mother in law. It was a year that didn’t lack for villains. But the only guy in prison is a barefoot doctor who worked with India’s poorest. Suddenly, sweet, democratic India is sounding a whole lot like the neighbours that it loves to hate. (Incidentally, can India still act uppity when China jails its writers, or should it reconsider gleefully attending Nobel ceremonies designed as snubs to dictatorships?)

So outrageous is the sentence that even a staid newspaper like The Hindu commented that it “calls into question the fundamentals of the Indian justice system.” The trial has been conducted on evidence that is so flimsy that it can barely bear repetition, let alone stand scrutiny. This includes an email sent by Sen’s wife Ilina to the Indian Social Institute, which shares an acronym with the Pakistani intelligence agency, and the fact that she used the term Comrade to address her colleague. (Apparently that’s top secret Maoist code, known only to the highest cadres of the Naxal movement.) Of course, the truth behind the ridiculous judgement is far simpler and far more chilling.

Chhattisgarh is the heart of the red corridor, territory that is being hard fought over by the Maoist insurgents and the government of India. It is also a crucial reservoir of natural and mineral wealth that the state is desperate to sell off. Any attempt by activists or civil society organizations to argue with these agendas is brutally repressed. This is precisely what has happened in the case of Dr Binayak Sen. In the years preceding his arrest, Dr Sen, in his capacity as general secretary of the state unit of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) was instrumental in documenting and exposing the atrocities committed by the Salwa Judum, the state armed militia that was meant to be a foil to the Naxalite forces.

As journalist Jyoti Punwani points out, Sen’s reputation as a dangerous Naxal supporter grew in direct proportion to the noise he made about the atrocities committed by the Salwa Judum. It also corresponded to PUCL protests against draconian laws in the state, and exposing fake encounters of tribals killed as Maoists by the police. Binayak Sen was sent to jail to get him to shut up.

The attempt to gag troublemakers hasn’t ended with Dr Sen. Fact finding missions and independent journalists venturing into the interiors of the state are routinely harassed. It has become virtually impossible to report freely from this part of India.

But stuff like this is hardly unusual in India, where whistleblowers who live to tell the tale are rare. So why does the case of Binayak Sen suddenly matter to so many people? The fact is that for an absurdly large number of Indians, the hope remains that truth will triumph. In a sane and just world, Dr Sen would be getting a medal for his work. In a sensible system, he’d be part of the mechanism for making decisions and policies for development. Instead, he is in prison. Even for our well developed powers of denial, this is atrocious.

Binayak Sen has already spent 2 years of his life in jail, before his bail application was finally granted by the Supreme Court. Yet he is advised to put his faith in the judicial process, to get out of the state and move up the judicial ladder for justice. Perhaps keeping this persistent illusion alive is a good idea. Perhaps the alternative is too scary to be contemplated—that like the rest of our rotten systems, our judiciary is also an elaborate farce; that we are indeed, at the mercy of kangaroo courts that the government can manipulate whenever they like. Dr Sen’s friend and associate, Himanshu Kumar, has been in exile from Chhattisgarh for nearly two years. His Gandhian ashram in the area of Dantewada, which worked for the development of tribal groups, was bulldozed by the police. Himanshu had raised his voice against the handover the state’s rich mineral resources to private interests, and against the hounding out of tribals from their villages by the Salwa Judum. How long until he is arrested?

The case of Dr Sen is also a testimony to how well the nationalism card works in our times. Kashmir, the north-eastern states, Maoists and Gujarat-all are fertile ground for ‘terrorists’ to be found. This is nothing short of a war on dissent, and an attempt to silence the voices of conscience that a real (‘functional’) democracy would nourish. The only upside to this story is the groundswell of support that has spread after news of Dr Sen’s arrest came in. There have been protests and meetings in cities across the country, and Indians from across social class and political persuasion have joined in demanding justice for Binayak Sen. If only if were enough.

As the good doctor brings in the new year in prison, we have to ask ourselves, why him? Why not the politician who stole public money, the corporates who poisoned Bhopal, the police officers who murdered Muslims in Gujarat? It is likely that Binayak Sen knew the answer. Before being arrested, he made a statement that ended with these words, “I submit that my prosecution is malafide; in fact it is a persecution. 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.” To kind of quote Arundhati Roy’s response to being charged with sedition, pity the nation that jails its heroes.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2012 5:22 am

    Actually no matter if someone doesn’t know then its up to other viewers that they will help, so here it occurs.

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