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Health activist held in India for "terrorism"

RIGHTS-INDIA: Top Activist's Detention Blot on Democracy

Inter Press Service

NEW DELHI, May 15 (IPS) - Protests are mounting all over the world against the year-long detention of Dr. Binayak Sen, a distinguished Indian human rights and health activist, under draconian laws in the central state of Chhattisgarh.

Sen, national vice president and Chhattisgarh general secretary of the well-known People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), was arrested under allegations of helping left-wing extremists, known in this country as Naxalites.

The charges shocked human rights organisations and citizens' groups, which on independent investigation, have found them totally fictitious. They believe that the Chhattisgarh government filed them to harass Sen and set a horribly negative example for all civil liberties activists and intimidate them.

Sen is probably India's first human rights defender to have faced such prolonged detention.

Sen's detention raises serious questions about the content and quality of democracy in India, and the state's failure to respect liberties and fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. It also points to links between human rights violations and the government’s social and economic policies.

The protestors are demanding Sen's unconditional release, repeal of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005, (PSA), and the disbanding of a state-sponsored right-wing militia called Salwa Judum, which has been rampaging through the state killing and maiming people in the guise of fighting Naxalites.

On Sunday, when Sen’s detention completed one full year, poets, artists, musicians, theatre personalities, social scientists and writers, including the award-winning novelist Arundhati Roy, joined hands with social activists in 15 Indian cities, including Raipur, Sen's hometown and Chhattisgarh's capital.

As many as 48 international organisations such as Amnesty International and citizens' groups based in the West also organised demonstrations or vigils in nine cities in the United States, including New York, Washington, San Francisco and Boston, and in London, Paris and Stockholm

Meanwhile, 22 Nobel laureates from the world over have called for Sen's release so that he can receive in person the prestigious Jonathan Mann award for health and human rights, an "international honour that will be bestowed for the first time on a citizen of India".

The award is due to be presented in two weeks by the Global Health Council (GHC), an alliance of medical organisations and professionals, in Washington, DC.

In a letter to India's President Pratibha Patil, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh, the Nobel Prize winners have expressed "grave concern that Dr Sen appears to be incarcerated solely for peacefully exercising his fundamental right, in contravention of Articles 19 (freedom of opinion and ex-pression) and 22 (freedom of association) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights", which India has signed.

The letter also says that the two internal security laws under which Sen was charged, the PSA and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 2004, "do not comport with international human rights standards".

The PSA criminalises even peaceful activity and protest, by declaring it "a danger or menace to public order, peace and tranquillity", because it might interfere with or "tends to interfere with the maintenance of public order… the administration of law or its… institutions", and encourages or preaches "disobedience to established law and its institutions."

Under these laws, Sen can be awarded the death penalty or life imprisonment. Among the charges he faces are being a member of a terrorist gang or organisation, knowingly holding the proceeds of terrorism, sedition, abetting unlawful activity, undermining public safety, and conspiracy to wage war against the state.

These charges hinge on one allegation by the police: namely, that Sen visited a detained and ailing Naxalite leader, Narayan Sanyal, in Raipur prison 33 times, and allegedly passed notes from him to his collaborators outside jail through a Kolkata-based businessman, Piyush Guha.

But Guha has denied that he received any letter from Sanyal, and said and that he signed a false confession under duress. During the trial, which began after long delays on April 30, key witnesses failed to corroborate the police version or turned hostile.

"As for the numerous visits to meet Sanyal, that cannot be a charge at all," says Prashant Bhushan, a public interest lawyer based in Delhi. "It was entirely in Sen’s line of work both as a civil rights defender and a physician. Besides, the visits were not surreptitious or illegal. They took place with the permission of and under the supervision of the jail authorities".

During a visit paid to Sen last September in the same prison IPS found it impossible -- given the small size of the room and the eagle eyes of the officials -- to smuggle out a piece of paper. All conversation is audible to the wardens.

Kavita Srivastava, Jaipur-based national general secretary of PUCL, holds that Sen was singled out by the Chhattisgarh government partly because he was trying to expose the brutality and outright criminality of the vigilante Salwa Judum group, armed and trained by the state.

Salwa Judum has perpetrated gruesome atrocities against ordinary citizens, besides Naxalites and their suspected sympathisers. It has burned down entire villages in Chhattisgarh’s dirt-poor southern districts, populated by acutely disadvantaged Adivasis or indigenous tribals.

