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A CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR

By defending human rights activist Binayak Sen and clearing him of sedition charges, the Apex Court has brought much needed perspective and good sense and reinforced the gut feeling of civil society.

For Binayak Sen, perhaps his passion motivated him to cross the Rubicon and state-created boundaries when he met Naxal leader Narayan Sanyal in prison, fulfilling his duties as a doctor. This extraordinary display of courage led Sen to become the target of the state of Chhattisgarh and get him booked under the antiquated sedition law, making him a rebel against his own country. After all, it was his own choice, being aware of the fact, that someone has to be the voice of dissent, and here that someone was Binayak himself. 

After more than four years of fighting for justice, the Supreme Court of India has granted bail to Sen, making him a free man, again in an unlikely judgment by the Apex Court. A bench comprising Justices H S Bedi and C K Prasad passed the bail order as it clarified that even if Sen is a Naxal sympathiser, it does not make him guilty of sedition. "We are a democratic country. If Gandhian literature is found with someone, it doesn't make him a Gandhian. He may be a Naxal sympathiser but that doesn't make him guilty of sedition," said the bench. The court also observed that possession of Naxal literature is not a proof of sedition. "He is a sympathiser. Nothing beyond that," the bench further added.

The 61-year-old frail and lanky Sen is a pediatrician from India's elite Christian Medical College, Vellore (CMC) and has been working for three decades in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, considered a pioneer in public health. In 1981, Sen began working with the leading trade union leader, Shankar Guha Niyogi. The two set up the Shaheed Hospital in Dallirajhara that is still cited as an example of a pioneering health initiative in India for the poor. The doctor received a paltry salary of 600 rupees a month, and helped the facility grow from a small clinic to a 60-bed hospital in four years. In the early 1990s, Dr Sen and his wife, Ilina, set up Rupantar, a non-governmental organization training rural health workers, running mobile clinics and campaigns against alcohol abuse and violence against women. Dr Sen's efforts in public health programmes, say reports, helped in bringing down the infant mortality rate in the state and deaths caused by diarrhea and dehydration. Sen has always been outspoken about the ways the government is trying to tackle the Maoists in Chhattisgarh by backing a controversial civil militia of local tribals called Salwa Judum.

He gained international recognition as a human rights defender and won several accolades including the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights in 2008. He was initially detained on 14th May, 2007 for colluding with Maoist rebel. On 25th May, 2009, he was granted bail on medical grounds. After his arrest in December 2010, he has been behind bars until 15th April after SC granted him bail. Twenty-two Nobel laureates from around the world appealed for his release to the President, Prime Minister and other authorities of the country. The state had alleged Sen of meeting Naxalite leader Narayan Sanyal in jail and that he had taken his passion for helping people a step too far by serving as a conduit between Naxals. Sen has acknowledged that the Naxals have voiced legitimate concerns of ordinary Indians but clarified that they are an "invalid and unsustainable movement." He denies the charges and said he has never condoned the violence perpetrated by the Maoist guerrillas.

Historian Ramchandra Guha has often compared Binayak Sen with the legendary trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi in his write-ups as he believes that both had a common agenda of fighting for the oppressed people of Chhattisgarh. Sen's bail has come as a victory of sorts for thousands of civil rights activists who have been campaigning for him since his imprisonment. The campaign to free Sen was unique in its involvement of civil society and individuals as well as human rights organisations across the globe. Though the campaign commenced when a group of his friends, doctors from CMC as well as people in the human rights and civil liberties movement began the protests and representations, but the campaign gathered momentum and became a huge international uproar for millions who felt that Sen was a victim of week colonial laws of the country and was redundantly detained on frivolous grounds.

Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker Minnie Vaid was so inspired by Sen's charisma that she filmed a documentary and wrote a biographical book on Sen.  "I read about this strange story of Sen in a newspaper and it seemed like a very clear case of injustice done to a doctor who had chosen to serve in rural areas for more than 25 years and paid such an unfair price for doing so. Basically, I went to Raipur for the May 14, 2009 satyagraha rally to find more about the man and came back convinced that this was a story that needed to be written, to be filmed, to be told to the widest possible audience," revealed Vaid. 

