If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Dr. Binayak Sen

The Christmas this year brought the shocking news that Dr. Binayak Sen has been sentenced to life imprisonment for “sedition”. The prosecution case is that he passed on three letters from a Maoist leader to someone. Sometime in 2007, he had gone to a Raipur jail as a physician to examine the Maoist leader. Naturally, he met the latter under the supervision of jailors. While returning from the jail, he was arrested at a railway station. Two other persons too were handed down life sentences along with Dr. Sen by a Raipur court on 24th December 2010. 

You would certainly have read about Dr. Binayak Sen, but let me jot down some essential facts here. A brilliant student and an alumnus of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, Binayak Sen is a paediatrician. Instead of practising in the comforts of a city and making money, he chose to provide medical assistance to the poor and marginalised adivasis of Chhattisgarh. He has been working there since the early 1980s. The impact of his work has been recognised by many and he has been awarded several international honours.

Mineral rich Chhattisgarh is one of the poorest states of India and is also a major centre of Maoist activities. In 2005, the state (BJP) government set up a vigilante army Salwa Judum to fight Maoists. According to historian Ram Chandra Guha, Salwa Judum “spread terror through the districts of Dantewada, Bijapur and Bastar. In the name of combating Naxalism, it burned homes (and occasionally, whole villages), violated tribal women, attacked (and sometimes killed) tribal men who refused to join its ranks. As a result of its depredations almost a hundred thousand adivasis with no connection to Maoism were rendered homeless.”[i] Activists like Arundhati Roy and Gautam Naulakha put the figure close to three hundred thousand.

Dr. Sen has neither been a part of a Maoist organisation, nor their sympathiser. On the contrary, he has condemned Maoist activities as “an invalid and unsustainable movement.” But as a national vice president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), he was also amongst the first to document the human rights violations committed by Salwa Judum and police.

That indeed was crime enough to send a 60-year-old internationally respected social worker and doctor to prison for the rest of his life. The verdict looks even more grotesque if you consider that in India many parliamentarians are mafia dons, and the major political debate of the day is how much a central minister cheated the exchequer in a single deal – fifty thousand crore or one hundred and seventy thousand crore!  

The Raipur verdict has been condemned by a wide cross-section of informed voices, from the Amnesty International to Amartya Sen. Retired high court judge and the president of PUCL Rajinder Sachar called the judgment as “ridiculous and unacceptable”. [ii] In an uncharacteristically strong reaction, Professor Sen says, “To turn the dedicated service of someone who drops everything to serve the cause of neglected people into a story of the seditious use of something — in this case, it appears to be the passing of a letter, when sedition usually takes the form of inciting people to violence or actually committing some violence and asking others to follow, none of which had happened — the whole thing seems a ridiculous use of the laws of democratic India.”[iii]

Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 was taken away from his home sometime in 2009. But it was not until nearly one month later that the Chinese authorities confirmed his arrest. He had a one-day trial in December 2009 and was sentenced to 11 years a few days later – on Christmas Day. Some suspected the Chinese authorities had chosen that day because most people in the West would be on holiday, and not notice.[iv]

Binayak Sen’s trial dragged on for three years and during the period, many, including 22 Nobel laureates, condemned the politically motivated and patently fake prosecution that was not backed by a shred of material evidence. But in the end, Binayak Sen got life imprisonment, compared to 11 years that Liu Xiaobo got. The other similarity is disturbing too. The verdict against Binayak Sen was announced on the Christmas Eve.

No, I am not insane enough – not yet, anyway – to compare our judicial system with that of China. But surely, there are many people in power in India who would love to have the kind of unfettered powers that the Chinese authorities enjoy. It is significant that for several days after the verdict, none of the mainstream political parties except the Communist Party of India (CPI) have spared one word to condemn the verdict, nay, even question the validity of the monstrous judgment. Some of them might, sooner or later, if they perceive the political cost of silence unacceptably high!

Considering the facts, it would be reasonable to demand that Dr. Sen is set free. Hopefully, that will happen once the case goes to higher courts. But what has happened to our justice delivery system? If this can be done to an eminent person despite international protests, what chance do ordinary citizens (like the two convicted alongside Dr. Sen) have against mighty governments in our law courts? Doesn’t this verdict reinforce the extremists’ claim that India is not a democracy?