The militia's campaign of violence has turned nearly 100,000 people into refugees. But both the Chhattisgarh the central government continue to shield, support, finance and encourage it.

They recently told India’s Supreme Court that Salwa Judum is the only means available to them to counter Naxalite violence. The court has not yet pronounced judgement on a public interest petition filed by reputed academics demanding the disbanding of the militia.

Recently, Manmohan Singh described left-wing extremism as "the greatest internal security threat" facing India and promised to crush it. He said his government would not rest until the virus of Naxalism is eliminated.

His government pledged to spend over 750 million US dollars on fighting it. But its efforts have failed to contain the movement. Over the past two years, more people have been killed in Naxalite-related violence, including police counter-violence, than in Kashmir or India’s turbulent Northeast.

Chhattisgarh is the worst example of the failure of the state’s strategy of combating left-extremism exclusively by unleashing state repression against unarmed civilians.

Sen was trained as a paediatrician at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, and has devoted most of adult life to improving the health and living conditions of the very poor in the Adivasi districts of Chhattisgarh, besides defending the civil liberties of wretchedly poor and exploited people.

Sen's organisation, 'Rupantar', has run a clinic for 10 years in Dhamtari district. He has done exemplary voluntary work in the Gandhian mould in providing primary and preventive healthcare to people long deprived of access to any health facilities, especially from the state.

There are no medical personnel in the area, often not even a chemist within a 30-kilometre distance. Even in emergencies, the public is forced to depend on quacks, and corrupt, apathetic, incompetent, and usually missing, government employees.

Rupantar's clinic offers a range of services at nominal cost, including rapid testing for the deadly Falciparum strain of the malaria parasite, which has saved scores of lives. These services are provided through local "barefoot doctors", who give the public invaluable advice on nutrition and preventive medicine.

Sen appears to have been victimised precisely because he formed a bridge between the human rights movement and other civil society organisations, and created a forum of empowerment for Chhattisgarh's disadvantaged people.

The state government, whose very existence is premised upon the rapacious exploitation of the indigenous Adivasis and the staggering natural wealth of Chhattisgarh --and whose primary function is to subserve big business, forest contractors and traders -- is loath to tolerate such individuals.

Chhattisgarh has an egregious recent history of repression. One of India's most creative trade unionists, Shankar Guha Niyogi, who ignited a mass awakening on social, cultural and economic issues, was assassinated at the behest of the state’s powerful and politically well-connected industrialists in 1991. They still roam free.

Chhattisgarh has among India's worst indices of wealth maldistribution and income inequality. Some of its rural regions present a dismal picture of malnutrition, starvation deaths, illiteracy, and severe scarcity of safe drinking water. Some have suffered a rise in infant mortality.

The literacy rate among tribals here is less than one-third the national average --just 30 percent for men and 13 percent for women. Of the 1,220 villages of one district (Dantewada), 214 have no primary school.

But the state’s cities are booming with ostentatious affluence, spanking new hotels and glittering shopping malls.

The difference in life-expectancy between an advanced state like Kerala and tribal Chhattisgarh is a shocking 18 years. The two regions could well belong to different continents like Europe and Africa.

Chhattisgarh is extraordinarily rich in forests and in mineral wealth, including high-quality iron ore, bauxite, dolomite, quartzite, granite, corundum, precious stones, gold, diamonds and tin ore, besides limestone and coal.

This wealth has been voraciously extracted. But it has produced virtually no gains for the local population.

"Naxalism has thrived in Chhattisgarh as a response, albeit an irrational and violent one, to this obnoxious system of exploitation, dispossession and outright loot," says Rajiv Bharagava, a political scientist at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "In Chhattisgarh, the state has collapsed as a provider of public services and a relatively impartial guardian of the law. The Naxalites flourish because the state has failed."

"This is a terrible comment on India’s democracy,'' adds Bhargava. ''Democracy isn't only about elections. Unless it has accountable institutions and a system of rights, it loses much of its meaning."

What you can do

  • Sign the Petition Against Dr Binayak Sen's Solitary Confinement
  • Write to the High Commission of India, India House, Aldwych, London, WC2B 4NA
  • Write to the Consulate General of India, Edinburgh, 17 Rutland Square, Edinburgh, EH1 2BB

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