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Who’s afraid of Binayak Sen?

india Updated: May 13, 2008 22:30 IST

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It’s 365 days since public health specialist and human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen has been behind bars. A critic of the Chhattisgarh government’s Salwa Judum policy, which is now being investigated for excesses by the National Human Rights Commission after a Supreme Court order, Dr Sen was arrested on May 14, 2007, for allegedly passing letters from a Naxalite leader — who he had been treating — to another inside the Raipur jail. On April 30, almost a year after his arrest, six witnesses were examined. Considering that there are 83 witnesses and the pace at which our judicial system works, it looks doubtful that Dr Sen will be judged in a court of law in a hurry.

Days before he was arrested, Dr Sen had said that “the people who have been protesting against [the Salwa Judum] and trying to bring before the world the reality of these campaigns.... human rights workers like myself.... have also been targeted through State action”. When he appeared in court on May 18, 2007 and asked for the FIR, the police ‘failed’ to produce anything. Interestingly a day after, the police searched his house without finding any incriminating evidence. And yet he is still languishing in jail. There seems little doubt that there has been a deliberate effort on the part of the authorities to crack down on dissent or, in this case, violently silence a strongly variant point of view on the Salwa Judum policy of arming villagers in Naxal strongholds. It is for speaking out against this ‘official’ policy from the ground level in Chhattisgarh — as opposed to speaking out against the Salwa Judum as many other observers have while visiting the area — that has got Dr Sen in jail for what seems like an indefinite period. That the Supreme Court had also recently made pretty much the same observation that he had makes Dr Sen’s incarceration even more unjust and bizarre.

In the course of his work as a renowned public health specialist in the areas of Chhattisgarh under Naxal control, it is only but natural that Dr Sen would have come in contact with what the State would deem ‘Naxal sympathisers’. Does that make him a collaborator — especially in an area where the angelic State has been afraid to tread for decades? We definitely think not. But the State seems hell-bent on making him an example so that others don’t go against its grain. What is even more appalling is the stand of the central government that seems to be playing Pontius Pilate to the whole affair. Quietly, it has decided to put the ball in the state of Chhattisgarh’s court. Answer us this: what are the real charges against Dr Sen? If you don’t have a good answer to that — and only a court of law can vouch for that — we strongly suggest that he be released before India starts looking like a tin-pot dictatorship.