Paraphrasing Shakespeare, the Supreme Court has recently stated: something is rotten in the High Court of Allahabad. The former Chief Justice of India (CJI), who is now the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission is involved in a public spat with a sitting high court judge. One of them is lying. There have been reports that the same former CJI’s daughter and son-in-law amassed Rs.7 crore while he was the CJI.[v]

Politicians have failed us and bureaucrats have largely proved themselves to be spineless yes-men. The judiciary may be the last hope for the Indian democracy. After the Raipur verdict, one wonders if it’s much of a hope.

Postscript: I think every Indian who cares for the future of this country should do something now. You can do something easily, almost without any effort. Please cut and paste the essential facts about the case either from here, or from a better source, onto an email and send it across to whoever would care to open and read a mail from you. Let this message reach every Indian who uses the Internet. Let us inform others; let us register our protest.

[The photograph of Dr. Binayak Sen is from Wikipedia; Liu Xiaobo's picture is from BBC.co.uk]

[i] Hindustan Times, 27 December 2010

Kolkata, 29 December 2010


  1. Like I said on another blog written on the same subject: from a legal POV it should not matter that Dr. Sen has worked tirelessly for the cause of the poor. The reason why the verdict is wrong is that there is no evidence that he has been a direct part of (violent) Maoist activity. Being close to state criminals is not a crime in itself. Neither is believing in an extreme political system. The most ridiculous of allegations is that Maoist literature has been found in his home. So if some day Mein Kampf is found on my bookshelf, I think I'll be arrested on charges of promoting fascism.

    The true test of democracy is how it treats its dissidents (as someone said). In my book, unless there is legal evidence of involvement in violent activities, one cannot and should not be arrested.

  2. Sad. but i feel such cases indeed lead to people joining together and fighting for a cause. Hope this case leads to a mass movement and justice prevails.

  3. I think the higher courts will set this right. Looks very unjust. Are we turning into an intolerant society?
    Recently i heard the news of Arundhati Roy being charged for making some controversial statement oh kashmir. What happened to freedom of speech?

  4. His mother once being a colleague of mine, I am aware of the sacrifice he and his family undertook to uplift the causes of the tribals. The nation has the right to know of his "crimes". Delhi is very active protesting vociferously, and Bengal should mobilize protests more actively against this injustice.

  5. Sudipto, For some time, this post was without the last three paragraphs. So I would request you to check if you read to entire piece.

    The legal POV is only one aspect, but the issues are far more serious. It is not even how our democracy treats its dissidents. In my inchoate opinion, India is what she is today because we always held mendicants, thinkers, and social reformers in high esteem. If the political system runs down people like Dr. Binayak Sen, we are doomed.

    ZB, Yes, I too hope this case leads to a mass movement and not only justice prevails, but also the system is reformed so that such judgments do not happen in the future. Unfortunately, our democracy is on a backward march. Laws like the UAPA and Armed Forces Special Powers Act don't have any place in a civilized society. But we are having more and more of them. Let us spread the truth ... that is one way of fighting the battle.

    Sujith, During the Vietnam War, many Americans openly protested against the war. Some people were prosecuted against for their alleged crime of dodging draft (Mohammed Ali was one of them?), but by and large the system tolerated such voices of dissent. India today on the contrary may be poised at the threshold of something like a McCarthy era. The electronic media is after Arundhati Roy's blood.

    Shyamalima, I am touched that my little post has reached someone who knows Dr. Sen's family personally. I do believe public opinion is being mobilized against the verdict in Bengal too. But the forces that want Dr. Sen be behind bars are formidable. Today, the central law minister has come out with a statement condemning justice Rajendra Sachar and everyone else who are questioning the judgment because they are influencing the future judicial deliberation in the appeal court by intimidating the judges with their name and reputation. The law minister's concerns about fair trials is touching.

  6. The problem is, Dada, that you are equating corruption with sedition. At no stage of our freedom struggle did any political leader assure us of a corruption-free governance. all they said was that the British were evil and hence should be thrown out. We were described as slaves of the White Man and not that of an exploitative regime. So, after independence, corruption and exploitation was not merely tolerated but also actively encouraged by our rulers, who happened to be our compatriots.

    It is a crime to help the poor and the vulnerable in our country. If all become empowered then whose land would the mafias usurp, whose resources would be exploited to fatten the few and who would do the begaar of our benign brown sahibs? Neither corruption nor exploitation of the vulnerable have been termed as anti-national acts in our jurisprudence, even though these are constantly eating away at the foundations of our polity!

