Bengalis, scattered over two countries and elsewhere, are full of contradictions. They were never a martial race, but were at the forefront of violent struggles to dislodge the British, and later, during the Naxalite movement. Hindus and Muslims lived largely in peace over centuries there, but one of the worst communal riots in history happened in Bengal. Bengalis are often brilliant individually, but are collectively marginalised in most spheres.

This blog is an attempt to understand the people and their mind.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Remembering Binayak

I came across this letter to the editor in the Statesman two days ago. I feel I must share this with you.


In 1969, I went to Vellore for the treatment of our month-old son. The day after our arrival, a group of medical students in the Christian Medical College and Hospital entered the paediatric ward. Among them was a bright young man aged less than 20. He spoke to me in Bengali and said he was Binayak Sen.

At once I felt that I had met a younger brother, more so because my maiden surname is also Sen. During our week’s stay in Vellore, he helped us in every way, even took us for sightseeing.

While walking along the streets in the town, he stood in front of the post office and said, he would send a telegram to his younger brother to wish him on his birthday which fell on that very day, 7 February 1969. One afternoon, as we were packing our bags to leave our hotel for the return journey  to Kolkata, a beaming Binayak had come to see us off. He carried our luggage to the taxi, accompanied us to the railway station and helped us to board the train. I still vividly remember him standing on the railway platform waving us good-bye.

I have known him only for a few days. He is now in the news and I am shocked to learn that he has been sentenced to life imprisonment for sedition. He is a kind-hearted, sympathetic, amiable, polite, soft-spoken and helpful person.

Binayak and sedition, Binayak and life-sentence. I simply cannot co-relate. I am 79 and terribly sad over the news. I hope and pray that everything will move in the right direction very soon and that wonderful person will be hale and hearty and smiling as ever before.

Yours, etc.,

Dipti Dasgupta, Sodepur, 7 January.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Dr. Binayak Sen

The Christmas this year brought the shocking news that Dr. Binayak Sen has been sentenced to life imprisonment for “sedition”. The prosecution case is that he passed on three letters from a Maoist leader to someone. Sometime in 2007, he had gone to a Raipur jail as a physician to examine the Maoist leader. Naturally, he met the latter under the supervision of jailors. While returning from the jail, he was arrested at a railway station. Two other persons too were handed down life sentences along with Dr. Sen by a Raipur court on 24th December 2010. 

You would certainly have read about Dr. Binayak Sen, but let me jot down some essential facts here. A brilliant student and an alumnus of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, Binayak Sen is a paediatrician. Instead of practising in the comforts of a city and making money, he chose to provide medical assistance to the poor and marginalised adivasis of Chhattisgarh. He has been working there since the early 1980s. The impact of his work has been recognised by many and he has been awarded several international honours.

Mineral rich Chhattisgarh is one of the poorest states of India and is also a major centre of Maoist activities. In 2005, the state (BJP) government set up a vigilante army Salwa Judum to fight Maoists. According to historian Ram Chandra Guha, Salwa Judum “spread terror through the districts of Dantewada, Bijapur and Bastar. In the name of combating Naxalism, it burned homes (and occasionally, whole villages), violated tribal women, attacked (and sometimes killed) tribal men who refused to join its ranks. As a result of its depredations almost a hundred thousand adivasis with no connection to Maoism were rendered homeless.”[i] Activists like Arundhati Roy and Gautam Naulakha put the figure close to three hundred thousand.

Dr. Sen has neither been a part of a Maoist organisation, nor their sympathiser. On the contrary, he has condemned Maoist activities as “an invalid and unsustainable movement.” But as a national vice president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), he was also amongst the first to document the human rights violations committed by Salwa Judum and police.

That indeed was crime enough to send a 60-year-old internationally respected social worker and doctor to prison for the rest of his life. The verdict looks even more grotesque if you consider that in India many parliamentarians are mafia dons, and the major political debate of the day is how much a central minister cheated the exchequer in a single deal – fifty thousand crore or one hundred and seventy thousand crore!  

The Raipur verdict has been condemned by a wide cross-section of informed voices, from the Amnesty International to Amartya Sen. Retired high court judge and the president of PUCL Rajinder Sachar called the judgment as “ridiculous and unacceptable”. [ii] In an uncharacteristically strong reaction, Professor Sen says, “To turn the dedicated service of someone who drops everything to serve the cause of neglected people into a story of the seditious use of something — in this case, it appears to be the passing of a letter, when sedition usually takes the form of inciting people to violence or actually committing some violence and asking others to follow, none of which had happened — the whole thing seems a ridiculous use of the laws of democratic India.”[iii]

Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 was taken away from his home sometime in 2009. But it was not until nearly one month later that the Chinese authorities confirmed his arrest. He had a one-day trial in December 2009 and was sentenced to 11 years a few days later – on Christmas Day. Some suspected the Chinese authorities had chosen that day because most people in the West would be on holiday, and not notice.[iv] 

Binayak Sen’s trial dragged on for three years and during the period, many, including 22 Nobel laureates, condemned the politically motivated and patently fake prosecution that was not backed by a shred of material evidence. But in the end, Binayak Sen got life imprisonment, compared to 11 years that Liu Xiaobo got. The other similarity is disturbing too. The verdict against Binayak Sen was announced on the Christmas Eve.

No, I am not insane enough – not yet, anyway – to compare our judicial system with that of China. But surely, there are many people in power in Indiawho would love to have the kind of unfettered powers that the Chinese authorities enjoy. It is significant that for several days after the verdict, none of the mainstream political parties except the Communist Party of India (CPI) have spared one word to condemn the verdict, nay, even question the validity of the monstrous judgment. Some of them might, sooner or later, if they perceive the political cost of silence unacceptably high!

Considering the facts, it would be reasonable to demand that Dr. Sen is set free. Hopefully, that will happen once the case goes to higher courts. But what has happened to our justice delivery system? If this can be done to an eminent person despite international protests, what chance do ordinary citizens (like the two convicted alongside Dr. Sen) have against mighty governments in our law courts? Doesn’t this verdict reinforce the extremists’ claim that India is not a democracy?

Paraphrasing Shakespeare, the Supreme Court has recently stated: something is rotten in the High Court of Allahabad. The former Chief Justice of India (CJI), who is now the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission is involved in a public spat with a sitting high court judge. One of them is lying. There have been reports that the same former CJI’s daughter and son-in-law amassed Rs.7 crore while he was the CJI.[v]

Politicians have failed us and bureaucrats have largely proved themselves to be spineless yes-men. The judiciary may be the last hope for the Indian democracy. After the Raipur verdict, one wonders if it’s much of a hope.

Postscript: I think every Indian who cares for the future of this country should do something now. You can do something easily, almost without any effort. Please cut and paste the essential facts about the case either from here, or from a better source, onto an email and send it across to whoever would care to open and read a mail from you. Let this message reach every Indian who uses the Internet. Let us inform others; let us register our protest.

[i] Hindustan Times, 27 December 2010