Outcry over 'saintly' doctor jailed for aiding Maoist rebels

Binayak Sen was given life with hard labour, but his supporters say the evidence against him was fabricated. Andrew Buncombe reports

To the tribal people of this part of central India, Dr Binayak Sen is little less than a deity, a qualified doctor who turned his back on a life of ease and devoted his years to helping those with nothing. He set up a clinic deep in the jungle, distributed food and worked tirelessly as a defender of human rights.

Yet the authorities in Chhattisgarh believe the doctor is a public enemy with few equals. He is someone, they say, who conspired with leftist rebels who sought to undermine the very foundations of the Indian state. In late December, after a trial that lasted more than two years, the doctor was found guilty of sedition, a draconian charge dating to the days of British colonial rule, and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour.

The conviction of the 61-year-old reverberated sharply and received widespread condemnation from people who said the case highlighted the limitations of dissent in a country where free speech is celebrated and supposedly protected by the constitution. His supporters say the evidence against him was fabricated and that he was made an example of because he had highlighted atrocities carried out against tribal people who were deemed to be standing in the way of development.

Now, a group led by Sen's wife, Ilina, is trying to overturn the conviction and have the doctor released from his maximum-security cell. The first test will come on Wednesday, when his legal team, which includes one of the country's most high-profile lawyers, will ask a court to grant him bail. Across India, activists, the legal community as well as the authorities, will be watching what has become a landmark case. "It was such a vicious and vengeful sentence. Gandhi was only sentenced to three years [when he was convicted of sedition]," said his wife, herself a physician who worked beside her husband. "It was a sad day for me, my family and for the state of India's constitution."

Ganga Nand and his family have no doubts about Binayak Sen. Today, the 18-year-old is a healthy young man who works beside his father in the fields surrounding Bagrumnala. But as a child, he was constantly getting ill, had no energy and failed to keep up with his friends when they ran and played. It was Sen who suspected the boy might have a faulty heart and who accompanied the family to Delhi where he had arranged for the boy to undergo surgery. It was he who paid for the operation and counselled Ganga's anxious parents, reassuring them that everything would work out.

"I was always coughing and getting a fever. Last year I left school and now I am working," he said, unbuttoning a pale blue shirt to reveal the ridged scars left by his surgery. "Dr Sen is an extraordinary man, maybe like a god. I hope he gets bail. I feel so bad. What they have done is wrong."

Ganga's mother, Prem Bai, was among a number of villagers who protested when the doctor was first charged. "We don't know why he was arrested but we do know he was a good man – Dr Ilina too. Now the clinic feels lonely."

There are many similar testimonials in this village, set amid quiet forest three hours south of Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh, stories of people whom the Sens helped treat for diabetes and fevers in the simple clinic with whitewashed walls and a red-tiled roof they established in 1995. Villagers recall how the doctors and an NGO they ran distributed free food, built a school and gave health advice to villagers from more than 30 miles around.

They are unsure precisely why a top-ranking graduate of the celebrated Christian Medical College in Vellore would wish to bring his wife to work in a jungle where malnutrition and malaria were rife and where there was not even electricity. But they are glad that he did. "After he was sent to jail, many villagers were crying," said another farmer, Bisau Ram, as chickens pecked in the dirt and the school bell clanged.

During his time in the jungle, Binayak Sen did more than work as a doctor. As a senior member of the state chapter of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a respected organisation founded during the dark months of Indira Gandhi's state of emergency, he was outspoken in his defence of the rights of tribal people. In particular, he highlighted atrocities committed by police and paramilitaries involved in operations against Maoist rebels, or Naxalites, who had established strongholds in the south of the state.

One of the PUCL's most damning reports concerned the so-called Salwa Judum, an anti-Naxal militia that the authorities claimed was a grass-roots response to the rebels but which the campaigners said was in truth funded and organised by the state. The report on the PUCL was entitled "Where the state makes war on its own people". Highlighting the poverty, repression and hardship endured by the tribal people in southern Chhattisgarh, it concluded: "There is the conspicuous absence of any attempt by the government to understand the context of what are the genuine problems of the people of the region, and why and how Maoists took roots here."

Yet the state authorities claim Sen did more than simply campaign for the rights of tribal people in "Naxal-infested" areas; they allege he assisted the rebels. In particular, they said that while visiting a senior Naxal leader in jail for the PUCL, Sen passed on messages to his followers. In 2007, the doctor was arrested and charged with sedition under section 124A of the Indian penal code, which prohibits any action that may cause "hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection", towards the government.

