Notes on a Dirty, Old Man

January 9, 2011

By Kuver Sinha, Sanhati

Dr. Binayak Sen, Kolkata businessman Pijush Guha and alleged Maoist ideologue Narayan Sanyal have recently been sentenced to life in prison by the Second Additional Sessions Judge, Raipur, Chhattisgarh. They have been convicted under Sections 124A and 120B of the Indian Penal Code, pertaining to sedition and conspiracy for sedition, as well as under CSPSA 2005, and UAPA, 1967.

It is not the purpose of the present article to comment upon the trial of Dr. Sen, the evidence accumulated against him, or even his stellar record as a “doctor of the poor” and his political work as a civil liberties activist with the PUCL. References on his political trajectory and social commitment exist in abundance, and have been in circulation for a long time. It is a testament to their self-evident nature that even his detractors think twice before casting aspersions on the seriousness of his social engagement. The fable of the good doctor who surrendered his ticket to material comfort, chose to work with the oppressed, and ultimately ended up in prison leaves very little space for believable or “reasonable” opposition. Opposition, then, has to be articulated through active negation of the major plotlines. It is the purpose of this article to restore the major plotlines to where they belong.

It has been said by some commentators that Binayak Sen’s record of social work has no bearing to the present case. After all, it is not his activities as a doctor of the oppressed, admirable as they may be, that are under trial. Why should altruistic activities absolve anyone of other crimes – are not all citizens equal in the eyes of the law? Does a right cancel a wrong?

This is an astute argument, and would be worthy of consideration if its underlying axiom were correct – that serious social work and persecution are uncorrelated in India. Unfortunately, facts present quite the opposite picture and it would be fair to say that the more social work one does in Chhattisgarh today, the greater the chances of landing up in prison are. As an example one can cite the case of Himanshu Kumar of Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA) – a citizen who spent a good eighteen years doing social work in Dantewada and was hounded out of the area about a year ago, his premises demolished. Kopa Kunjam, a dedicated volunteer who worked with VCA over the years, languishes in jail on murder charges. It is not our purpose to probe whether these charges have substance – such questions have been discussed at length by witnesses and observers from outside. Rather, our purpose is to point out that a strong correlation exists today between social work and incarceration. Under such circumstances, the fact that Sen was a social worker assumes importance in light of his incarceration.

This is not to say that the correlation is absolute, or geographically limited. For example, it has been argued by some commentators that social work of the right kind is laudable – the kind that is “apolitical humanism”. It is only when Sen went beyond that, “crossing boundaries” as it were, that he rightly invited censure under the existing laws of the land. We are not in a position to judge what exactly constitutes “apolitical” social work – but given the framing of the condition, it appears to be defined as the kind that is mandated by the powers that be. It is entirely conceivable that had Sen practiced medicine in a middle-class setting, done mandated charitable work on the side, and not bothered himself about questions that didn’t pertain to him (such as whether the Salwa Judum was legitimate, whether it was abusive, and what it meant for him as a citizen) he would have been left unperturbed, perhaps awarded.

Nor is the correlation between unmandated social work and incarceration solely restricted to Chhattisgarh today. It is common knowledge that good samaritans working for implementation of the laws of the land (such as NREGA, corruption-free public distribution system, minimum wage and working rights, etc.) are very much at the receiving end of violence, harassment, and incarceration throughout India. We will say “samaritans” and not “activists”, because after all “activist” is a dirty word. Such are the times.

Irascible old fogeys will talk about a time when the two were inseparable in the public’s imagination – when freedom fighters, including activists of the CPI, fighting an explicitly political struggle, were all referred to be doing “desher kaaj”. In their perverseness, they will point out that the new nation was careful to lionize “social work” as only that which left unchallenged the credentials of the State as constitutional and democratic. “Activism”, conversely, was consigned to the dustbin of criminality.

“Activists” will argue that there is nothing to be surprised at here – unmandated social work raises structural questions that are always unwelcome. Some among them will go further and substitute the words “social work” for another dirty word – “radical politics”.

But we digress. The charges against Binayak Sen, then, have nothing to do with his social work. In any case, he can always appeal to a higher court, since an excellent and fair legal system exists in this country. When reminded that scandal-ridden elites are roaming scot-free while a poor doctor faces life in prison, some commentators have argued that just because justice has not been served in one case doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be served in another. A wrong and a wrong don’t make a right.

The operative assumption here is that there is a level playing field as far as the legal system is concerned – it works sometimes, and doesn’t work at other times, but the selection is random. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. The legal system of the country works far more efficiently in addressing some themes, and not others. Take a look at this year’s events, for example. It is common knowledge that the Common Wealth Games involved staggering levels of pilferage of public monies. There was the 2G spectrum scandal, which was so staggering that only comparative figures can reveal its scale: it cost the public exchequer more than eight times the entire Central health budget. It is unclear when somebody will be held accountable for such tremendous scams, if at all. Thousands upon thousands of factories pay workers a fraction of their legal dues. Displaced people have never received the compensation legally theirs, for generations. All this is documented, spoken about, if also quickly forgotten by the mandarins. Even a Bhopal judgment is sighed away as a sign of the inherent ineffectiveness of our legal system.

But the legal system is actually not inefficient – it is, in fact, one of the most efficient systems in the world. One just has to look at the right places – for example, at how it deals with perceived political enemies. It is a model of efficiency. The system is so efficient that it can arrest people pre-emptively, for thought-crimes.

