Monday, May 11, 2009

Sen and the art of development

There is not much you can do these days without making a festival of. The Free-Binayak Sen campaign scheduled to peak out on May 14, when Dr Sen completes two years in Chhattisgarh Central Jail, is aiming to rally one million people on line. Activists must hope that a few zeroes on the right side of any number will translate to Sen’s freedom. If only democracy were a matter of ciphers.

Again, there is not much you can say about Binayak Sen that is not already in the public domain. Sen is a doctor who decided early on to work among the poor in Chhattisgarh. He is the General Secretary of People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL). In which capacity he campaigned for the rights of those who were victimised by the State, the police and Salwa Judum.

Salwa Judum, for the novice, is a “people’s movement” funded and armed by the respective state government and aimed at resisting Naxal overtures. The resultant violence in Chhattisgarh has killed and mutilated thousands of humans.

Quite a few of those Sen helped turned out to be Naxals or Naxal sympathizers. This might be considered natural in a state where tribals and scheduled castes form nearly 50 per cent of the population. They own and occupy substantial amount of forest and mineral land. Since the State has failed in considerable parts of Chattisgarh, the leadership of tribals and scheduled castes for the present rests with Naxals, not with parliamentary parties.

The natural resources in question are in fact central to the understanding of Sen’s personal tragedy. There’s a regular tussle in Chattisgrah for the appropriation of the riches by corporate houses and the government on the one hand, and by the indigenous people led by Naxals on the other.

In short, Sen is a victim of a certain kind of development model which seems to represent the top 25 % of the population. People like you and me. In India that translates to nearly 250 million people, and so the economy stays afloat on that critical mass. And land – whether setting up for plants or as a source of metals or minerals — as Ratan Tata would tell you is at the heart of India’s present and future unrest.

On May 14, 2007 Dr Sen was arrested under the Chhattisgarh Public Securities Act for collusion with Narayan Sanyal, a Maoist leader doing his time in the Central Jail. The authorities believe that Dr Sen was carrying letters --that furthered Naxalite activities in the state-- from Sanyal to one business man Piush Guha, who too was later arrested and locked up in jail.

Technically, as in the case of Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial, the case against Dr Sen is flimsy. Dr Sen’s meetings with Sanyal took place in the presence of jail authorities. The opening lines of The Trial capture the essence of Sen’s situation as well: “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K: he knew he had done nothing wrong, but, one morning he was arrested.” And since Dr Sen was arrested under CPSA the authorities are exempted from giving an explanation for their conduct in court or elsewhere.

It is unlikely that Dr Sen will be kept in prison for too long in the face of escalating legal and activist pressure. But the appalling reality is that these missing years of Dr Sen’s life have already taken a toll. His wife, Professor Ilina Sen is living an unreal life. Unreal in the sense that she never thought she would be spearheading a public campaign for Dr Sen’s release. “If someone told me the story of my life two years ago, I would have told him, no, that’s not me.”

The family has been broken up. Both Sen daughters are in Bombay away from the primal politics of Chhattisgarh. Professor Ilina Sen, who is Dean at Wardha University, divides her time between her workplace and Chattisgarh. The professor is articulate and brave. But if you meet her you cannot escape the feeling that this is a beleaguered woman holding on to hope and reason by her finger nails, which seem well chewed. The arrest has changed at least the younger daughter’s outlook. She had wanted to do medicine. But after Dr Sen’s arrest,18 year old Aparajita wants to become a lawyer.

Since these are real people, they must hurt. But of course Dr Sen and his family are not the only ones hurting. There are 1135 prisons in India, housing 322,000 inmates. According to National Crime Record Bureau some 223,000 out of this teeming Republic of the Wretched are undertrials or people who don’t know what wrong they have done. A million Josef Ks.

Dr Sen’s case is representative of the major failings of the Indian state, be it democracy, development or speedy justice. And none of it, typically, figures in these general elections. That no political party including the morally high-horsed Left has succeeded in mainstreaming these crucial issues is proof of a real problem.

But equally Dr Sen’s case also showcases a dire possibility that the worst can befall the best among us. Take care. One of these days you and I are just as likely to swell the rolls of the undertrials. Don’t ask why. Shit happens. And in such an eventuality, unlikely as it may sound, the shame of our fate may outlive us, which was Josef K’s last thought as well as the knives went in.

Dr Sen will complete 2 years in illegal detainment on May 14, 2009.


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