The Arrest of Dr. Binayak Sen – When the State turns Lawless

May 31, 2007

The detention in Raipur of human rights activist Binayak Sen under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (PSA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act has rightly attracted nationwide condemnation from citizens’ groups.

Dr Sen, general secretary of the Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), and the union’s national vice-president, was arrested for his alleged links with banned Maoist groups. The critical allegation against Dr Sen is that he met senior Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal more than 30 times in recent months in the Raipur central jail where he has been detained.

On the very face of it, the charge is utterly preposterous. Dr Sen met Sanyal with the authorities’ knowledge and consent and always in the presence of a jailer. In fact, as a civil liberties activist, it is his legitimate job and function to meet detainees and ensure that their fundamental rights are respected and they are treated in accordance with the due process of law.

Whether he met Sanyal 35 times or 100 times is totally irrelevant so long his visits were permitted by the police.

It speaks poorly of the Chhattisgarh government that it cavalierly levelled defamatory and scandalous charges against an activist-intellectu al of Dr Sen’s standing, who has an illustrious record as a public-spirited paediatrician connected with the people’s health movement.

Dr Sen was involved with the setting up of the Shaheed Hospital, an initiative of the great trade unionist Shankar Guha Niyogi who was murdered at the behest of rapacious industrialists.

The hospital, owned and operated by a workers’ organisation, remains unmatched anywhere in India as a voluntary venture which helps the population of a backward tribal area callously neglected by the state. Dr Sen was on an official advisory committee which drew up one of the most successful community-based primary healthcare programmes in India, based on the Mitanin, the local barefoot health worker.

It’s nobody’s case that Dr Sen is a Naxalite, or a Maoist sympathiser. Everyone who knows him, as this writer has done for many years, will testify to his commitment to peaceful means by which to fight for a compassionate and humane society.

It Is thus all the more infuriating that the Chhattisgarh government arrested him under the draconian PSA. This is one of the most repressive laws of the country, which allows for the prolonged detention of a person on the vaguest of charges, even mere suspicion. The charges include committing acts with a ‘tendency to pose an obstacle to the administration of law’ and actions which ‘encourage(s) the disobedience of the established law’.

Needless to say, this law criminalises even non-violent protests, including Gandhian forms of civil disobedience. It Is nothing short of a disgrace that the PSA remains on India’s statute books even after POTA stands abrogated.

Dr Sen was detained under this law even before the police had obtained a shred of half-way credible evidence against him. Since then, they have searched his house and ransacked his farm on the outskirts of Raipur. They claim to have collected ‘hundreds of incriminating documents’, which include compact disks, pamphlets and other papers.

Now, most of the documents are available in the public domain. The list includes newspaper clippings, CDs on ‘fake encounters’, and letters from victims of State repression, which have since been published in newspapers. A good deal of the impounded material pertains to Dr Sen’s work as a health and civil liberties activist.

Clearly, we are dealing here with malicious police allegations of the same variety as the charges filed in 2002 against The Kashmir Times Delhi bureau chief, Syed Iftikhar Geelani. He too was accused of possessing ‘classified’ documents, suggesting links with secessionist and terrorist groups.

The police were forced to retract all such charges when it was established that all of Geelani’s ‘secret’ documents were obtained from public-domain sources, none even remotely connected with terrorism. Geelani was detained for eight months — and released without apology or explanation.

Similarly, Sen is being harassed because he is a civil liberties activist who has courageously exposed a number of police atrocities. These, remarkably, include 155 ‘encounters’ in Chhattisgarh in two years.

The latest was the cold-blooded murder of 12 Adivasis on March 31 in Bijapur district — which made the headlines even as the public was absorbing the shock from revelations about the ‘encounter’ killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Kausarbi, allegedly by Deputy Inspector General of Police Vanzara and his henchmen in Gujarat.

