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India: The Doctor Whom The State Fears

by Poornima Joshi, 19 January 2009

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Over 18 months after his incarceration, doctor and activist Binayak Sen is still languishing in jail without any evidence against him. Here’s why he is feared by the government.

BINAYAK SEN was a doctor and human rights activist who had worked many years among the tribals of Chhattisgarh’s tribal districts. His work among the tribals had made him a hero, a man who did what the government did not. To the government, he was the villain who backed the Maoists. He had to be silenced.

Binayak Sen has been in Raipur prison since May 14, 2007. His incarceration has little do with the official charge that he passed on information from jailed Maoists to their friends outside. It’s quite likely that as a human rights activist and selfless doctor who worked among the tribals, he was seen as a bulwark against the state’s rampant human rights violations in the area.

Binayak, a graduate of the prestigious Christian Medical College ( CMC), Vellore, has been hailed by the Global Health Council for his " years of service for poor and tribal communities, his effective leadership in establishing self- sustaining health care services where none existed." And he had the courage to stand up.

It is Binayak’s work among the poor, his dogged agitation to ensure that the tribals are not fodder for police atrocities, that makes him a perfect catch.

His arrest eliminates a powerful voice against the state’s failure to provide for the poor while it also establishes Chief Minister Raman Singh’s credentials as a ruler who would squash any powerful voice that questions his anti- terror policy.

There is one more purpose to be served by Binayak’s arrest. It validates BJP’s consistent effort to obliterate the line between Maoists and activists who believe that the legal process should be followed even if the state is fighting against Maoists.

" This is a systematic process under way to eliminate voices of dissent. It is a known fact that as an office- bearer of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties ( PUCL), Binayak was a strong critic of inhuman anti- Maoist policies such as the Salva Judum. So, instead of giving a logical response to arguments against such policies, the best thing is to silence these voices. You cannot argue with Binayak when he criticises the government’s total indifference to the collapsing healthcare system or Salva Judum.

The best thing to do is to brand him as a Maoist and put him in jail," says Kavita Srivastava, PUCL activist from Rajasthan.

Srivastava’s claim seems justified by what BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad told this correspondent after Binayak was jailed. " I too have worked for civil liberties organisations. But over the years, most of these activists have become the overground face of the underground. There is no distinction," Prasad said.

This is also the reason why BJP president Rajnath Singh, when he was shown an appeal for Binayak’s release signed by 22 Nobel Prize winners, responded thus: " They ( the Nobel laureates) do not know the ground realities. I have spoken to the Chief Minister and he says there is enough evidence against him." The ruling party dismisses every appeal, every gesture of solidarity such as the British House of Commons publication of an Early Day Motion entitled " Arrest of Dr. Binayak Sen" supported by several MPs calling for his " immediate release" on June 7, 2007.

ACCORDING to his wife Illina Sen, the most disastrous result of Binayak’s prolonged incarceration is the slow disintegration of the public health system that he struggled to set up in some of the most impoverished areas of the country.

Binayak had arrived in Chhattisgarh in 1981 to join the legendary trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi at Dalli- Rajhara. In 1994, Binayak and Illina started a community health programme at Bagrumnala, a remote tribal village in Dhamtari district. The programme links health work with the people’s living conditions, and included provision of low- cost effective health care services.

But the chargesheet filed against him by the Chhattisgarh police depicts his medical work as ’ negligible’ and ’ just a cover’. It depicts Binayak as a ’ Christian missionary’, which presumably is a crime, besides being a ’ naxalite’. There is a deliberate attempt here, feels Kavita Srivastava, to smear the legacy of Shankar Guha Niyogi, a legend in many parts of Chhattisgarh. In his area of operation Dalli- Rajhara, Niyogi’s ashes are still waiting for immersion under a relentless flame as a mark of protest, because most of the killers have escaped punishment.

On the walls of the house of miners, and in the marketplace, you can see Niyogi’s picture along with gods and goddesses and icons. And everybody has his or her own story about the incredible life and times of Niyogi and Binayak.

Binayak is part of this legend. He is not a violent Maoist. He follows the Niyogi school. Niyogi, a Marxist, used non- violent methods in what can be called a synthesis of the experiments of Lenin, Mao and Gandhi. He injected idealism at the grassroots with the principle of ’ Sangharsh aur Nirman’ ( struggle and development). This was unique in a context where the ’ official Marxists’ were sucked up in power politics and the underground Maoists were decimated and scattered by State repression. Niyogi thereby ushered in a completely new political discourse, where priorities were shifted locally and collectively, even while the long term struggle continued — non- violently and peacefully, using constitutional and democratic means.

Binayak was part of the movement during which Niyogi and the miners collectively built and sustained schools, roads, public distribution systems, emergency food kitchens for thousands of peasants and workers. The miners at Rajnandgaon were perhaps the best paid and most secure with social safety nets after the protracted struggle.

This was Binayak’s singular contribution, while he forsake a cushy, urban existence to work relentlessly for the poor, lived in their humble mud huts and mixed health and human rights in a creative synthesis.

The Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha ( CMM) has grown into a mass movement. The entire region including the town of Ranjandgaon benefited from the movement. Niyogi and Binayak created a new practical grassroots language of struggle and progress for collective sharing.

This is why the political establishment and the big industry resented this creative expansion of a noble experiment which was rapidly showing results, especially in the health, educational and social sectors. That is why Niyogi was murdered. That is also why Binayak is still languishing in prison 18 months after his arrest on flimsy charges that are becoming increasingly difficult to prove.

With no evidence against him ( see box ), the government has no legal ground to stand on. But who’s listening? "