The decision to charge Sen with sedition was authorised by Chhattisgarh's police chief, Vishwa Ranjan, a man with a talent for poetry, a passion for history and a professed commitment to the constitution, despite his habit of chain-smoking in his office in defiance of a ban on smoking in public places. Mr Ranjan is also the author of Project Green Hunt, a controversial anti-Naxal operation in Chhattisgarh that he claims has been successful in countering the rebels, despite setbacks such as last year's ambush of paramilitaries in which 75 troops lost their lives. He said the Naxals deserved their description by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the country's largest internal security threat because they alone sought the destruction of the state.

Asked if he believed Sen was a Naxal, he said: "If a person is a supporter of a politburo member of the Maoists.... People say Binayak Sen cannot be a Naxal because he is a social worker, but people are multi-faceted. I would not be surprised if a person who is a very good social worker can also be a Naxal. Man is very complex. I would not have charge-sheeted him [if there was not the evidence]. I have to be satisfied there is prima facie evidence. That is where my job stops."

Campaigners were appalled at the doctor's conviction. His legal team questioned the prosecution evidence, which depended a lot on uncorroborated testimony from police officers. They also said even if the evidence had been genuine, it did not warrant a charge of sedition; in 1962, the country's Supreme Court ruled that for someone to be found guilty of sedition they had to have incited violence, something Sen is not accused of. "The accusation [of sedition] is so absurd," said Ram Jethmalani, a veteran lawyer and member of the upper chamber of India's parliament who is spearheading the appeal. "The judge did not know the meaning of the word sedition. Ultimately I have no doubt this conviction will be set aside."

The case against the 2008 winner of the Jonathan Mann Award for health rights, has re-sparked heated debate in India about the way in which tribal land is being seized for development by private corporations, sometimes in apparently illegal circumstances. It has also led some to question the country's commitment to defending free speech on the most sensitive of issues, such as Kashmir and Naxalism. Police in Delhi investigated possible sedition charges against the writer Arundhati Roy and others last year after she questioned whether Kashmir had historically been an "integral" part of India. The inquiry was eventually dropped. Other intellectuals have been arrested and harassed. "Peacefully speaking out against human rights violations is at the heart of free speech, not sedition," said Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch. "The repeated misuse of the sedition law should be brought to a stop."

Activists in Chhattisgarh, where officials dismiss international condemnation of Sen's conviction as complaints by people who "do not even know how to spell Chhattisgarh", say his arrest and prosecution follows a pattern. Campaigners have recently compiled a list for the UN Special Rapporteur of many activists there who have been harassed or arrested. Journalists have suffered harassment, intimidation and even death threats.

Some have been forced to flee for their lives. Himanshu Kumar, a rights activist who ran a project helping tribal people in southern Chhattisgarh, left last summer after his premises were demolished. "The authorities are not following any rules or laws and they don't want anyone from outside to highlight it," he recently said, opening the door to his apartment in a tower block on the fringes of Delhi that is now home to him and family. "Dr Sen was never a Naxal."

As the doctor's legal team prepares its case for this week, Sen's wife is anxious. During almost 30 years working together for human rights, first with trade unionists and later with the tribal people, she said they never felt they had made the wrong choice. It was, she said, "a rich experience".

Now she is bitterly worried about her husband, and how he will manage if the appeal process is dragged out. "At the moment, he is managing [to keep busy] with his books and by working on the case. But if this settles into a long haul then it will be much more difficult. It will be hard to keep his morale up," she said. Dr Sen said her husband was confined to a small cell, and was allowed out for just a couple of hours a day. News of his case was blacked out of any newspaper he received and he was allowed one visitor every 15 days. "It's very hard to survive in those conditions."

The Maoist threat

India's Maoist insurgency dates back four decades, has cost thousands of lives and is active in a third of the country's 600 districts. And yet the rebels that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described as the nation's biggest internal security threat receive minimal international attention.

The rebels, also known as the Naxalites because of their involvement in an armed uprising in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari in 1967, make clear their desire to overthrow the Indian state. Across a swathe of central and eastern India, the rebels are active in a so-called "Red Corridor" that stretches from Orissa to Andhra Pradesh.

The Maoists' hardcore members are often urban intellectuals, from several cities in the south. Yet they draw support and membership – sometimes forcibly so – from tribal communities, who have long been neglected by the central authorities. Development has seen increasing confrontations as tribal land is acquired for industrial or mining projects, the Naxals have presented themselves as defenders of tribal rights.

While some efforts have been made to negotiate with the Maoists, the authorities have increasingly responded with force and brutality.

There have been many allegations of so-called fake encounters, with innocent tribal people being killed. These operations have also seen a crack-down on human rights defenders and activists, who are often labelled Maoist "sympathisers" in an apparent attempt to stifle dissent.

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