A Doctor’s Life

Last week, almost a year after he was arrested in Chhattisgarh as an alleged “Naxalite”, Dr.Binayak Sen became the first South Asian to be awarded the prestigious 2008 Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. 

I first met Binayak in the mid eighties when I went to screen my documentaries for the Shankar Guha Niyogi led Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. Under Niyogi’s leadership the CMM had brought hope to thousands of exploited adivasi mine workers. Binayak and two other doctors volunteered their services to the union and with the shram daan (volunteer labour) of the workers, set up a small but wonderfully efficient 15 bed hospital, an element of a larger dream for development with justice.The dream was cut short in 1991 when vested interests gunned down Niyogi as he slept in his hut. Some of his hired killers were briefly arrested but those who had master-minded the murder enjoyed the support of BJP Chief Minister Sunderlal Patwa and escaped punishment. After Niyogi’s death the CMM led by Janaklal Thakur and other workers fought on valiantly, but times were changing. Chhatisgarh is extremely rich in minerals. By the nineties the mantra of privatization was sweeping the nation clear of all talk of justice and equal opportunity. In this atmosphere rapacious corporations stepped in where the hired goons of corrupt politicians had hesitated. The non-violent methods of the CMM failed to contain the advent of those whose X ray eyes could see the profit that lay beneath the ground once the adivasi skin on the surface had been scalped – profits so large that State connivance was easily procured. Mainstream media grew tired of reporting the daily atrocities heaped on the people.

In the vaccum Naxalite armed resistance began, many adivasis seeing it as their chance to fight back. The State and its entrepreneur partners responded with the Salwa Judum, a privately funded vigilante adivasi army, armed and trained to fight Naxalites. A lawless frontier of murder, counter-murder and fake encounters was created, the brunt borne by adivasis, already displaced and dispossessed, now vulnerable to killings on all sides.
Binayak added a new duty to the self-imposed duty of being a doctor where most doctors feared to tread. Recognizing the link between health and human rights, he joined and eventually became the regional general secretary of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties and one of its national vice presidents. As PUCL secretary Binayak criticized Naxalite violence, but drew the ire of the State when he documented its nexus with the Salwa Judum and exposed fake police encounters.In the course of medical and civil liberties work Binayak and his team made authorized visits to accused Naxalite prisoners in jail. One prisoner was an elderly man with a painful palmar contracture. Binayak visited on several occasions and arranged for him to have surgery. These repeated visits were later cited as evidence that there was a special relationship between the two and Binayak was also charged with secretly smuggling out a letter although all visits had been subject to search and no objections raised at the time.After Binayak openly criticized the Salwa Judum and extrajudicial killings, the police brought charges against him, arresting him under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act that allows individuals to be held indefinitely without bail and without evidence being produced against them. When the Supreme Court was moved they delayed then denied bail without citing a single reason. Emboldened, the Chhattisgarh jailors went a step further, putting Binayak into solitary confinement in violation of all human rights codes. Perhaps they hoped that treating him as a dreaded Naxalite would cause the public to see him that way. 

Binayak, 58 year old, has lost 20 kgs in prison though in response to public outcry, his solitary confinement has ended. This so called “Naxalite” is no longer unknown. He won prestigious awards including the Paul Harrison award for distinguished service to the poor and the Keithan gold medal from the Indian Academy of Social Science. National and international medical and human rights organizations including Amnesty have asked for his unconditional release.Can the persecution of Dr. Binayak be seen as the vengeful politics of a rightist BJP? Unfortunately not. Sanction for it seems to have come from the Centre and the very ruling elite that includes a mainstream media quick to paint all who champion the underclass as “revolutionaries” and “Naxalites”. Last year I wrote an article stating that if Binayak can be called a Naxalite for criticizing the State, I could be called one too. Recently the Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister, R.R.Patil was reported to have stated that if people like Medha Patkar and Bharat Patankar were called Naxalites, he was one too! No matter that R.R.Patil recently used the term Naxalite to describe Dalits protesting against the rape and massacre at Khairlanji.As the system we live in successfully crushes or co-opts all movements of opposition, the term Naxalite has become synonymous with any form of uncompromising protest. The charge that somebody believes in violence or abets violence need not be substantiated. In a corrupt system it is enough that a person cannot be bought, to mark them as a mortal threat. Binayak is no Naxalite but Naxalism is growing. Why is that? Is there a Chinese cultural invasion? Is the youth of today seduced by sexy pictures of Chairman Mao? The fact is that our development paradigm cannot but breed widespread poverty and injustice and as non-violent movements fail, the people will have nowhere else to turn.

And as the medical profession goes down the path of privatization and profit, it too will have to choose between the path led by Dr. Death, the kidney transplant king Dr.Kumar and the good doctor of Chhatisgarh, Dr. Binayak Sen.

Anand Patwardhan 
The Times of India, April 2008

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