The loyal, seditious Dr Sen
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The loyal, seditious Dr Sen

Lauded globally for uplifting one of India’s poorest areas, Binayak Sen got a life term under a 140-year-old law that let the British prosecute Gandhi and Tilak but is no longer meant to question loyalty, writes Samar Halarnkar. Opinion pool

mumbai Updated: Dec 30, 2010 01:08 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

“Take again Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code. Now so far as I am concerned that particular section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, if you like, in anv body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better.” —Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Parliament during debates on the first amendment to India’s new constitution, 1951

Nehru had good reason to abhor Section 124-A, the same law used last week to convict Binayak Sen —backed now by 22 Nobel laureates across the world and thousands of tribals who benefited from his work in the heart of India — to a life sentence for sedition and conspiring with the Maoists against the state.

Nehru was aware that the law on sedition, enacted in 1870 by the colonial government in reaction to growing Wahabi activities, was vague, open to loose interpretation by officials in an authoritarian, colonial society and frequently used against those who questioned the legitimacy of colonial rule, most notably Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.

In 1897, Tilak was convicted for sedition, the British arguing that his speeches, referring to the killing of Deccan chieftain Afzal Khan by the Maratha warrior-king Shivaji, had incited the murders of two British officers. He was charged twice more; one of those cases, in 1916, defended successfully by one Mohammed Ali Jinnah (yes, the founder of Pakistan).

Today’s sedition law reads: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India.”

As Siddharth Narrain, a Bangalore lawyer, wrote in the political and media blog Kafila last month: “The fundamental moral question that Tilak raised was whether his trials constituted sedition of the people against the British Indian government (Rajdroha) or of the Government against the Indian people (Deshdroha).”

“Rajdroha,” was the pronouncement of Second Additional District and Sessions Judge VP Varma in Raipur when he sentenced Sen to life. The evidence: Sen’s attempt to pass on three letters written by a jailed Maoist leader to unknown people in Kolkata and the help he gave “hardcore Naxalites” to open bank accounts and get jobs.

The barefoot doctor

Those who know Binayak Sen — from National Advisory Council members like Jean Dreze and Harsh Mander to Nobel laureate Amartya Sen to his family — point out how Sen has indeed commented on and challenged acts of the government, notably the formation of the tribal vigilante movement Salwa Judum, but his loyalty is hard to question.

“Why did the boy who helped us not eat with us? Why did he eat alone on the kitchen floor?” These, said Sen’s mother, Anasuya, 84, are questions that troubled her son when he was four.

Sen made life choices to seek answers.

His father wanted him to go to London and became a Member of the Royal College of Physicians, but Sen, a gold-medallist from the Christian Medical College, Vellore, became a paediatrician. Later, while an assistant professor studying for a Phd in public health, the impatient Sen left to work in India’s forgotten areas.

To understand Sen’s work and his self-help brand of nation building, one must travel deep into one of India’s poorest areas, to the end of a dirt track in a sal forest in southeast Chhattisgarh, where Sen ran a weekly clinic that drew tribals from villages as far as 30 km away.

Their only other healthcare option was a two-day walk through the forest. To mitigate hardships like these, Sen trained hundreds of rural healthcare workers in a programme called “Mitanin (volunteer)”. It urged villages to select one of their own women for the training. “Mitanin" was so successful over 2003 and 2004 that it became state policy, morphing into the Indira Mitanin Swasthya Yojana (Indira volunteer health programme).

They also remember him in the mining town of Dhalli Rajahara, where 27 years ago Sen, inspired by union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi, helped set up the Shaheed (martyrs’) hospital. It still runs with contributions from coal miners.

“Sen’s activities were indeed appreciated by the tribals and his work was genuine,” said a senior official of the Chhattisgarh government, speaking on condition of anonymity and echoing a widespread official view. “But how can we tolerate disloyalty? He was involved with the Naxals, who want to overthrow the state.”

Sen may well be a Maoist sympathiser (though he has publicly abjured their violent means and goals), but neither is that illegal, nor is his loyalty to India and its people in question, said his supporters. Even if he did what he’s convicted of, no one has ever been convicted for life for it. Tilak’s stiffest sentence for sedition: six years.

Most democracies have either rendered toothless or scrapped laws on sedition. The UK, from whom India inherited the law, held its last complete sedition trial in 1947, the year of India’s independence.

Despite Nehru’s views, 124-A remained. It was once declared unconstitutional, in 1959 (during the trial of a man who accused Nehru of being a traitor and called for violent overthrow of the government), by the high court in Bihar. Two years later the Supreme Court ruled otherwise. This case in question involves angst and anger familiar to modern-day India.

Kedar Nath, a member of the Forward Communist Party in Bihar, charged the Congress with corruption, black-marketing and tyranny, warning of a revolution that would overthrow landlords, capitalists and Congress leaders.

Narrain pointed out that the Supreme Court greatly narrowed its use. The court said: “…disloyalty to Government established by law is not the same thing as commenting in strong terms upon the measures or acts of Government, or its agencies, so as to ameliorate the condition of the people…”

Nearly half a century later, the Chhattisgarh government and judge Varma blurred this line. A higher court may remind them of it.

First Published: Dec 29, 2010 23:38 IST