It would be an even greater injustice if Dr Sen has to languish for months in jail before the ridiculous charges against him are disproved as powerfully as those against Geelani. Surely, our courts have a duty to prevent such miscarriage of justice. Surely, our top politicians and bureaucrats have learned some lessons from the sordid stories of abduction, illegal detention and outright killings committed by trigger-happy policemen all over India.

Surely, it has not escaped the attention of our justice delivery system that draconian laws, which allow preventive detention and forced confessions from the accused, are liable to be — and usually are — misused. They create a climate of impunity, in which no official is ever held accountable for his/her gross misconduct, excesses or cruelty.

It bears recalling that the rate of conviction under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act was less than two per cent. This speaks of gross abuse of the law. The police typically didn’t bother to collect evidence which would help their case stand up. They used TADA (and later POTA) to bung people into jail and extract confessions from them under duress, including threats to liquidate them through ‘encounters’.

Such laws, including the Chhattisgarh PSA, become excuses not to conduct diligent investigations, while claiming impunity and raising alarmist fears about extremism, terrorism and threats to ‘national security’.

The PSA was used in Chhattisgarh four times before Dr Sen’s case — for instance, to arrest a petty shopkeeper for selling groceries to Maoist sympathisers (of whose identity he probably wasn’t aware), and to harass a Class XII student who was in love with a suspected Naxalite. The Chhattisgarh police, true to type, are now planting stories about a ‘close relative’ of Dr Sen’s, who is subversive by virtue of having studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University!

Only a warped khaki brain can think in such illiterate, philistine and irrational ways.

Yet, it is precisely this way of thinking that led the Chhattisgarh government to set up Salwa Judum, a viciously Right-wing band of thugs whose job is to target and kill Maoists. They have razed villages, raped women and looted what little the poor possess — all with police support, complicity or collusion. Salwa Judum has unleashed a reign of terror and inflicted incalculable harm upon ordinary Adivasis. No fewer than 47,000 people have become homeless owing to its depredations.

However, the Chhattisgarh government’s anti-Naxalite juggernaut continues to roll on, causing violence and destruction, setting Advasi against Adivasi, village against village, and bankrupting the State of its authority and legitimacy. The government now plans to use helicopter gunships to intimidate villagers, cut down prime forests to deny sanctuary to the Maoists, and thus repeat the ‘Strategic Hamlets’ strategy of the United States during the Vietnam war. And yes, they plan to use grenades, not just bullets, while fighting Maoists.

There is a larger purpose behind the anti-Naxal operations. Apart from trying to wipe out the Maoists militarily (while causing enormous damage to civilian life and citizens’ freedom), it is to make Chhattisgarh safe for huge mining and industrial projects, which dispossess people en masse, but guarantee super-profits to predatory business houses.

Chhattisgarh is selling its precious mineral wealth cheap to promote neoliberal capitalism. It has signed more than 30 memoranda of understanding with business houses.

The human consequences of such a ‘development’ strategy have become starkly obvious in many states — especially Jharkhand and Orissa, besides Chhattisgarh. In Orissa, there is growing popular resistance to the South Korean company POSCO’s steel plant and the Tata’s steel mill.

Last year began with the gunning down of 13 Adivasis at Kalinga Nagar. The state is bent upon breaking the blockades erected by the people even if that involves bloodshed and wanton destruction.

This insanity must stop. The monstrous mining and steel projects, in which the people have no stake, must not be granted clearances by bypassing environmental and rehabilitation scrutiny under pressure from the top, all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office. Or else, the State will lose all its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Then, the Maoists will have achieved their purpose of discrediting not just the State, but democracy itself.

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The war on Maoists in Chhattisgarh is beginning to turn on civil society, reports Shivam Vij

The large number of protests by the civil society, both in Delhi and Raipur, over the arrest of a Human Rights activist in Raipur is the most significant sign yet of the Chhattisgarh government’s troubles over its policy against Naxalism. While the Intelligence Bureau has asked the Chhattisgarh government to explain why Binayak Sen was arrested, the Union Home ministry is considering cutting down funding for the controversial Salwa Judum project. The Supreme Court, acting in response to a pil, has also issued a notice to the Chhattisgarh government over human rights atrocities committed in the name of Salwa Judum or “peace movement”, which is supported by the government.

