Our Community Correspondent, Sarwat Naqvi, talks to recently released human rights activist Binayak Sen.
It is not the jungle of West Bengal, although many would claim that is where it started. Nonetheless, they are like the peasant militants who came before them, moving dangerously in the darkness and bearing red salutes. They face extinction at the hands of the state. They suffer from illnesses wrought by industry that is destroying their native lands. Many fear them; especially those who seek to exploit them. Their instincts and their allegiances afford them survival. They imagine themselves as revolutionaries; the state condemns them as terrorist insurgents.
They are the Naxalites of Chhattisgarh. They number in the thousands. They fight for their vision of a people’s movement, situated in a long history of communist belief systems rooted far beyond the forests that they call home. Yet they have ascribed this war – and a war it is indeed – to the unique circumstances in this heartland of India. Most are tribal people, many are young and too few have access to basic needs; but it is not their insurgency that has denied them their rights. It is the evolution of neoliberal development programs and a history of state neglect that have stripped these native people of their well-being and their land rich with resources. Chhattisgarh is a land marred with natural wealth; and state policies aimed at exploiting them. The state defends its paradigm as an endeavor to end poverty and suffering, to bring employment and economy. Violent resistance has ensued.
In Chhattisgarh, a war rages on. State supported liberalization and industrialization have collided with ideals of communalism and indigenous agriculture. Trees and communities are uprooted in the name of progress and economic advancement. Poverty reins in rural areas. Resistance and conspiracy to resist are banned by force and law. Desperate circumstances are a breeding ground for police recruitment. A touted military school is built and maintained with the aim of training tribal youth to fight tribal youth, on battlefields spanning dense forests and unarmed villages. There are no medics wearing crosses on their backs and tending to the wounded. Hospitals are miles away and generally inaccessible.
Since 1981, Dr. Binayak Sen has been working with the people of Chhattisgarh. The doctor does not encourage violence. He has publicly condemned it on more than one occasion. In fact, as an elected official in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), he has urged dialogue and negotiations as methods for conflict resolution between the Government and the Maoists of Chhattisgarh. His vocation is committed to welfare. He has dedicated his life to building peaceful conditions that emulate from communities of healthful people; citizens who are honored with civil liberties. He is a medical doctor who has benefited public health in countless ways. His models for treatment have been adopted by the state and he has directly served and advised the state for decades. Still, he is an activist who stands steadfast for action to end the violation of rights by the same state and the corporations who depend on it. He has acted as a visionary in the greater discussion about the social determinants of health. The accomplishments and contributions of the modest Dr. Binayak Sen are endless. He is many things, but he is not a criminal.
Dr. Binayak Sen was arrested on May 14, 2007 in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh. The details of his arrest are confused and debated; yet the charges brought against him are clear. Dr. Sen, after decades of service to the people and the state of Chhattisgarh, stood accused of being a terrorist engaged with sedition and acts of war against the state. The case against him revealed little meaningful evidence and much of it was questionably permissible. Yet, for more than two years, the doctor was held in captivity, including periods of solitary confinement, in a prison in Raipur. All the while, across the globe, activists, laureates, human rights organizations and concerned citizen’s groups agitated for his release. Blogs began. Letters were drafted. Public outcries were heard. Petitions were signed. Networks took hold. Media coverage resulted. As a result of his arrest, not only in India, but throughout the world, public education about the situation in Chhattisgarh was spreading.
In December of 2010, the doctor was found guilty of the charges against him, his bail was revoked and he was sentenced to the astonishing punishment of life imprisonment. Cries of “prisoner of conscience” were heard near and far. The Acts cited to charge the doctor and the creation of paramilitary groups to fight the insurgency in Chhattisgarh garnered international attention as unlawful and abusive. Subsequently, the Supreme Court of India faced global accusations of supporting undemocratic rule of law; a branding with severe consequences in arguably the world’s most burgeoning democracy.
In a recent statement Dr. Binayak Sen humbly remarked, “We must not personalize my arrest but focus on the wider issues for which I was arrested.” And these issues of undemocratic punishment, unlawful military organization and denial of civil liberties are not unique to Chhattisgarh. They are echoed in the Latin American states of Colombia and Guatemala as well as numerous states across Africa, among many others. These are locations where the dangerous nexus of development, corruption, neglect and force have bred movements of insurgent resistance and state paramilitary responses. It is a gross and dangerous oversimplification to ascribe these conflicts to binaries of left and right politics.
Against the backdrop of rising international pressure, on April 15, 2011, the Supreme Court of India granted bail and retracted crimes of sedition against Dr. Binayak Sen, setting him free. Further, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court has ordered the cessation of Special Police Officers (SPO) in Chhattisgarh; those counterinsurgency militias made up of poor rural youth who hail from the same villages as young Naxalite forces. Citing liberal concepts such as dehumanization and culture of greed, as well as the literary work “Heart of Darkness” by Jospeh Conrad, the court ruled that the government of Chhattisgarh, regarding SPO employment, is in violation of two Articles of the Indian Constitution.
In the spiraling violence of insurgent-state conflicts that turn schoolhouses into police bunkers and children into killing machines, there are complexities deeply related to bids for power and resources; all couched in complicated socio-political and economic histories. And it is civilian life, stranded between insurgency and state militia, that suffers most; displacement, starvation, rape, injury and death. It is the innocent victims of both sides of war who need Dr. Binayak Sen, and those like him, urgently. To imprison desperately needed public servants in the name of repressing non-violent resistance to state policies is a crime against humanity, in and of itself. In the words written by Joseph Conrad and quoted by the Supreme Court of India, “The horror! The horror!”
Sarwat Naqvi is from Raipur Chhattisgarh; quintessential India. He grew up in a minority Muslim community but stepped out from behind the cloak of invisibility to lobby and advocate for the protection and advancement of human rights in marginalized communities. He is armed with a degree in Law and reports from the grassroots to tell important stories like those of Dr. Binayak Sen.