On one of the four “Project Weeks” Mahindra United world College incorporates into the academic year, a group of students including myself were able to travel to the state of Chattisgarh (formerly a part of a Madhya Pradesh) to work with a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Rupantar. This organization was started by one Dr. Binayak Sen and currently works with communities which have been marginalized in the process of development. It works in the areas of health, gender, biodiversity and has had considerable success in helping communities which have not been reached by government programs and that are largely neglected by society. A major issue that has crippled Rupantar is the imprisonment of Dr. Binayak Sen who is an integral part of the organisation under the state’s Public Security draconian laws in May 2007. In the short 10 day period that our group worked and helped Rupantar, we saw the kind of work that the NGO does. More importantly however we were exposed to the controversial issues surrounding the imprisonment of Dr. Binayak Sen.
Dr. Binayak Sen graduated from the prestigious Christian Medical College (CMC) in Vellore as a pediatric doctor. Ever since then he has been involved in humanitarian projects to improve the conditions of those people in India who are deprived of any Human Rights. He has worked all over the country involving himself largely in the sector of health. Before his arrest, he was settled in Chattisgarh with his wife and two daughters. Over the years he has acquired an important position in the People’s Union of Civil Liberties in the area and has met with great success in the running of his independent NGO, Rupantar.
In order to understand his case, a background of the political instability is necessary. Chattisgarh was separated from the state of Madhya Pradesh in the year 2000. Almost 44% of its land is under forests which are home to numerous tribal communities. Because these communities are not given government attention Naxalites occupy the areas and help the communities. Naxalism is a movement which was started by the middle class in the mid 1900s that criticized the newly-formed Indian government for its aristocratic nature and for ignoring the needs of the people. These people moved to rural areas all over India to gain support amongst communities where there were numerous issues being ignored by the government. Because the movement threatened the government’s control over different states in India they faced a lot of violent opposition to their activities and they too became very violent and still are today. In 2006 the Indian Prime Minister even went so far as to link Naxalism with terrorism to present them as the two big threats to India’s internal security. The state of Chattisgarh has, in response to Naxalism in the state, formed what they call a peace-keeping force called the “Salwa Judum” which essentially acts a state militia in an equally violent manner. Instead of promoting peace, what has been created is a kind of civil war in rural areas, devastating rural communities.
The reason why the Naxalite movement is so relevant to this is because Dr. Binayak Sen’s arrest is based on the state’s accusation of him being a dreaded Naxal leader and has charged him with sedition, criminal conspiracy and making war against the nation. Events preceding his arrest go as follows; Dr. Sen was called upon by the brother of a Naxalite, Mr. Sanyal, to medically treat him and find him a lawyer as he was in bad condition. After getting a lawyer he received money from a friend of Mr Sanyal’s brother to give to the lawyer. In helping the Naxalite and carrying the money for him he was accused of being part of the movement.
On meeting the lawyer who is currently working on Dr. Sen’s case, we were informed of the state’s prolongation of the trial; in calling 83 witnesses, who most probably have no substantial evidence. The court has to organize time for all 83 witnesses making it extremely difficult for the trial to proceed. What’s worse is that the prosecution can continue to gather witnesses indefinitely. It seems ridiculous, especially in the face of an extremely inefficient judicial system. The irony of the situation however lies in the fact that the initial charges for Dr. Sen’s arrest have been disproved by the court. The state however has still managed to detain him by fabricating even more grounds for his arrest.
The question that then arises is – Why is Dr. Sen such a threat to the state? From the information we gathered over the 10 day period we learnt that on occasion Dr. Sen worked against state objectives. For example, in areas of Chattisgarh, where tribal communities live, there is a high concentration of minerals and other valuable resources. In the eyes of the government , industrialization of these areas fall under development. For this reason large companies, with the desire to build mines, tried to take land from those tribal communities. Under the constitution, these companies were required to gain permission from the villagers, however due to much opposition from the villagers they forged their approval. Dr. Sen aimed to publicize the atrocities committed by the government in gaining control over these lands and in doing so became a hazard for the state. The People Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) also did much work in this area and he became a larger threat by becoming the chairman of this organization. To give another example, after the creation of the government’s ‘peace keeping’ force against the Naxalites, Salwa Judum, Dr. Sen made an effort to expose the violence displayed by this force and appealed to international humanitarian organizations.
Currently support for his release, circles through NGOs all over India creating local movements. There have been small scale protests among other things – however these fail to make any difference to the situation because of their size. On an international level there has been some support from Amnesty International although they have only raised awareness of the issue and no action has been taken. Moreover it doesn’t help that the media is largely controlled by the state because it means that false information is shown to the public.
During the course of the 10 days it was interesting to see how tense the situation was. When we were in Raipur, the capital of the state, we were watched by the police. Our visit to the district court was followed by police questioning the people in the court about our visit. Furthermore on our last day when we were given the opportunity to meet Illena Sen, Dr. Sen’s wife , she had to leave early because a member of the police force was coming to check our Indian visas. On our meeting with the director of a film about Dr. Sen’s work, we found out about the kind of harassment that people like these receive from the state just because they’re working for causes that inconvenience the government. We were appalled by the corruption of the state especially towards a man whose work has been helping the people. The government here seems to be working for something other than the people.
Natasha Natarajan (MUWCI 2009)