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Home > Human Rights > Lessons from an Indian jail

Lessons from an Indian jail

by Priyamvada Gopal, 3 April 2009

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(From: The Guardian, 2 April 2009)

The story of a doctor locked up for years for speaking up for the voiceless poor is a morality play with implications for all of us

As the world’s financial and political elites ponder our economic futures, having whipped themselves into a frenzy about projected violence by the discontented, the case of an imprisoned Indian doctor teaches us something about power and impunity in our times. In our world, a select few – state actors and powerful corporations – seem authorised to enact their own forms of violence, destroying lives, life savings and livelihoods without brooking challenge or fearing punishment. Speaking up against these impunities can result in anything from intimidation, blacklisting and suspension to incarceration and, as the tragic instance of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria showed, even simple murder.

For two years now, Dr Binayak Sen, an award-winning physician and civil rights activist practising in the Indian state of Chattisgarh, a resource-rich yet economically deprived region, has been rotting in prison. The charges levelled at him by the state are flimsy and the evidence even thinner. Caught, like other Chattisgarhis, in a virtual civil war between Naxalites, Maoist-inspired militants and a state-backed vigilante paramilitary known as the Salwa Judum, Sen has been accused in vaguely speculative terms of supporting the former. The case drags on with neither credible evidence on offer nor a determinate end in sight. A now seriously unwell Sen has also been denied bail and appropriate medical treatment for a heart condition.

His real crime? As vice president of India’s venerable civil rights organisation the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Sen, explicitly committed to non-violence, was involved in documenting and speaking up against the violent and unlawful activities of Salwa Judum, which include arson (burning down entire villages), forced displacement and vigilante killings. Salwa Judum, as an independent review (pdf) concluded, has become a means for the state to outsource law and order to "underage, untrained and unaccountable civilians" – with predictably disastrous results.

The context of the desperately uneven globalisation that underlies India’s position in the G20 is central to the story of Sen’s politicised imprisonment. As a medical doctor, Sen was long involved in treating the rural poor, that large population left out of the capital-intensive entrepreneurial fairytale we see celebrated so much. Developing low-cost healthcare programmes in the impoverished region, the intrepid doctor criticised state failures in relation to malnutrition and dysentery epidemics, themselves indicative of the growing divide between urban rich and rural poor. Sen also helped document corporate land-grabbing, custody deaths and staged assassinations of suspected insurgents in fake "encounters" with the police. For an Indian state busy burnishing the tale of unalloyed economic success, these less glorious realities better remain unacknowledged and unaddressed.

Chattisgarh itself embodies many of the contradictions and tensions of "India Shining". This mineral-rich region to which huge industries such as the Tatas (of "Nano" fame) are drawn is one that literally fuels India’s heavily coal- and iron ore-dependent economy. For its rural poor, however, little has changed for the better. Indeed, there are question marks around the forced clearances of villages that just happen to sit on valuable mining terrain. Sen spoke up publicly about the expropriation of natural resources and common property from the poor through corporate privatisation, calling also for better public distribution systems.

The people Sen spoke up for may be marginalised, but it is telling that he himself remains in desperate circumstances despite having no shortage of public and prominent advocates. Amnesty International has taken up his cause, as have prominent filmmakers, writers, Nobel laureates, retired supreme court judges and in today’s Guardian, several eminent UK-based academics. For his pains, the filmmaker Ajay TG was also thrown into jail after producing a documentary on Sen. Outside Raipur Jail where Sen languishes, a peaceful Gandhian satyagraha is now taking place with, among others, survivors of the 1984 Bhopal disaster, demanding justice. It is an indication of what is at stake in this battleground between rich and poor, powerful and disenfranchised, that both local and central governments have simply ignored such audible appeals.

Sen’s case shares with G20 protests here the predictable abuse of anti-terror legislation by the state to curtail legitimate protest. Vested interests and the G20 governments that pander to them can go to enormous lengths to protect themselves and to undermine criticism. Seen in this light, Sen’s story is not so much a distant happening as a morality play with implications for all of us. In demanding fair treatment for him, we assert our own right to speak the truth without intimidation. It is the only way to reclaim human rights from the empty rhetoric and perversions to which the powerful have consigned it.