Dr Binayak Sen, General Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, was arrested in May this year by the Chattisgarh police, apparently because he had ‘links’ with a jailed ‘Naxalite’. World over, from Amnesty International to Amartya Sen, there have been strong protests against the arrest. Support has also poured in from across the country. The world’s medical fraternity has also taken up the cause, for Sen is that rarest of rare doctors - one who walks and works among the poorest and the most deprived. Yet, our cries so far have fallen on deaf ears.
I first met Sen in 1986 when Shankar Guha Niyogi, leader of the Chhatisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), had invited me to screen ‘Bombay Our City’ to the mine-workers of Chhatisgarh. Niyogi was no ordinary union leader. Originally a worker in the Bhilai Steel plant, his thinking went far beyond the wage-struggle politics of most unions of the day.
I witnessed democracy at work every evening when workers sat down in a large circle to discuss the ideological and practical issues of the day and saw how innovative their thinking was. The predominantly adivasi workforce needed to have their own symbols of struggle, so the CMM revived the memory of a forgotten hero, Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh, a 19th century adivasi who had been hanged by the British in 1857 for feeding his people from the granaries.
Inspired by Niyogi, Sen came to work among the mine workers of Chhatisgarh. They were instrumental in conceiving and setting up a 15-bed Shaheed Hospital, a modest but impressive institution built and maintained with the voluntary labour of the mine workers. By mid-1980s, the hospital had grown to a 50-bed one with its own self-sufficient operating theatre. The love, care and pride that went into the daily work at the hospital made it a unique institution, one of its kind.
The revolution that Niyogi and his comrades envisaged was acquainted both by the failures of the Left as well as by the knowledge of environmental degradation wrought by the development paradigm.
When disillusionment with the traditional Left set in by the mid-1980s, there was a search for an alternate vision. Niyogi and the CMM in Chhatisgarh seemed a harbinger of a new Left movement, using not armed struggle but grassroots organisation and mass mobilisation as their primary weapon.
The screening of Bombay Our City, a film that described the daily struggle for survival of Bombay’s slum-dwellers, was an instant hit with the workers. Over a thousand attended the open air screening and discussions lasted long into the night. So lively was the exchange that the union wanted its own print. I promised to return but to my regret, never kept my promise.
But Niyogi and the CMM had other powerful enemies. Growing confidence among workers had allowed the union to tackle social evils like alcoholism. The union imposed a small fine on those who drank but incredibly, secretly returned the fined amount to the wives of the alcoholic worker. Shrinking consumption levels hit the liquor mafia hard. Other powerful enemies included labour contractors who had lost their exploitative livelihood, to the most intractable force of all, an industrialist/politician nexus that could not tolerate a strong workers’ movement.
On the night of September 27, 1991, Shankar Guha Niyogi was shot dead as he lay asleep in his hut. Those who organised the murder were never punished although everyone in the area knows who they are. The additional district and sessions court found six persons guilty and awarded the death sentence to the man who fired the gun and life sentences to the other five, including two prominent industrialists close to the BJP, charged with planning and funding the murder. With the BJP in power, the Madhya Pradesh high court freed the accused, citing lack of evidence. The orphaned CMM struggled on, led by Janak Lal Thakur among others. Sen, and his wife Ilina, stayed on, working with the CMM. He later began work with the civil liberties movement and took up the position of General Secretary of the Chhatisgarh unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
The assassination of Niyogi and the logic of ‘liberalisation’ led to a rapid worsening of repression against adivasis and workers in the region. Into this vacuum, armed resistance in the form of the Naxalite movement began to grow. In response, the State launched one of its most infamous anti-Naxal operations we know as the ‘Salwa Judum’ — arming and training civilians to form para-military vigilante outfits to combat Naxalism. As General Secretary of PUCL, Sen documented and published reports on the reign of terror unleashed in Chhatisgarh by the State-para-military forces nexus.
The State took its revenge and put a warrant out for his arrest. It was alleged that Sen met a Maoist leader lodged in Central Prison, Raipur, and facilitated an exchange of letters from jail, despite the fact that the PUCL had sought and obtained official permission from prison authorities for this meeting. Since May 14, Sen has been held for over 2 months now as a Naxalite.
If Sen is deemed a Naxalite because he documented State atrocities, then count me in as one too.
Anand Patwardhan is a film-maker and human rights activist