PRISONER OF CONSCIENCE: The incarnation of Dr. Binayak Sen

Anand Patwardhan


On May 14 this year Dr. Binayak Sen started his third year in Jail in Chhatisgarh state of India. Against this injustice, writers, poets, judges, lawyers, doctors, human rights workers, trade unionists, former Supreme Court justice Krishna Iyer, former US  attorney general Ramsey Clark, Noam Chomsky and 22 Nobel laureates and thousands of people raised their voice, which were ignored by the authorities. Finally Dr. Sen has been granted bail and released from jail by the Supreme Court of India. Dr. Sen’s incarceration raises the fundamental question of the rights of citizens in world’s largest democracy. Patwardhan who made a documentary of the same name as the title of this article analyses the forces against and for democratic rights in India.



May 14 this year will mark an ignominious date for Indian democracy  the start of the third straight year of Binayak Sen’s incarceration  in a Chhattisgarh jail. I wonder if there are words left to describe this travesty. What is left to say that has not been said?


On Binayak’s behalf, writers, poets, judges, lawyers, doctors, human rights workers and trade unionists have spoken out from across India and the globe. Former Supreme Court justice Krishna Iyer, former US  attorney general Ramsey Clark, Noam Chomsky and 22 Nobel laureates  are amongst the thousands who grace this impressive list, but so far  it has all been to no avail.


For those who may not recall, let me set out a chronology. Binayak is  a pediatrician, a gold medalist who eschewed a lucrative urban  practice to work amongst the poorest in central India. When I met him  in the mid-80s he had helped build a workers’ hospital for the  Chhattisgarh Mines Workers’ Samiti led by the legendary Shankar Guha  Niyogi. Niyogi and his team were not ordinary trade unionists but  visionaries for whom a workers’ union went beyond wage struggles to  health care, education, even cinema literacy and, of course, fighting the scourge of alcoholism that inevitably afflicts the unorganized.  Niyogi was murdered in 1991.


The liquor mafia was blamed but it is commonly understood that they  were merely the medium and that the real killers were politicians  aligned to industrialists for whom a union that could not be co-opted  had to be crushed.


Niyogi’s murder was followed by widespread repression. As big money  entered the mineral-rich region,  Adivasis found themselves displaced  from their lands. A section joined the Naxalite movement, which in 

turn spawned greater repression.


Binayak continued his medical work but also began to document human  rights violations in his capacity as secretary of the Peoples’ Union  for Civil Liberties, an organization founded by Jayaprakash Narayan  in 1977. More specifically he wrote against the Salwa Judum  operation, through which the state armed and trained local Adivasis as a vigilante militia to fight other Adivasis who had joined the  Naxalites, resulting in a brutal civil war.


On a visit to jail, Binayak came across an ailing elderly man,  Narayan Sanyal, and began medically treating him. Later this became  the trigger for his persecution. Binayak was suddenly accused of  carrying letters to and from Sanyal, who was accused of being a  Naxalite, even though each jail visit was made under strict scrutiny. 


Binayak was in Kolkata when he learned about the warrant for his arrest. He insisted on travelling back to Chhattisgarh to clear his  name, which is certainly not an act of a guilty man. But guilty or  not, two precious years have been snatched from him, just as surely as he was snatched from the marginalized people he so dedicatedly  served.


Meanwhile the official case against Binayak is falling apart. Of the  83 listed prosecution witnesses, 16 were dropped and six declared  hostile by the prosecutors themselves, while 61 others have deposed  without corroborating any of the accusations against him. Why is this  man still in jail and denied bail? Is it because no one dares admit  he was innocent to start with?


On March 16 this year, a group of 50 satyagrahis (protesters) from across India  marched to the central jail in Raipur, demanding Binayak’s release.  We were arrested and set free. The following week a second batch of satyagrahis did the same. This action has been taken each Monday for  almost two months now. What more can we do? How much louder can we  shout?


But shout we must. At Binayak’s trial we learned he is suffering from  heart disease. A court-appointed doctor recommended that he be  shifted to Vellore for a possible angioplasty or bypass. An RTI query  has shockingly revealed a month later that the police are  unconstitutionally insisting that Binayak be treated in Chhattisgarh. 


Should Binayak, who lost his liberty to an arbitrary state, be forced  to trust the same agency with his life? India is a signatory to the  International Human Rights Covenant. By definition its human rights  activists must be protected. It is our democracy that is on trial. (The writer is a Delhi-based film-maker.)


(The Times of India, April 27, 2009)

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