Recently, an elderly editor of a legal publication was whisked away from his desk for the sake of public security. Just to make sure that he wouldn’t escape and cause mayhem with his articles, he was denied access to medical care for cancer, and died in prison. The legal system chewed in a criminal and spat out the remains with the precision of the assembly line.

It is a model of perfection – police solve cases within days, pinning every murder to somebody – and the evidence is always perfect. A few miles away from the city, one can find thousands upon thousands of prisoners with the same cases against them – attempted murder, attempted rape. They all share the common trait of being socially engaged, in ways unmandated by the local hegemonies. To use dirtier language, their politics differs from local hegemonies. They are political criminals. And the system works very efficiently in their case.

Some might even say that there is nothing surprising here – ruling classes own the legal system, and use it efficiently against their class enemies, while by definition being immune to its rules. What else can explain the efficiency with which a Sen can be convicted, and the inefficiency with which a Guha Niyogi can be allowed to be murdered without retribution? But that is dirty language. In this age of reason it is the language of ideologues.

There are some commentators who have made the point that Sen was doing good (apolitical) work, but at some point in his career, whether naively or consciously, he drifted to the point of no return. That ultimately his ideological moorings put him with the Maoists. After all, if a person gives up a lucrative career, works among the poor, and speaks out against the erosion of civil liberties in the backwaters of the country, how far can he be from being a Maoist? So goes the logic of the detractors. In the era of the free market, nothing is more suspect than sacrifice.

It appears that social engagement in the country today is the breeding place of rape and murder. Given the incredible number of social and political activists charged with such crimes, one may even argue that people enter such arenas of human activity with the ambition of one day becoming rapists and murderers. Naively or consciously, social engagement inevitably leads to physical crimes. Organized politics is much cleaner – when was the last time an establishment figure was convicted of murder (or say genocide)?

But I digress. Sen was not charged with rape or murder – those are the crimes of the Kopa Kunjams. No – Sen is charged with having drifted into unacceptable politics. For example, by questioning the Salwa Judum, he is perceived to be directly aiding the Maoists, and by extension, working for the creation of a Pol Pot-like regime in the future. In all seriousness, the number of times Binayak Sen and “Pol Pot”, “Communist terror”, “kangaroo courts” etc. have been mentioned in one sentence in recent times makes one feel that Rupanatar, PUCL, health rights, and everything else that Sen has been working on is a cover for that one unshakable aim – the creation of a murderous regime of the future. Such dystopia must be resisted, Rupantar or no Rupantar. As one commentator put it, we all have a choice for what we would like the future to be. Sen made his choice, and he must pay.

Advertisers have long understood that association wins over logic. Every advertisement for a car these days features first a gorgeous model and then, as an afterthought, the vehicle. And so it is with pretty much everything we sell these days, including ideas. Want to delegitimize the peoples’ movements, the NAPMs, the social workers – keep calling them anti-development. After all, the word “development” has already been appropriated – one only needs to associate what one doesn’t like with its antithesis. Never mind joblessness, falling health indices, rising hunger, etc. – all that falls under the category of “logic”. The public has no time these days to look at data, to think about logic. Perceptions and associations are everything.

Want to delegitimize left-wing politics – keep calling it anti-democratic. The word “democratic” has already been won over. We even have a quantified measure of the word. An establishment intellectual recently called one-person-one-vote the most radical tool won over by the people, a tool which cannot be left at the mercy of questioning eyes. That, then, is the basic unit of democracy. Never mind that the party he aligns with maintains one of the most brutal militias in the country – an extra-democratic detail that has been escaping him for the last couple of decades.

India, at least, is a democracy, cautioned another conscientious intellectual when the stone-pelters took to the streets, after a hundred thousand of them had been murdered for the sake of one-person-one-vote. Who knows what politics the savages bring in their wake. Known knowns, we have been instructed, are better than unknown unknowns.

We were advised around 1925 that the first rule of propaganda is that the lie should be colossal, easy to state, and repeated many times. Colossal lies are too big to fail. Repeated many times in an easily memorisable way, they become reflexive truths. Almost a hundred years later, there are a few favourite ones in circulation, all easy to state, all very successful – “Muslims are terrorists”, “Wealth trickles down”, etc. With each passing day, “development” and “democracy” continuously slip away into the laundry list of self-evident truths. Who is a Binayak Sen to fight such slippage?

These are rough times. When entire ideas can be morphed away through associations, a single person called Binayak Sen stands no chance. Fighting for civil liberties has come to be understood as a cover for murder and fundamentalism. The mere mention of human rights sends the middle classes scuttling. The laws which receive the greatest support of the chattering classes and are passed the most quickly are precisely the ones which take away civil liberties. Perhaps because it is not their rights that they are bartering away, safely ensconced as they are. Some, ideologues obviously, would call this “class warfare”.

Who, then, is Binayak Sen to fight a class war? The really provocative among his supporters, so dirty that even sympathisers are embarrassed of them, would locate this as his original sin. The rest follows. When guilt is axiomatic, evidence becomes superfluous.


3 Responses to “Notes on a Dirty, Old Man”

  1. n s chauhan' journalist raipur Says:
    January 14th, 2011 at 03:40

    history never pardons.binayak didnot commit blunder in past.he will come out very soon.he is a great human.

  2. Springmorning Says:
    February 25th, 2011 at 10:44

    Impressive article about the greatest democracy in the world. I like its irony and understatement. I don’t know what the writer is speaking about when he mentions a hundred thousand stonepelters killed.

  3. Dilip Kumar Mahata Says:
    March 30th, 2011 at 02:22

    If you are honest …your life must be sorrowfull…… tears are the indication of honesty and real feelings

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