An Indian high court is hearing arguments to release the nation’s most famous political prisoner on bail and suspend his conviction. Last month, a trial court sentenced renowned physician and human rights activist Dr. Binayak Sen to rigorous life imprisonment on the basis of an archaic colonial-era sedition law. Dr. Sen, along with two others, were found guilty of sedition and criminal conspiracy by a court in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh on allegations of helping a banned group of Maoists. On Sunday, Dr. Sen’s supporters around the world will mark a global day of protest against his conviction. Democracy Now!’s Anjali Kamat traveled to Chhattisgarh and filed this report on what lies behind the targeting and conviction of Dr. Sen.
ANJALI KAMAT: Dr. Binayak Sen is world-renowned as a physician who dedicated his life to working among some of India’s poorest communities. But now he’s the country’s best-known political prisoner, convicted of sedition and criminal conspiracy. In December, a trial judge found him guilty of supporting an outlawed group of Maoists, or Naxalites. I met Binayak Sen’s wife, Ilina Sen, at their home in Raipur. She called the trial a "sham" and emphasized the lack of any credible evidence against him.
ILINA SEN: The prosecution has not produced evidence, Anjali. It has produced many allegations. And then they’ve clung to straws, you know, to prove those allegations. And some of those allegations and some of those straws are absurd, and they do not really prove the allegations. So, very little hard evidence. So, if Binayak was a Maoist supporter, there would be something on record.
ANJALI KAMAT: But when the judge sentenced him and his co-accused, Narayan Sanyal and Piyush Guha, to life in prison under the British colonial era sedition law, he cited the severity of the danger posed by Maoists. The armed rebels do have an active presence in the dense southern forests of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. This is also where Binayak Sen and his family have lived for nearly 30 years, addressing the public health needs of the tribal or adivasi communities that live in near-famine conditions. Ilina Sen says that if the Maoists have gained a foothold in this region, it’s because of the long history of neglect and abuse by the state.
ILINA SEN: I think people turn to the Maoists as a last resort, because these areas were areas for a long time where the government was completely absent. And in a history of 60 years, and then this was where governance was not there. And if the government was there, it was in the role of an exploiter. People who took bribes, people who demanded bribes, demanded [inaudible], the tribals felt oppressed by that. So, the fact that there was not a sensitive governance in that area did a lot to drive people into the arms of the Maoists.
ANJALI KAMAT: Various Naxalite groups have operated in Chhattisgarh and the neighboring states for decades. Anti-Maoist campaigns here escalated after two Naxalite factions merged in 2004. Five years later, they were banned as a terrorist organization, and New Delhi launched an armed assault on them called "Operation Green Hunt." Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly called them India’s "gravest internal security threat."
PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN SINGH: The left-wing extremism poses perhaps the gravest internal security threat our country faces.
ANJALI KAMAT: The Chhattisgarh government accused Binayak Sen of trying to form an urban network for the Maoists. They pointed to his prison visits to an alleged Naxalite ideologue, an ailing 74-year-old man named Narayan Sanyal. They claim that Sen had carried out letters from Sanyal to a small businessman named Piyush Guha, another alleged Maoist supporter.
Binayak Sen’s lawyer, Mahindra Dubey, showed me copies of these letters. He said that as the vice president of India’s oldest human rights organization, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, or PUCL, it was well within the scope of Sen’s work to be meeting prisoners. The prosecution’s case was based on a confession Piyush Guha made in police custody, as well as hearsay evidence from another witness. None of their claims could be proven in court, but all three men got a life sentence.
MAHINDRA DUBEY: The grounds which were taken — which were taken by the trial court judge for convicting Dr. Binayak Sen are absolutely bogus. None of the circumstances can indicate towards the guilt of Dr. Binayak Sen.
ANJALI KAMAT: Sudha Bharadwaj, who’s a longtime labor activist and advocate with the Chhattisgarh PUCL, says there’s no truth to the allegations tying Binayak Sen to the Maoists.
SUDHA BHARADWAJ: No, absolutely not.
ANJALI KAMAT: She believes that Binayak Sen has been persecuted by the state.
SUDHA BHARADWAJ: This is actually, I would say, a very politically motivated case, because he was — as the general secretary of Chhattisgarh PUCL, he did expose and he actually was instrumental in getting together a team of human rights activists, who for the first time investigated a phenomenon called Salwa Judum, which was claimed to be a spontaneous peaceful movement against Naxalites in the Bastar region, but they found that it was not so. It was very much a state-sponsored campaign.
ANJALI KAMAT: The team led by Binayak Sen, as well as other subsequent independent investigations, exposed the Chhattisgarh government for arming and supporting a vigilante force that had terrorized and emptied nearly 700 villages and displaced over 60,000 people.
SUDHA BHARADWAJ: He was a thorn in the side of the government, and they just wanted to not only end — they wanted to send a message, you know, to silence dissent, to silence this kind of activity.
ANJALI KAMAT: The Chhattisgarh government denies this charge and insists that Binayak Sen is a dangerous Maoist supporter. They also maintain that the Salwa Judum is now disbanded. But Sudha Bharadwaj says Sen did more than expose embarrassing rights violations. His reports were also an obstacle to capital investment in the state. He noted that the villages attacked by the Salwa Judum stand on some of India’s richest mineral deposits, suggesting that the state-sponsored militia was engaged in a ground-clearing operation to pave the way for big business.
SUDHA BHARADWAJ: The motivation for this assault is very much also the rich mineral resources of this region. And there is iron ore here. There’s bauxite. There’s gold. There is limestone, uranium, diamond, everything.