Noted human rights activist and also government interlocutor for the Maoists Swami Agnivesh is also thrilled for Sen and feels that he has become an idol for Chhattisgarh where thousands of others are still a victim of  state made laws such as Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (CSPSA) and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) 1967. "Binayak is a very simple and sober person who has only being fulfilling his duties of a doctor working for tribals and was unnecessarily imprisoned. SC has cleared all his sedition charges and now we will fight against all the charges framed against him gradually crashing the entire case. This is again an example to quote of the victory of democracy and people power in India", stated Agnivesh while talking to Sahara Time.  

"It is ironical that sedition charge was applied on Mahatma Gandhi also. It shows that we are continuing on the same path that the British had embarked upon, which was to exploit the people. It's about time we need to get rid of the colonial laws constituted by the Britishers, forced on us," Agnivesh added. Interestingly, Union Law minister M Veerappa Moily has also said that the country's law to deal with sedition was 'outdated' and he would ask the Law Commission to review it. Moily said that he would consult Home minister P Chidambaram and set in motion the process to review and change the Section 124 (A) of the Indian Penal Code, which dealt with sedition. 

However, this entire hullabaloo has not deterred Binayak from taking up the causes he has always believed in. He might be rejoicing presently with his family members and associates but he maintains that this is just a beginning. As his wife, Ilina, explains that the fight to release her husband goes beyond the man himself. Says Ilina: "I realise this goes beyond Binayak and my family. We are part of a much larger fight. We are struggling for the right to dissent peacefully. Our commitment to that gives me strength."

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH DR. BINAYAK SEN

Q. Supreme Court has said that there are no reasons for you being convicted with sedition charges. Did you expect this verdict?

A. Supreme Court has clarified that people are entitled to follow their beliefs and they cannot be convicted for their beliefs. In fact, the session's court convicted us of sedition but they had no evidence against us so it was obvious that they cannot frame us until they prove the charges. We knew that we have not at any stage incited anyone for rebellion or gone against the country so we are unable to understand why we were charged with sedition. 

Q. Now that you are a free man, would you continue working for tribals? What would be your plans now?

A. I am a human rights worker with PUCL and I work for Right to Health and Healthcare, so I will continue my work as I was doing earlier. The details of my plans would only be clear after I discuss them with my friends and colleagues and only then I would be able to comment on that.

Q. Of late, civil society members have become quite proactive when it comes to stand for issues that need to be addressed and your case is evidence to that. Comment.

A. Yes, though I was in jail, I was not much aware of the recent campaigns where civil society members have actively taken up a cause but I am humbled to see the co-operation of people for our campaign. It is heart-warming that now civil society has become proactive on issues of social concern.

Q. Many Nobel laureates and activists like Arundhati Roy and Aparna Sen have supported your campaign and have fought for you...

A. It is very heart-warming to see massive support from everyone; whether they were friends, activists, artistes or the common people across the country who had faith in us that we would never do any sort of rebellion. 

Q. You have expressed your concern for hundreds of those charged with sedition and imprisoned. Would you now take up their issue?

A. Yes, definitely. I have always maintained that sedition laws need to be re-looked, so we will take up this issue with PUCL. You see, till few years back we hadn't even heard of sedition but recently so many people especially in the state of Chhattisgarh are booked under sedition charges. Therefore, there is a need for proper laws so that no innocent is imprisoned.

Q. Union Law minister Veerappa Moily has also suggested that the certain sections of the sedition laws are outdated and need to be amended...

A. Yes and that is exactly what the government should have done before and I am very thankful to Mr Moily for this. We need to understand that there are many people like me facing a similar ordeal in the state and they do not even have people to voice for them.

Q. How did you keep yourself occupied during your term in jail?

A. We used to read newspapers and watch Doordarshan on television because there were no other news channels. However, most of the time we used to discuss how we should take up the issues that we were fighting for. 

 
 
 
23-APRIL-2011
 
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4 Comments
 
23-APRIL-2011 viresh verma
Thanks Jasmeen! U know, frankly speaking... I am always inspired more towards journalism for causes rather than just fulfilling beat responsibilities...
 
 
23-APRIL-2011 Jasmeen Dugal
Nice one, Viresh! You have interviewed interesting people from such diverse walks.
 
 
23-APRIL-2011 tania mehra
viresh, did you make a trip to Kolkata? Tell us about your first impression of Dr. Sen.
 
 
23-APRIL-2011 Lalita Tejpal
I may be one in a sea of your readers but am proud of you Jasmeen for taking up more "explosive" moments and issues than fashion and beauty alone. Way to go, girl!
 
 
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