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Free Binayak Sen!
A Travesty of Justice

Internationally recognized human rights activist Binayak Sen, a pediatrician who has devotedly served underprivileged adivasis in Chhattisgarh, has been handed a life sentence for sedition. Now it’s not Dr Sen but the Indian justice system that’s on the dock, writes Kavya Ramachandran.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): Activists demonstrate in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., against the life sentence of internationally recognized human rights activist Dr. Binayak Sen.

A trial court in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, convicted Dr. Binayak Sen the day before Christmas, 2010, of conspiring to commit sedition. The court sentenced him and two other co-accused in the case, Narayan Sanyal and Piyush Guha, to life in prison. The court also found all three guilty under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Chattisgarh Special Public Security Act, laws commonly characterized as draconian by human rights organization. This verdict came well over three years after his arrest in May, 2007 and detention in jail until May 2009, in solitary confinement during some of that time. Based on evidence that has all the hallmarks of police mischief, this verdict is a clear instance of miscarriage of justice. Amnesty International has said the trial violated “international fair standards” and described the life sentence for Dr. Sen as “an unusually harsh sentence for anyone, much less for an internationally recognized human rights defender who has never been charged with any act of violence.”

Ever since graduating with degrees in medicine and pediatrics from the prestigious Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, in the 1970s, Dr. Sen devoted his life to community health, providing medical care to the poor in rural and remote parts of India. It was in the course of this work that he also came to be aware of the socio-economic dimensions of illness. This in turn led him to work in the state of Chhattisgarh, one of India’s poorest states, with one of the largest populations of India’s adivasis (indigenous people). In recognition of his lifelong service to the poor, the Christian Medical College gave him the Paul Harrison award in 2004. The Washington DC-based Global Health Council gave him the Jonathan Mann award in 2008 while he was incarcerated in India.

Dr. Sen has also been active in human rights work throughout his professional life. He has been associated with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties since 1981, and was the president of its Chhattisgarh unit at the time of his recent conviction.

The Evidence Against Dr. Binayak Sen

The core of the case against Dr. Binayak Sen is that he carried letters from an alleged Maoist leader, Narayan Sanyal, in detention in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, and gave them to co-accused Piyush Guha who allegedly would pass them on to the Maoist underground.

Could Narayan Sanyal have passed any letters on to Dr. Binayak Sen? Dr. Sen met Sanyal in the Raipur jail 33 times. Each meeting was pre-approved by the prison officials and closely monitored by them. The prosecution brought in two of them as witnesses. Unfortunately for the prosecution, both witnesses testified that it would have been impossible for any letters to have changed hands during the meeting. The prosecution then termed their own witnesses hostile (uncooperative).

How did the prosecution prove that Dr. Sen handed any letters to Guha? The police produced a witness, Anil Singh, who claimed that he overheard Guha tell the police when he was being arrested outside the Raipur railway station that Dr. Sen had given Guha the letters. This is at best hearsay evidence since Singh himself did not witness any letters being passed.

The letter from the Maoists found in Dr. Sen’s house was printed on a fresh sheet of paper, without any creases, that the police said they found in Dr. Sen’s house. The police had sealed Dr. Sen’s house and searched it about ten days later in the presence of Dr. Sen, two witnesses and a police officer. Dr. Sen’s wife Ilina had also arranged for a videographer, with the permission of a magistrate, to record the whole search operation. The witnesses, Dr. Sen and the officer signed each of the documents seized as well as a list summarizing the seizure. However, the mystery letter produced in the court did not contain Dr. Sen’s signature or the police officer’s. Nor was it mentioned in the original list of documents seized. The video recording of the seizure clearly showed that the seized material was taken in an unsealed bag by the police. The videographer also testified accordingly. However, the judge disallowed the defense from playing the video in the court.

The prosecution produced Deepak Choubey as a witness, who it claimed was Sanyal’s landlord. Choubey testified that he told the police at the time of Sanyal’s arrest that he had taken him as a tenant on Dr. Sen’s recommendation. Sanyal was arrested two years before Dr. Sen was arrested. Strangely, the police never filed this statement in the court. Instead, it filed a new statement, taken from Choubey after Dr. Sen’s arrest. Choubey also testified that Sanyal was arrested from his house in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. However, intelligence reports from the police in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh show that Sanyal was arrested in Bhadrachalam, Andhra Pradesh.

For a human rights worker, Chhattisgarh offers plenty of work to do. For, Chhattisgarh also happens to be richly endowed with natural resources including minerals that lie under the lands where the adivasis live — minerals such as iron ore and coal now in high demand worldwide. Under the sway of neo-liberalism, the state government would like to seize the lands from the people and cede them to private interests, for domestic use as well as for export. To achieve this end, it set up in 2005 a vigilante force called the Salwa Judum (“Purification Force”) in the name of fighting the Maoists who had taken up the cause of the people being dispossessed. What Salwa Judum did achieve was to cleanse more than 600 villages of people by terrorizing them, burning down homes, and committing murder, rape and mutilation with impunity. It was the work of PUCL under the leadership of Dr. Sen in Chhattisgarh that first exposed the atrocities committed by Salwa Judum with the active support of the police, earning the wrath of the state that arrested him and foisted a case under draconian laws.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): Human rights activist and pediatrician Dr. Binayak Sen with wife Ilina.

