May 28, 2007

The detention of a noted human rights activist Binayak Sen, under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, for his legitimate visits to the jailed Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal, puts Indian democracy under a question mark.

The detention in Raipur of noted human rights activist Binayak Sen under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (PSA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act has rightly attracted nationwide condemnation from citizens’ groups. Dr Sen, general secretary of the Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), and the union’s national vice-president, was arrested for his alleged links with banned Maoist groups. The critical allegation against Dr Sen is that he met senior Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal more than 30 times in recent months in the Raipur central jail where he has been detained.

On the very face of it, the charge is utterly preposterous. Dr Sen met Sanyal with the authorities’ knowledge and consent and always in the presence of a jailer. In fact, as a civil liberties activist, it is his legitimate job and function to meet detainees and ensure that their fundamental rights are respected and they are treated in accordance with the due process of law. Whether he met Sanyal 35 times or 100 times is totally irrelevant so long his visits were permitted by the police.

It speaks poorly of the Chhattisgarh government that it cavalierly levelled defamatory and scandalous charges against an activist-intellectual of Dr Sen’s standing, who has an illustrious record as a public-spirited paediatrician connected with the people’s health movement. Dr Sen was involved with the setting up of the Shaheed Hospital, an initiative of the great trade unionist Shankar Guha Niyogi who was murdered at the behest of rapacious industrialists.

The Hospital, owned and operated by a workers’ organisation, remains unmatched anywhere in India as a voluntary venture which helps the population of a backward tribal area callously neglected by the state. Dr Sen was on an official advisory committee which drew up one of the most successful community-based primary healthcare programmes in India, based on the Mitanin, the local barefoot health worker.

It’s nobody’s case that Dr Sen is a Naxalite, or a Maoist sympathiser. Everyone who knows him, as this writer has done for many years, will testify to his commitment to peaceful means by which to fight for a compassionate and humane society.

It’s thus all the more infuriating that the Chhattisgarh government arrested him under the draconian PSA. This is one of the most repressive laws of the country, which allows for the prolonged detention of a person on the vaguest of charges, even mere suspicion. The charges include committing acts with a “tendency to pose an obstacle to the administration of law” and actions which “encourage(s) the disobedience of the established law”.

Needless to say, this law criminalises even non-violent protests, including Gandhian forms of civil disobedience. It’s nothing short of a disgrace that the PSA remains on India’s statute-books even after POTA stands abrogated.

Dr Sen was detained under this law even before the police had obtained a shred of half-way credible evidence against him. Since then, they have searched his house and ransacked his farm on the outskirts of Raipur. They claim to have collected “hundreds of incriminating documents”, which include compact disks, pamphlets and other papers. Now, most of the documents are available in the public domain. The list includes newspaper clippings, CDs on “fake encounters”, and letters from victims of state repression, which have since been published in newspapers. A good deal of the impounded material pertains to Dr Sen’s work as a health and civil liberties activist.

Clearly, we are dealing here with malicious police allegations of the same variety as the charges filed in 2002 against The Kashmir Times Delhi bureau chief, Syed Iftikhar Geelani. He too was accused of possessing “classified” documents, suggesting links with secessionist and terrorist groups. The police were forced to retract all such charges when it was established that all of Mr Geelani’s “secret” documents were obtained from public-domain sources, none even remotely connected with terrorism.

Mr Geelani was detained for 8 months—and released without apology or explanation—because he is a Kashmiri and related to separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Similarly, Dr Sen is being harassed because he’s a civil liberties activist who has courageously exposed a number of police atrocities. These, remarkably, include 155 “fake encounters” in Chhattisgarh in 2 years. The latest was the cold-blooded murder of 12 Adivasis on March 31 in Bijapur district—which made the headlines even as the public was absorbing the shock from revelations about the “encounter” killing of Sohrabuddin Shaikh and Kausar-Bi by DIG Vanzara and his henchmen in Gujarat.

It would be an even greater injustice if Dr Sen has to languish for months in jail before the ridiculous charges against him are disproved as powerfully as those against Mr Geelani. Surely, our courts have a duty to prevent such miscarriage of justice. Surely, our top politicians and bureaucrats have learned some lessons from the sordid stories of abduction, illegal detention and outright killings committed by trigger-happy policemen all over India.

Surely, it has not escaped the attention even of our creaking, deeply flawed justice delivery system that draconian laws, which allow preventive detention and forced confessions from the accused, are liable to be—and usually are—misused. They create a climate of impunity, in which no official is ever held accountable for his/her gross misconduct, excesses or cruelty.

It bears recalling that the rate of conviction under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act was less than 2 percent. This speaks of gross abuse of the law. The police typically didn’t bother to collect evidence which would help their case stand up. They used TADA (and later POTA) to bung people into jail and extract confessions from them under duress, including threats to liquidate them through “encounters”. Such laws, including the Chhattisgarh PSA, become excuses not to conduct diligent investigations, while claiming impunity and raising alarmist fears about extremism, terrorism and threats to “national security”.

The PSA was used in Chhattisgarh four times before Dr Sen’s case—for instance, to arrest a petty shopkeeper for selling groceries to Maoist sympathisers (of whose identity he probably wasn’t aware), and to harass a Class XII student who was in love with a suspected Naxalite. The Chhattisgarh police, true to type, are now planting stories about a “close relative” of Dr Sen’s, who is subversive by virtue of having studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University! Only a warped khaki brain can think in such illiterate, philistine and irrational ways.

Yet, it is precisely this way of thinking that led the Chhattisgarh government to set up Salwa Judum, a viciously Right-wing band of thugs whose job is to target and kill Maoists. They have razed villages, raped women and looted what little the poor possess—all with police support, complicity or collusion. Salwa Judum has unleashed a reign of terror and inflicted incalculable harm upon ordinary Adivasis. No fewer than 47,000 people have become homeless owing to its depredations.

However, the Chhattisgarh government’s anti-Naxalite juggernaut continues to roll on, causing violence and destruction, setting Advasi against Adivasi, village against village, and bankrupting the state of its authority and legitimacy. The government now plans to use helicopter gunships to intimidate villagers, cut down prime forests to deny sanctuary to the Maoists, and thus repeat the “Strategic Hamlets” strategy of the United States during the Vietnam War. And yes, they plan to use grenades, not just bullets, while fighting Maoists.

There’s a larger purpose behind the anti-Naxal operations. Apart from trying to wipe out the Maoists militarily (while causing enormous damage to civilian life and citizens’ freedom), it is to make Chhattisgarh safe for huge mining and industrial projects, which dispossess people en masse, but guarantee super-profits to predatory business houses. Chhattisgarh is selling its precious mineral wealth cheap to promote neoliberal capitalism. It has signed more than 30 memoranda of understanding with business houses, including multinationals with a terrible human rights record.

The human consequences of such a “development” strategy have become starkly obvious in many states—especially Jharkhand and Orissa, besides Chhattisgarh. In Orissa, there’s growing popular resistance to the South Korean company POSCO’s steel plant and the Tata’s steel mill. Last year began with the gunning down of 13 Adivasis at Kalinganagar. And last fortnight saw attacks upon peaceful protestors by goons hired by POSCO. The state is bent upon breaking the blockades erected by the people even if that involves bloodshed and wanton destruction.

This insanity must stop. The monstrous mining and steel projects, in which the people have no stake, must not be granted clearances by bypassing environmental and rehabilitation scrutiny under pressure from the top, all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office. Or else, the state will lose all its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Then, the Maoists will have achieved their purpose of discrediting not just the state, but democracy itself.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Khaleej Times (Dubai)