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The courtroom farce in Chhattisgarh

A personal account of satyagraha against the baseless persecution of Binayak Sen

Written by Anand Patwardhan |
April 4, 2009 1:22:50 am

On Monday,March 16,the first batch of satyagrahis marched through Raipur towards the Central Jail where Dr. Binayak Sen has been wrongfully incarcerated for almost two years.

Flanked by the police,we walked for 2 kilometres with our banners,shouting “Free Binayak!” Onlookers seemed surprised by our open support of someone who has been painted a dreaded “Naxalite” but slowly,caution seemed to dissipate and I noticed a few nods and fleeting smiles.

Chhattisgarh’s long history of progressive struggles is evident in the many statues of Bhagat Singh and Veer Narayan Singh that dot Raipur. But today fear is in the air. The state is in a brutal fight against Naxalites and even mildly Left political opinion and all criticism of police atrocities is relentlessly crushed.

Dr. Binayak was one who dared to write against the notorious Salwa Judum — a program in which the state has armed and trained a vigilante army of adivasis to fight other adivasis who have joined the Naxalites. The resulting civil war is traumatising the people. Perhaps pointing this out landed Binayak in jail on the trumped-up charge of being a Naxalite. The excuse came when Binayak donned his other hat,that of a physician to the poor. Over three decades Binayak worked amongst the adivasis of Chhattisgarh,virtually as a barefoot doctor. Later he became state secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (founded in 1977 by Jayaprakash Narayan).

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On a prison visit he came across an ailing elderly man Narayan Sanyal,jailed on suspicion of being a Naxalite,and began to treat him. After Binayak’s anti-Salwa Judum reports were published,he was arrested on the charge of carrying letters to and from Sanyal. That every visit involved elaborate jail supervision and frisking seems to be of no consequence to either the local or the Supreme Court both of which have denied Binayak bail without bothering to give reasons.

Filmmaker Ajay TG also found himself behind bars for 3 months simply because he attended Binayak’s trial and because he dared to make a film about Binayak. Police innuendo was that Ajay too was a Naxalite. Mysteriously once Ajay’s case was highlighted nationally he was released without a single charge!

On Monday,Ajay was present as Magsaysay award winner Dr. Sandeep Pandey,trade unionist Thankappan,activists from Bombay,Delhi,Gujarat,Kargil,Kashmir and 35 village activists from Hardoi,UP courted arrest. The police was remarkably gentle and respectful with us. The presence of TV cameras may have helped as also perhaps the bad press the government has been receiving ever since 22 Nobel Prize winners across the globe wrote to the Indian government calling for Binayak’s release.

By late afternoon the satyagrahis were freed. That night,a screening of our film Ram Ke Naam was organised in a workers slum on the outskirts of Raipur. The electricity from the illegal line that lights the basti was woefully inadequate to run the projector. Then someone found a solution. The line to the basti was re-diverted to concentrate power in the projector. Not only did the film run smoothly but our audience expanded as everyone came out of their huts to the only available source of light!

The next morning the trial resumed. At noon Binayak and his co-accused were whisked into court under armed guard. Binayak has shaved off his beard and looks younger than his last photo but the lines on his face have deepened. He seemed really happy to see us old friends and new supporters.

At the trial the police tripped all over themselves under cross-examination. Soon the prosecution asked one of its own star witnesses to withdraw his statement. I didn’t understand the logic but it clearly points to a weakening of their case as their witness couldn’t stand scrutiny. The real shock came towards the end. Binayak told the judge that he was in mortal danger from heart trouble and accused the court of taking no action though he had raised this at the last hearing. A visibly angered judge ejected the accused and the trial ended for the day. Binayak’s wife Ilina confirmed that he has had angina problems since 2004. Is Binayak not entitled to medical treatment of his choice even when he is prepared to bear expenses? If the state cites security issues to deny vital care,only sustained public pressure can help.

So on March 23,the day Bhagat Singh,Rajguru and Sukhdev were martyred,another batch of over 50 people were arrested in Raipur. They included Binayak’s mother,many survivors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984,filmmaker Amar Kanwar and poet Vinay Mahajan. Next Monday a new batch of satyagrahis from various parts of the country will court arrest and so it will continue week after week till it yields results or till India runs out of democratic citizens willing to make the effort to stand by one of the most dedicated doctors and outstanding citizens this country has seen.

The writer is a documentary film-maker

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