ANJALI KAMAT: The Chhattisgarh government has signed memoranda of understanding with over a hundred mining, steel, cement and power corporations that could result in nearly 800 industrial units across the state. India’s main business lobby calls Naxalites the sleeper threat to India’s economic power and has urged the state to deploy adequate force to improve the investment climate.
SUDHA BHARADWAJ: There has been a tremendous intensification of, you know, the — I would actually call it plain loot of these resources. And that has been resisted very strongly by adivasis.
ANJALI KAMAT: But as popular resistance mounted, the state struck back with the force of the law. In 2005, the Chhattisgarh government signed lucrative deals with Indian steel giants Tata and Essar to set up plants in the heavily forested Maoist heartlands of Dantewada and Bastar. Soon after, the state passed the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. Binayak Sen’s organization, the PUCL, has challenged its constitutionality, arguing that its broad definition of illegal activities can be used to muzzle any form of criticism of the state.
SUDHA BHARADWAJ: I mean, it’s very easy to bring any kind of dissent into the purview of that. Maybe villagers who are protesting against acquisition of land or workers going on strike or people — any kind of — or even, for example, we have held, as PUCL, so many conventions opposing the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. Now, that itself would come — because we’re preaching disobedience to an established law, so that itself would be an unlawful activity.
ANJALI KAMAT: Last month, Sen and his co-accused were convicted not simply under the archaic sedition law, but also for violating this very law, as well as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The defense has appealed their conviction, but as Ilina Sen waits for a decision from the Chhattisgarh High Court, she says the prevailing climate leaves her with little faith in India’s democratic institutions.
ILINA SEN: My faith is obviously shaken by the kind of judgment that — because the lower judiciary cannot be exempt. I appreciate the fact that in the Indian judicial system there is recourse to appeal, unlike in the Maoist judicial system, because there you have the janata sarkar and the jan adalats. And the jan adalat takes a decision, might decide to behead you, and it’s instantly carried out. So there is no room for appeal, no room for recourse. That is something that is not tenable. I don’t buy that. I don’t support that. So the fact that the Indian — Indian judiciary leaves room for appeal, but I think there is widespread, you know, scope for wrong action.
ANJALI KAMAT: Indeed, Binayak Sen is only the best-known victim of these draconian laws inside what many describe as Chhattisgarh’s police state.
SUDHA BHARADWAJ: If a person like him could be sentenced like this, one can think of the thousands of adivasi people languishing in jails all over. I mean, in Chhattisgarh the numbers are huge. I mean, in Jagdalpur jail alone, there are around 700 adivasi under trials under so-called Naxalite cases. And because the whole atmosphere is so loaded, you can just call somebody a Naxal supporter and you can be sure that nobody will come out to support them. Binayak Sen is a well-known name, but there are many unknown names who are also being punished for having exposed Salwa Judum.
ANJALI KAMAT: Communist activist Kartam Joga took his criticism of the Salwa Judum’s abuses to the Indian Supreme Court. Youth leader Kopa Kunjam helped rehabilitate villagers displaced by the Salwa Judum. Now they’re both in jail for their alleged involvement in Naxalite violence. Lingaram Kodopi fled Chhattisgarh saying he was being forcibly recruited to join the state’s anti-Maoist special police force. The state police now say he’s the next leader of the Maoists. My own camera person in Chhattisgarh, the documentary filmmaker Ajay TG, spent three months in jail without any charges being filed against him. He’s still under investigation but doesn’t know what he’s been charged with.
AJAY TG: [translated] I still didn’t find out. I don’t know. I’ve made two films with the investigation team of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
ANJALI KAMAT: Ajay’s films probed the deaths of seven people in two villages and challenged the state’s contention that they had been killed by Naxalites.
AJAY TG: [translated] It’s clear that the state was upset with me, but it’s also clear they have absolutely no evidence against me. I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong or unlawful. I’m not scared, but I am very disappointed, and I’m beginning to have doubts about the kind of country I live in. They say this is the world’s biggest democracy, but I don’t have the right to speak or do my work.
ANJALI KAMAT: The repression is spreading to other parts of Chhattisgarh, even where there is no Maoist activity. A.P. Josy works with farmers’ groups in Janjgir-Champa, a rapidly industrializing agricultural district. The state has signed deals here to build nine polluting power plants within a six-mile radius. Farmers are stepping up their protests, but Josy is worried about the ramifications of the Binayak Sen judgment.
A.P. JOSY: Binayak Sen’s case means you are a — if you are serious about human right violations, you are finished. I mean, you can make a little noise here and there, no problem, some demonstration. But if you are going to pursue it with facts and figures, take it to the court, take it to the people, you will be put behind like Binayak. Especially if it is affecting industrialization, especially if it is affecting people struggling, if it is in support of people struggling to save their land from industrialization process, you can be put behind bars.
ANJALI KAMAT: As India jockeys for international recognition as an emerging superpower and races to exploit its natural resources and gentrify its cities, many fear that the conviction of Binayak Sen is a stark warning to all those in Chhattisgarh and beyond who question the Indian government’s corporate-centered vision of development.
ILINA SEN: I think it is also, at some level, a genuine difference in perspective, because there are people who really believe that development lies in, you know, mega-projects and it’s OK if some people pay the price, if the adivasis are displaced, and who really don’t care. So such people also exist. And so, a lot of the — you know, the fact that there is so much controversy on this and the fact that Binayak is seen by some as a saint and by some as a sort of a villain of the piece, it really has to do with different takes on what development should be and what the future of this country should be.
ANJALI KAMAT: For Democracy Now!, I’m Anjali Kamat in Chhattisgarh, India.