Barefoot doctor knew he would be 'made an example of'

Fri, Dec 31, 2010, 00:00

MARY FITZGERALDprofiles Binayak Sen, an Indian activist who has been given a life sentence for sedition

LAST FRIDAY the man some in India call the barefoot doctor stood in the dock of a courtroom in the remote state of Chhattisgarh to hear that he had been handed a life sentence for sedition.

Prosecutors accused Binayak Sen, a paediatrician and human rights activist who had devoted his life to providing healthcare to the rural poor, of aiding Maoist rebels. Sen, who denies all charges, was convicted on two counts of sedition and conspiracy. He was found not guilty of a third charge of waging war against the state, a crime punishable by death.

The judgment, which Sen’s supporters say was based on planted evidence and concocted testimonies, and sentence have caused uproar in India. Some of the country’s most eminent figures have expressed outrage. “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 . . . the whole thing seems a ridiculous use of the laws of democratic India,” said economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.

“[Sen] has explicitly condemned Maoist violence, and even said of the armed revolutionaries that theirs is an invalid and unsustainable movement,” noted historian Ramachandra Guha. “His conviction will . . . be challenged.”

Soli Sorabjee, a former attorney general, described the sentence as “shocking” and said the evidence against Sen appeared flimsy.

The case has further inflamed an already bitter debate over what fuels the Maoist insurgency sweeping some of the most impoverished pockets of central and eastern India, and how it should be tackled. Many in India point out that the Maoists gained momentum during the same decade that witnessed India’s economy growing to unprecedented, and very lopsided, levels.

I met Binayak Sen while reporting on the Maoists’ rise in Chhattisgarh in September.

The rebels, often called Naxalites after the village where their predecessors staged an uprising in 1967, now have a presence throughout 20 of India’s 28 states. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly declared the Maoists the country’s greatest internal security threat.

The conflict claimed the lives of almost 900 people this year, many of whom were civilians.

Of all the states that form India’s so-called Red Corridor, Chhattisgarh has borne the brunt of the fighting. To counter Maoist influence there, a state-sponsored militia known as Salwa Judum emerged in 2005. What resulted was a spiral of revenge attacks, dividing villages and communities. In his capacity as vice-president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties rights group, Sen helped document atrocities carried out by the Salwa Judum. This did not endear him to local authorities.

Sen was also an outspoken critic of development strategies in Chhattisgarh, home to massive untapped resources including one-fifth of India’s iron ore, and India more generally.

When I met him at his modest book-lined apartment, Sen spoke passionately about the plight of tribals displaced to make way for mining and industrialisation. He also railed against what he sees as India’s creeping retreat from democratic ideals and the poverty and hunger that stalks his country. He knew he was not alone in his views.

“The world should understand that there is a very wide spectrum of opposition [in India] to what has been happening,” Sen said. “But the government wants to simplify the picture.”

Sen, who had been released on bail after two years in detention, weighed his words carefully. “We must have a process by which the people’s voices can be heard in the processes of development,” he told me. “We can never be at peace if such large sections of the population are being ground underfoot.”

The general mood in Chhattisgarh was very tense when I visited. Many spoke of a climate of fear, suspicion and paranoia, in which anyone who questioned the current development narrative ran the risk of being branded a Maoist sympathiser. My movements were tracked by security forces. Authorities asked why I was so keen to meet Sen. An earlier international campaign for his release, supported by more than 20 Nobel laureates, had rankled with officials.

During his detention Sen received the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for his efforts to reduce infant mortality rates and deaths from diarrhoea. This week another global response began to take shape. A statement signed by Noam Chomsky and dozens of Indian academics condemned a sentence “whose savagery is unbelievable”. Amnesty International said the judgment was politically motivated.

In his last statement, Sen talked of persecution. “I am being made an example of . . . as a warning to others not to expose the patent trampling of human rights taking place in the state.”

Many in India would agree.