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Who’s afraid of Binayak Sen?

india Updated: Aug 31, 2008 00:44 IST

‘Raipur Central Jail is decorated with patriotic bells and whistles. A bust of Subhash Chandra Bose painted in Bollywood silver rests in front of the arched entrance. On either side of it are similarly adorned busts of Mohandas Gandhi and Vivekananda. Inside, the reception area is a jumble of registers, dusty close-circuit TV screen, nervous supplicants, and guards bored and self-important in turn. There’s also a marble plaque with names of freedom fighters incarcerated in Raipur jail during the long-ago years of activism for ideal nationhood: Independence Day, if you will.

These days, it’s home to a man called Binayak Sen. For decades a doctor to the rural poor, public health specialist, human rights activist, Binayak is a declared pain in the fundament for the government of Chhattisgarh. In this part of the world, such status can lead to unique concerns.

“People tell me I may be safer in jail,” Binayak speaks softly, so softly that I miss it. “Outside, anything can happen.” An emphatic bullet; an engineered mob; death by bureaucracy. Binayak shrugs. The crowded deputy jailor’s room is abuzz. New prisoners are checked off in a bulky register as they shout out their names, addresses, caste, crime, and punishment — in that order. In a corner, on a bench lie home remedies that his daughter Pranhita has brought from their tiny flat in the Katora Talao area, now a transit camp in the battle for Binayak. A plastic bag contains cereal, a couple of packets of biscuits, half a dozen bananas. A small, well-thumbed photo album from the ceremony of the 2008 Thomas Mann prize for Global Health and Human Rights, awarded by peers. Pranhita, her younger sister Aparajita and mother Ilina, these days a professor of gender studies in Wardha, were in United States in May to receive the award on Binayak’s behalf.

Binayak sees the photos again. Then he turns to Pranhita and wordlessly strokes her hair. She is here in Raipur for a few days, from Mumbai, where she is a student of media. Binayak can meet her for a few minutes. A ‘political’ prisoner, he lives in a cell among those charged with murder and other crimes. The prisoners respect him, protect him, prevent isolation, and temper despair. One held an umbrella for Binayak as he walked in the rain from his cell, several hundred metres away.

Dipankar, Binayak’s younger brother, an oil industry executive in Brussels, is here as well. Angry, teary, voluble and mute in turn, he is still shell-shocked after more than a year to see his brother like this. The diminutive Binayak, shrunken in a faded blue khadi kurta and white pyjamas, calms him, as he has Pranhita.

There is a slim plastic band Binayak wears, like those now global standard for messages demanding awareness of HIV/Aids, Darfur, Tibet. This one has a message his fans distributed at the award ceremony: Free Binayak Sen.

Fat chance — thus far.

It’s all quite twisted. Binayak helped to publicise the ‘Malik-Makbuja’ corruption, by which tribals have for years been scammed out of valuable timber on their land by collusion of traders and politicians. He blew the lid off Salwa Judum, ‘Purification Hunt’ in the local Gondi dialect, that has since 2005, through state sponsorship destroyed villages in south Chhattisgarh and forcibly resettled tens of thousands into concentration camp-like horrors to deny Maoists shelter, recruits and network. Exceeding Maoist rebels they accuse of brutality, police, paramilitary and Salwa Judum recruits have in concert freely killed unarmed men, women and children. As the state fought back with an overkill of fire and fear, Binayak suggested the play was to help business. He named the Tata, Essar and Jindal enterprises, among others, businesses with the ability to reach far, wide, and all the way to the top. The government, he suggested, hadn’t safeguarded the interests of tribal and forest dwellers before trading their futures for Rs 170 billion in memoranda signed with businesses from home and abroad for mining iron ore and diamond, setting up iron and steel and power plants. In a way, what Binayak did was similar to what Medha Patkar tried for those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar project, or Aruna Roy to empower the poor and powerless with right to information. Only, there wasn’t and isn’t a state of ‘civil’ war — whatever that means — on Patkar’s and Roy’s patch.

In May 2007, Chhattisgarh police, pressured by masters in deep sulk, arrested Binayak for interacting with an ailing, elderly Maoist leader in Raipur jail. Permission for such interaction was sought in writing by Binayak in his capacity as both doctor and human rights activist, and granted in writing by a Deputy Inspector General of Police. The charge sheet accused Binayak of not being a doctor, besides ferrying communication for Maoists. Both charges have since, unsurprisingly, been disproved in local courts.

Binayak is hit by provisions in India’s Penal Code, largely unchanged since its inception in the mutiny-shaken days of 1860. Among these, a Section 121 charge censures against ‘Waging, or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war, against the Government of India.’ It carries a maximum penalty of death. A bit of a big hammer for exposing wrongs. Very Cultural Revolution.

How can Chhattisgarh do this?

It has recourse to the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (2006). A cousin of the Act for long applied to some of India’s northeastern states permits security forces immunity to search, seize and arrest without warrant, incarcerate, and kill those seen to question India or rebel against it. In Chhattisgarh, the push-comes-to-shove Act is designed to defeat Maoist rebels — and muzzle critics of the government. This includes media, human rights organisations and NGOs that work the middle ground literally risking life and limb with Maoists as well as the state.

For more than a year, Binayak’s lawyers, Ilina, other family, and well-wishers have visited corridors of substantial power in Raipur, Delhi and elsewhere, pleading his case. Nobel laureates have written letters to the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh, and the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh. Several of Binayak’s fellow doctors from India and abroad have petitioned his case to lawmakers and the public at large. The effect: diddly.

In this silly season of paranoia and ham-handed application of official antibiotics, it may be too much to expect a fraught national security apparatus to melt its heart for an injustice. So soon, too, after the vote-of-confidence fracas in parliament, to expect a BJP-led Chhattisgarh to bend to suggestions of ‘snafu’ from a Congress-led central government. And so, the circus continues.

In several court hearings since Binayak’s incarceration, the case for the prosecution has proved hollow, and some witnesses for the prosecution have turned hostile — this in Chhattisgarh! Senior Chhattisgarh administration officials admit that higher courts could, ultimately, dismiss the case against Binayak on points of law, while lower courts, closer to imperatives that drive the politics of Chhattisgarh, may be less moved. The simple yet chilling truth could well be that the political masters of Chhattisgarh have either not been provided, or have been unable to come up with, an adequate face-saving strategy for withdrawal — as in the case of Salwa Judum, which’s now little else than a PR noose around the state’s neck.

In Delhi, conventional wisdom among even strongly nationalistic security analysts is: if there is strong evidence of wrongdoing against Binayak, prosecute aggressively. If not, admit a wrong turn and let the man walk. General elections are soon due. It’s a time for political give-and-take, of loaded gestures. This could trigger Binayak’s freedom — there is even some talk that November is the month when this envelope begins. An indication was provided during my visit to Raipur: if Binayak is to be released, it may help to first lower the temperature around him, cool the rights-rhetoric. And, by all means, keep grovelling. Until then, in him the Chhattisgarh government has what it surely did not wish to create: a cause célèbre providing greater exposition of the state’s collective failures than before his arrest.

“How come they haven’t taken that free-you band away?” I ask of Binayak as we prepare to leave.

He smiles. “They probably don’t know what it means.”

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country