After arresting Dr. Sen, the state took nearly one year to file charges. It repeatedly blocked attempts to get him released on bail. Twenty-two Nobel Laureates wrote a letter in 2008, supporting the demand for his release on bail. Finally, it was due to the intervention of the Indian Supreme Court that he was granted bail in May 2009, after being in detention for more than two years. When the trial began, the prosecution let it drag on, speeding up only after the Supreme Court gave it an ultimatum in late August 2010 to complete the prosecution by the end of the following month. During the trial, not one of the more than 80 witnesses for the prosecution could withstand cross-examination. Finally, it came down to two pieces of concocted evidence. One was a letter purportedly seized from Dr. Sen’s house. Unlike all the other pieces of evidence, this letter did not carry Dr. Sen’s signature bearing witness to its seizure during the search of his house. The other concocted evidence was the testimony of a landlord who testified that a co-accused, Narayan Sanyal, an alleged Maoist leader, was arrested in a house that belonged to the landlord. But the police records show that Sanyal was arrested not in Chhattisgarh, but in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh.

The Colonial Relic of Sedition and Dr. Binayak Sen

The life sentence given to Dr. Binayak Sen is the maximum punishment for sedition in India. It is the offence against the notorious section 124(a) of the Indian Penal Code. Dr. Sen has illustrious predecessors. The “Father of the Nation,” Mahatma Gandhi was charged and convicted under it by the colonial British government in 1922. Gandhi did not deny the charges. Instead, he said “to preach disaffection towards the existing system of government has become almost a passion with me.” He told the judge, “The only course open to you … is … either to resign your post or inflict on me the severest penalty...” The judge sentenced Gandhi to six years imprisonment. An earlier leader of India’s freedom movement, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, was convicted under this law twice, in 1897 and in 1906. Mohammed Ali Jinnah pleaded his case in the second trial.

In independent India, the interpretation of the law against sedition has become somewhat more tolerant towards dissent. In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that the law against sedition can only be invoked “where the words, spoken or written, have the pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order.”

Ironically, the evidence against Dr. Sen fails to support charges under any interpretation of the law against sedition. Dr. Sen himself denies all the charges. The charges against him also include violations of two other draconian laws: The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, also known as UAPA, and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, also known as CSPSA. These laws are intended to help the police to bring charges against anyone on the flimsiest of evidence or to detain people without charges or evidence.

The campaign for Dr. Sen’s release should also be a campaign against these draconian laws which do not have any place in a democratic society. And the campaign should also demand the release of hundreds of other prisoners like Dr. Sen who languish anonymously in India’s prisons. And ultimately, it’s the work of people like Dr. Sen and the work of independent journalists that function as the last line of defense of the poor and the weak against unbridled force — whether from the state or from private vigilantes.

The arrest and the conviction of Dr. Sen fits a pattern of intimidation and harassment of human rights workers and journalists in India. Over in Gujarat, the government is threatening to frame false charges against Teesta Setalvad, of Citizens for Justice and Peace in Mumbai, and journalist Rahul Singh who uncovered a mass grave of the 2002 Gujarat massacres. In February 2010, Seema Srivastava, a PUCL official in Uttar Pradesh, was arrested while returning from a book fair. In the same month, Agha Shahid Ali, a human rights lawyer with the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers was found murdered in Mumbai. On December 10, 2009, the International Human Rights Day, Kopa Kunjam, a volunteer with Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, a Gandhian relief and human rights organization in Chhattisgarh, was picked up by the police. This young man, who spent all his life helping people recover from physical violence and displacement, is now being held for the murder of a man he was actually trying to save. The Ashram itself was demolished by the police in May 2009. Himanshu Kumar, the Gandhian founder of the Ashram, was hounded out of the state last January. Nine activists, including Kartam Joga of Adivasi Mahasabha, campaigning against land grab in Lohanmdiguda (Bastar), have been accused of involvement in Maoists violence. The adivasis say that anyone who speaks out in their interests gets called a Maoist. The Salwa Judum, now rechristened as Ma Danteshwari Swabhiman Manch, has in recent months threatened journalists to leave the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. And there are numerous other such instances of intimidation and worse.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): Human rights activist and pediatrician Dr. Binayak Sen seen here with villagers.

Underlying this pattern of hostility to human rights workers and other independent witnesses like journalists is the intensification of not only the inequality in Indian society, but also the destitution of vast sections of its population. As Dr. Sen himself pointed out citing data from the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau, a government agency, that at least a third of India’s adult population is chronically under-nourished. By the standards of the World Health Organization, the adivasis and the dalits of India are in a state of chronic famine. Such impoverishment also produces its own resistance that takes many forms in different places in India, ranging from Maoist in one place to Gandhian in another. The human rights worker or an independent journalist functions between such resistance on the one hand and the state, in theory sworn to uphold the constitution. When the state tramples upon the constitution, it falls to the human rights worker to defend the rights enshrined in the constitution. In the eyes of the state, the human rights worker becomes part of the resistance and thus an enemy of the state and a political prisoner. Thus has Dr. Binayak Sen has become another political prisoner in India.

Further reading: binayaksen-dot-net is a good resource on the Web for background information on Dr. Binayak Sen’s case and the campaign for his freedom.

Kavya Ramachandran is a human rights activist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Click here to read the Current Issue in PDF Format

Free Binayak Sen!
Travesty of Justice

Chhattisgarh-based human rights activist Binayak Sen has been handed a life sentence for sedition, and that’s just not right, writes Kavya Ramachandran.

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EDITORIAL: A Terrible Injustice
NEWS DIARY: December
ENVIRONMENT: Restoring Breuner Marsh
SUBCONTINENT: Year 2010 in Retrospect
HUMANITARIAN AID: From Rajghat to Gaza
SUBCONTINENT: India Gets Touchy
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TRAVEL: Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco
RECIPE: Chilli Paneer
AUTO REVIEW: 2011 Mazda 3
BOLLYWOOD Review: Tees Maar Khan
TAMIL FILM: Manmadhan Ambu
HOROSCOPE: 2011 Yearly Forecast

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