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Home > National Interest vs People’s Interest : A space for social movements > India: Quashing the voiceless with state ruthlessness

India: Quashing the voiceless with state ruthlessness

by Patricia Mukhim, 8 May 2009

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The Statesman

IT is an insane system that puts behind bars a medical doctor whose heart is with the most impoverished sections of Indian society. It is two years since Dr Binayak Sen, the internationally renowned medical doctor and human rights activist has been jailed. He will complete two years on 14 May 2009. Since his imprisonment different groups of human rights activists have been putting pressure on the UPA government to release Dr Sen, whose benign nature is known to all. He would be the last person to be involved in an act of sedition. But that is not what the mighty Indian state thinks. Recently activists of all shades once again petitioned Union home minister P Chidambaram requesting Dr Sen’s release yet again. It is believed that Dr Manmohan Singh had urged the Chattisgarh government to release him but his plea fell on deaf ears. Dr Sen, after all, is a prisoner of BJP-ruled Chattisgarh.

He is the national vice-president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, one of the oldest civil liberties organisations in India. His area of work centred around issues of basic livelihoods, health services and social justice. While in prison, Dr Sen was honoured with the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. Yet he became a victim of the very issues he supported. In what can only be termed the most vulgar infringement of human rights, Binayak Sen’s trial came up only one year after his arrest. To add insult to injury, he has been repeatedly denied bail, a plight that even people accused of heinous crimes do not have to suffer. Is this, then, a case of personal vendetta?

Ironically, the prosecutors are hard put to find any tangible evidence to press charges on the list of accusations that evidently are all “trumped up”. But is this not familiar territory? When the state wants to pillory any individual, it can find umpteen ways of doing so, including that of planting ammunition and incriminating documents on the person. In fact, the more depressed the economic condition of the person, the easier it is to concoct charges and make them stick. Is this the kind of justice system we live with? In the case of Binayak Sen, 22 Nobel laureates signed an open letter to the government of India requesting his immediate release and expressing “grave concern” at the contravention of his fundamental human rights. Dr Sen has been suffering from chest pain and has not received adequate treatment. Activists now demand that he should be treated at CMC Vellore, from where the good doctor qualified as a physician.
Dr Sen came into conflict with the authorities for his open criticism of the Salwa Judum movement, a state-sponsored vigilante group that has run amok and taken the law into its hands. The Salwa Judum is the state’s answer to the Maoist movement. Those areas of Chattisgarh now overrun by Maoists are known to be the most backward and deprived areas. This uprising by the peasantry has everything to do with their angst for a better, more equitable delivery system. It has nothing at all to do with secessionism or high treason. That the Maoist movement has been equated to a movement against the state shows how incapable India is of comprehending the plight of its less privileged and marginalised people.
Class struggles are by no means unjust. These struggles are pushed to the limits mainly because the state remains unresponsive until a spate of violence awakens it from slumber. And then you witness a repressive regime trying to contain these uprisings. This is a story that is so familiar for people living in the North-east. In a country that is getting more and more economically fragmented, where the electoral system does not seem to deliver either economic or social justice, what do ordinary citizens take recourse to?

Many of the struggles for greater autonomy in the North-eastern states have turned violent because the state does not understand any other language of discourse. Sadly when the state gets uptight about any issue it tends to go into overdrive. Take the case of Assam, for instance. While it is true that the Ulfa and National Democrat Front of Boroland movement, and many others besides, have transgressed into bloody spasms of outrage, the government of India, which is the sole arbiter of our collective fates, has never tried to understand or has intentionally disregarded the need to analyse the causes for such outbursts. Much less to address them in the right spirit.

The state unleashes its own brand of violence, as if fighting violence with violence is the only creed of justice. Take the case of Prabhat Boro, the owner of a small medicine shop in Dhekiajuli, Assam. He was recently killed in one of the many “encounters” between the state forces, in this case the Assam Rifles, and alleged militants. His only fault was that he was innocuously named by Hiren Nath, an Ulfa intermediary who was arrested some time ago. Boro was picked up only on the strength of Nath’s confession. But since there was nothing at all to link him to any subversive activities, Boro was released on bail. While he was in prison his family comprising his wife and two kids were impoverished. Boro owned a Pulsar motorcycle which he desperately tried to get a buyer for. Rafiqul Islam, a regular law- breaker in the same prison, offered to buy the motorcycle. Islam paid him a token amount and promised to pay the rest in instalments but defaulted.

Boro, in dire straits, naturally pursued the payment matter and went to Islam’s home to get the money. While there, eyewitnesses claim that the Assam Rifles suddenly descended on the scene and killed Boro, his two friends and some other Muslim labourers who happened to be present there. Rafiqul Islam is obviously an Assam Rifles informer who thought the best way to get off paying for the motorcycle was to kill Boro. The latter and his two friends were conveniently labelled NDFB accomplices while the Muslim labourers were tagged as belonging to a Muslim outfit, Multa.
Boro’s widow is seeking justice, but who will listen to this completely disempowered waif of a woman? Such cases are far too many to recount in the conflict areas of the North-east. People like Binayak Sen are at least high profile enough to get the attention of a world audience. But what happens to ordinary, helpless humans whose only fault is that they were born poor, so poor in fact that justice is beyond their reach? Is there any human rights organisation in the North-east that is keeping a tab on all such gross violations of people’s rights? Will anyone take up the cause of the slain men who, without any evidence, were considered sympathisers and accomplices of militant outfits? Will the PUCL step in and do its own investigation into this case which incidentally has received little media coverage because those killed were without any political clout? Let them look at Boro’s antecedents and those of his friends and the three other Muslim labourers and challenge the Assam Rifles.

Incidents of human rights violation escalate each time the security forces are given a free hand to contain militant activities. In the absence of any credible human rights institution and since the Assam State Human Rights Commission hardly ever takes suo moto action, the security forces are emboldened to trample on all human rights. In this act of gross misdemeanour they are covered for all their crimes under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. How long will the people of the North-east put up with this inhuman Act? And how many more people will get eliminated like flies before we wake up to claim our rights to live as free and equal human beings in a just system? Or will this be just a pipedream for all of us living in a blighted region?