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has been bringing to light cases where the police has claimed that it killed Naxalites, when in fact those killed were ordinary tribals whose only fault was that they did not join the Salwa Judum. Such cases are difficult to bring to light because they often take place in the remote interiors and the tribals often do not speak Hindi. The PUCL has been at the forefront of exposing these killings and other activities, wherein entire villages have allegedly been ravaged for not joining the Salwa Judum. Unfortunately for the Chhattisgarh government, the PUCL has been able to rally civil rights groups and the media across the country against the Salwa Judum. The arrest of Binayak Sen on May 14 is a result of this effort to put the truth out, says PUCL Chhattisgarh president Rajendra Sail.

The police also searched Sen’s organic farm without a search warrant in what, Sen and his family feared, was an attempt to plant evidence of Sen’s involvement in Naxalite activities by linking him to a jailed senior CPI (Maoist) leader, Narayan Sanyal. Sen often met Sanyal in jail and exchanged postcards with him, but this was all with the knowledge of jail authorities who were privy to these conversations. The PUCL says that Sen met Sanyal to enquire about his health and help him get medical attention. The immediate cause of Sen’s arrest was letter found with Piyush Guha, a businessman, which was to be handed over to Sanyal. Guha has also been arrested and the police refuses to divulge the contents of the letter.

On May 21, the police searched Sen’s house and is now trying to use whatever they could lay their hands on as evidence. This includes CDs pertaining to five fake encounters, a computer cpu, books and pamphlets by or about Naxalites or Salwa Judum members.

Sen has not been arrested under the ipc or provisions of the crpc, but under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (CSPSA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. The CSPSA, which was passed after pota lapsed, is said to be even more draconian. The Act has a provision that makes punishable verbal or written communication and representation or publication or broadcast of anything relating to Maoist activities. A number of local journalists have been threatened and silenced using these provisions.

Sen’s arrest came just when the Chhattisgarh administration was facing charges of having fake encounters conducted by the Salwa Judum. On March 31, seven tribals were killed in an “encounter” in Santoshpur village. Civil society activists say that the Chhattisgarh Police and Salwa Judum officers took the seven from Ponjer village to Santoshpur to kill them. The police claims they were members of the Sangham, the Naxalite wing composed of local tribals. An autopsy confirmed foul play but the state government has only ordered a police inquiry. Home Minister Ram Vichar Netam has gone on record saying that no action would be taken against the police officials. The police officials investigating the case say that the killings were committed by Naxalites dressed as policemen. However, an anonymously shot video shows the spo sarpanch of Santoshpur spilling the beans (available at ).

It is feared that Sen’s arrest may be followed by arrests of other activists in Raipur. Activists in other parts of the country could also be targetted. In Mumbai, the police have arrested one Arun Ferreira, who wanted to be a priest, for his alleged involvement in Naxalite activities. In February this year, the Union Home ministry was on the verge of acting against overground Naxalite symapthisers including academics and former bureaucrats, for statements they had made in a seminar in Delhi.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has issued a notice to the Chhattisgarh government asking it to explain its support to the Salwa Judum. This was in response to a petition filed by Nandini Sundar, Ramachandra Guha and EAS Sarma demanding an end to government support for the Salwa Judum; an independent inquiry into all killings, rape and arson whether by the Salwa Judum, security forces or Naxalites; registration of FIRs and prosecution of those found guilty; compensation to those affected by the Salwa Judum on the same lines as victims of Naxalites; rehabilitation of those who wish to leave the Salwa Judum; and preventing the state government from appointing minors as Special Police Officers.

But the Salwa Judum may die with a whimper even before the apex court passes a judgement. The Planning Commission, the Tribal Affairs ministry and the Panchayati Raj ministry have requested the Union Home ministry to stop funding the Salwa Judum and divert those funds towards development activities.