    As for sedition - there are any number of upper class socialites including Arundhati Roy, and political opportunists like Mirwaiz Faroukh and what's his name Geelani who have brazenly challenged the Indian state and preached sedition. See, how indulgent we are towards them!

    Binayak Sen's crime is not that he had handed over a couple of harmless letters to a suspected/alleged Maoist. His crime is much more serious - he was striking at the SYSTEM!!
    Unforgivable. The man should not be merely jailed but sent to a lunatic asylum. We don't want to see the applecart of the corrupt and the antinational get upset!

  7. Jethu, you are right. Dr. Binayak Sen's record of selfless service is impeccable. I stressed the legal POV only because the decision follows the letter of the law.

    All the same, if some new act does repress people who have not been a part of any violent activity, the law itself must be challenged.

  8. Santanu,
    Your article on Binayak Sen is fine. The comparison of the two persecutions ( those of Binayak Sen and Liu Xiaobo ) by the representatives of two poitical system having two different ideas of justice makes it all the more interesting. I would like to add a few more points that I came to know from a discussion by Sujata Bhadra in Kolkata TV.
    1) The verdict and the punishment were awarded on the same day without any break (which is unusual) on 24th December by a replacement judge because the original one who heard the case was on leave. The judgment was given in Hindi only.
    2) Majority of the witnesses (more than 81) turned hostile and could not be produced in the court.
    3) One of the most important witnesses who signed the seizure list of articles confiscated from Sen also overheard some of his conversations with police officers while he was in their custody. Any statement made in police custody is not acceptable as evidence even under the draconian UAPA act. Here, something overheard by some one who was not supposed to be there has been accepted as evidence.
    4) The three letters obtained by police from Mr. Pyush Guha ( there are three different official police versions of where and how they were collected and
    Mr. Guha was arrested) were written in post card (as per jail rule) and censored
    By the jail authority. And yet the case of the prosecution was that they were smuggled out by Dr. Sen while officially meeting Mr.Sanyal as a physician
    with the Jailor at his side. The contents of the letters by all accounts were innocuous.
    5) Prosecution also tried to prove that Dr.Sen had link with ISI. As an evidence
    a letter written by Dr.Sen and confiscated from him was produced. That was indeed written by Sen to ISI but that ISI was Indian Social Science Institute (or something like that). Even the Judge who (or someone on his behalf) gave that
    terrible judgment said on that occasion that the court was no place for jokers.
    6) Another letter –not addressed to any body and not signed by Sen was produced
    as evidence to prove the violent intent of Dr. Sen. The Public Prosecutor explained that it was not in the seizure list because of an oversight.
    Even if the verdict is quashed by the higher court, I think, those in power
    have successfully demonstrated their intention to endanger the life and
    freedom of those who dare to speak out. We are also forgetting in the din that
    Naryan Sanyal and Pyush Guha are also awarded life sentence without an iota
    of evidence against them. Birappa Moilee, our law minister, has come out
    today with a statement condemning justice Rajendra Sachar and everybody
    else who are questioning the judgment because they are influencing the future
    judicial deliberation in the appeal court by intimidating the judges with their
    name and reputation. It clearly shows the complicity of all the political parties
    holding state power in this abuse of justice.

  9. 'The judiciary may be the last hope'
    this ceased to be true long time back.

    very enlightening post.scary too. like you say,if this happens to a celebrity, what about the ordinary citizen?

  10. Thanks, everyone. That so many people are agitated and disturbed about it is a ray of hope. Thanks for responding to my post, but more importantly, thanks for spreading the message around, which I am sure you all are doing.

    Unfortunately, there are many who are not much concerned about the distortions that are happening to our democracy. When we think of India as a whole, these distortions may not have a direct relationship with our personal lives as yet, and most of us are not affected personally.

    After living under communist rule for over three decades, we have first-hand experience how far the absence of democracy and the rule of law can impact on our private lives. In West Bengal, every ordinary citizen has suffered in the hands of these goons one way or other.

  11. todays New India express's blog quote(one of them) was from your post - this on - on the seventh page.


I will be happy to read your views, approving or otherwise. Please feel free to speak your mind. Let me add that it might take a day or two for your comments to get published.