HUM HINDUSTANI: Hounding a healer —J Sri Raman - Friday, December 31, 2010

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Taking a larger political view of it all, the story yields two major lessons based on the sad events of the decade about to end in two of the BJP’s bastions: Gujarat’s anti-minority pogrom of 2002 and Chhattisgarh’s anti-tribal terror culminating in the cruel sentence handed to Sen

December 24, 2010, brought a dramatic shift in India’s public discourse. For months, we had been treated to a series of scams — involving ministers, mandarins and mind-boggling amounts of the taxpayers’ money, besides tycoons and some media stars tangled in tapes of confidential conversations. Christmas Eve, however, brought news of a crucifixion. This came as an even more of a shock in some ways than all those cases of mega corruption.

The day saw a local court in Raipur, capital of the state of Chhattisgarh with a significant tribal population, sentencing an eminent healthcare and human rights activist to life imprisonment. Binayak Sen, a paediatrician and a crusader for primary healthcare for the poor, has figured in these columns before (‘Healing the healers’, Daily Times, June 2, 2007). To recapitulate briefly, he is being punished, if not for serving the tribal people for long years instead of pursuing the traditional course of lucrative private and corporate practice of medicine, then for speaking up for his target patients and their threatened rights.

He has been convicted now on charges of sedition under the provisions of a colonial law and of conspiratorial involvement in a Maoist-led insurgency. It is clear to many, however, that he is being targeted not because he is a dreaded terrorist but for his democratic opposition to what has been and is being done in the name of anti-Maoism. He has been hounded ever since he came out as a harsh critic of a private militia, formed and funded by the state government along with forest contractors and other friends, to put down the tribal people’s rebellion in defence of their resources and rights.

Sen was “picked up” in May 2007 and stayed in prison for two years. All the laurels won by him (including the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights in 2008) and appeals from luminaries (including several Nobel Laureates) did not help to set him at liberty. It was the Supreme Court that gave him bail in May 2009 and freedom that has proved frustratingly brief.

The savage sentence did not make the scams go away from the minds of the public. But they took on a new significance. Almost every immediate, indignant reaction noted that a rare social worker was receiving this treatment, while scammers were roaming the land freely. This should have been welcome news to the main nation-level opposition hoping for the maximum mileage from the scams. It was not.

It was the government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that the Raipur verdict had put in the dock in the court of the public. Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh, whom the party has been holding up as another example of a ‘development’-driven leader like his Gujarat counterpart Narendra Modi, suddenly looked very different indeed.

Even while reactions have been pouring in from all over, an eloquent silence has greeted the sentence from the highest echelons of the BJP. Neither party president Nitin Gadkari has responded with rhetoric of characteristic rudeness nor his predecessor Lal Krishna Advani with his customary prose of pious hypocrisy. Only party spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad, much lower in the pecking order, has cautioned everyone concerned against “glossing over the naked violence of the Naxalites (Maoists) under the cover of (supporting) Binayak Sen”, without identifying the guilty in this regard.

It has been left to lesser minions, including a couple of journalists, to defend the verdict in television studio discussions. One of them argued that Sen helped an aged and ailing Maoist acquire rented accommodation, this proving his complicity in the insurgent conspiracy. The other claimed that no law could be “outdated” if it stayed on the statute book, thus dismissing all ideas of legal and constitutional reform with disdain.

Supreme Court lawyer Ram Jethmalani, a prodigal who returned to the BJP recently after a six-year parting, has caused some stir by offering to defend Sen. The party has stayed determinedly unembarrassed, and preferred to treat this as his professional decision. Four years ago, Jethmalani had opposed the BJP’s strident demand for the hanging of Mohammad Afzal, convicted in the case of the 2001 attack on India’s parliament. In June 2010, however, a party ticket for the Rajya Sabha (the Upper House of parliament) sufficed to reverse his stand and make him join the hang-Afzal chorus with no condition attached.

The Congress, heading the government in New Delhi, has not covered itself with glory on the issue, either. Official spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi has avoided a direct comment and said that an outright dismissal of the verdict would make India “a banana republic”, implying that this would indicate an inadequate anti-terror resolve. Digvijay Singh, unofficial spokesperson of an unidentified section of the Congress, has asked for a review of the judgement because “Sen is a very fine human being.”

The BJP assumes that there can be a bipartisan consensus on the issue, as on the US-India nuclear deal, on the basis of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s perception of the Maoist insurgency as “the biggest internal threat to India”. The assumption is not entirely unfounded. After all, even Digvijay Singh has taken care not to dissociate Sen from the insurgency.

Taking a larger political view of it all, the story yields two major lessons based on the sad events of the decade about to end in two of the BJP’s bastions: Gujarat’s anti-minority pogrom of 2002 and Chhattisgarh’s anti-tribal terror culminating in the cruel sentence handed to Sen.

In the first place, the tale of two outrages illustrates the fact that ‘development’ of the kind Narendra Modi and Raman Singh have supposedly delivered covers a multitude of crimes against democracy. More importantly, the records of these states, where the BJP does not share power, show what the country can expect if the political front of the far right comes to power on its own in New Delhi.

We must hope for a reversal of the Raipur verdict, against which an appeal to the higher judiciary will soon be made. We must also hope that the public will not forget the lessons of this sorry episode in euphoria over a widely anticipated legal victory.

The writer is a journalist based in Chennai, India. A peace activist, he is also the author of a sheaf of poems titled At Gunpoint

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