Resisting a Police State: The Importance of Dr. Binayak Sen


Analytical Monthly Review, published in Kharagpur, West Bengal, India, is a sister edition of Monthly Review.  Its February 2009 issue features the following editorial. — Ed.

We have lost twice over from the late November terror attacks in Mumbai.  We must add to the anguish of the loved ones of the poor people who were murdered as they waited for trains at VT [Victoria Terminus] — and who received but a tiny fraction of the media’s attention — the anguish of innocent poor people yet unknown who shall fall prey to the lawless arrests and police torture that shall with certainty follow from the “anti-terror” legislation of December 17th.

Why do we say “with certainty”?  The legislation follows two earlier models, the Prevention of Terrorism Act and its predecessor, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act.  These acts gave rise to frightful abuse; they offered impunity to the police for unlawful arrests and torture in custody.  Official review of the use of TADA, under which close to 70,000 were arrested (and but 725 convicted), found the provisions of the Act inapplicable in over 90% of the cases.  POTA was, if anything, yet more abused.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) Act, establishing a new national secret police, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment (UAPA) Act, radically diminishing legal protections for those accused of terrorism by the police, were passed by both houses of Parliament the day after the bills were introduced, with minimal attention to, or discussion of, their text.  Provisions of UAPA, provided certain words (“terrorism”) are said by the police, abolish rights to bail before trial, extend the period a suspect can be held without charges to 180 days, terminate the right to remain silent, and — provided certain additional words are said — reverse the burden of proof.

In short, we have returned in an instant to the police state legislation of TADA and POTA, whose injustice and futility were finally understood by the civilized and democratic public only after an extended campaign of education.  Of course the Hindutva fascists never ceased their demand for such legislation, and the spectacle of Chidambaram and Advani arm-in-arm united as they trample on human rights was ominous.  There is reason to fear we have not seen the last of that combination engaged in that activity.

The moral of the story is the overarching importance of the struggle to educate about, and resist, the police state practices that are an everyday reality for members of minority communities and those targeted for expropriation and displacement.  For this struggle to even be possible, the first line of resistance must be the defence of those subject to police persecution for speaking out.  It is for this reason that the struggle to free Dr. Binayak Sen is the most crucial front in the fight.

Dr. Binayak Sen’s New Years 2009 message to the Medico Friends Circle, for many years our most responsible health NGO, reminds of the importance of cherishing his compassionate voice.  We reproduce it here:

My warmest greetings to all friends in the MFC, and best wishes for

As an Indian child of parents from the territory that is now Bangladesh, displacement was a lived reality for me from my childhood, as it was for millions of other children of my generation.  But then, in so many ways, the history of the last 500 years (1492 is a useful reference date), is the history of successive waves of displacement — either as displacement from as in the case of the native Americans, or displacement to, as in the case of slave labour from Africa or India.  A particularly gruesome episode is being played out before our eyes in Palestine.  The NBA brought the issue of displacement into the mainstream of Indian public discourse.  In Chhattisgarh, seasonal migration provides an example of large scale displacement, and a particularly iconic experience was watching a young migrant mother lying on the floor of a train while her baby slowly dehydrated from gastroenteritis.  The Salwa Judum in Bastar has displaced huge numbers of people at gunpoint, and over 100,000 people have been pushed over the border into Andhra Pradesh.

In China today, 100 million people are in the process of being displaced by the Three Gorges dam and other projects.  As usual, in India, we go one better.  The redoubtable Prof Swaminathan has chaired a committee that has concluded that Indian agriculture can accommodate at most a third of its population in agriculture, as opposed to half as at present.  The difference is a small matter of 200 million people.

Displacement is about the sequestration of privileged access to resources and need not always involve a geographical reference.  Thus, the chronic nutritional deprivation from which half our children and a third of our adults suffer can be regarded as a special form of
 displacement.  What displacement invariably does entail is the ruthless cutting short of the micro evolutionary process involved in any instance of eco adaptation, involving chemical or physical factors as in Bhopal, or the social environment as in south Bastar.

That’s enough.  Too bad I can’t take part.  All the best for your deliberations.  Choose your politics before your politics chooses you.

Those of us with access to the means of information and persuasion have a special responsibility.  We therefore note with appreciation that the organizers of, and participants in, the February 2009 VIBGYOR International Film Festival in Thrissur, Kerala, formally demanded the release of Dr. Binayak Sen, and asked Professor Ilina Sen, his wife, to open the festival.  Her comments on that occasion deserve your attention:

Dear friends,

I feel greatly privileged and suitably humbled to be with all of you today and to inaugurate the fourth edition of the Vibgyor International documentary film festival.  We have all worked and waited for this day; personally for me this represents a recognition of the work of Binayak Sen and his comrades in Chhattisgarh to be able to build a better world for the tribals and toiling people of the region.  I am grateful to the human rights activists in Kerala who have agreed to step up the campaign for Binayak’s release.

Binayak Sen has today become an icon for the right of people to hold dissenting political and public opinion, to have the right to choose the kind of development model they want for themselves, and for the rights of all to basic legal safeguards in accordance with the constitution.  He is in jail now for over 20 months because he was a vocal opponent of the Salwa Judum, a state sponsored vigilante militia let loose on the people of South Bastar in the name of curbing Naxalites.  The fact that he visited a Maoist prisoner in jail has been used to fabricate a case alleging that he was involved in anti national and seditious activity.  While we strive for the freedom of Binayak, it is important to remember that he is not the only one imprisoned in this way under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act.  Over one thousand persons are languishing in the various jails of Chhattisgarh, labelled as threats to Public Security, under this Act.  It is symptomatic of the malaise of our system that the first arrest under the act was of a class 12 girl student, whose male friend is supposed to have had unsuitable political views.  The large number of arrests and the general repression has driven much of the public dissent underground, and many people live in fear of speaking their minds.  However, whatever is happening to the intelligentsia is being felt and lived many times over by the tribal people of our state.

The Adivasi people of Chhattisgarh are the inheritors of great natural resources and a rich cultural life.  However, with the creation of the new state and its push to ‘develop’ the mineral resources and open them up to world markets, a saga of loot and plunder has begun.  Lands are being acquired for ‘projects’ in total circumvention of constitutional safeguards like the mandatory consent of the gram sabhas under the fifth schedule operative in these areas.  Once again it is symptomatic of the malaise that it was the now ill reputed firm of Price Waterhouse  Cooper which was invited to draw up the Vision Plan for the state of Chhattisgarh, and not the spokespersons of peoples’ organizations in the state.  Our government showcases adivasi culture through its presentations of tribal music and dance at the Republic Day Parade; however, this will not by itself save the adivasis from extinction, which the Salwa Judum and the policies of the government seem determined to achieve.

I want to end with saying that the situation I am describing is not only limited to Chhattisgarh.  Many indigenous areas, in India and all over the world, are facing a similar situation.  Documentary filmmakers have in the past played an important role in sharing the stories of these areas with the world.  The challenge for them to continue to do so, and to remain the keepers of our conscience, continues.  I am sure the challenge will be accepted frontally not only by the established documentary film makers, but also by the younger generation waiting to grow with the times.

Ilina Sen, Thrissur, 04.02.09.