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'Military solution neither valid nor sustainable'

Nov 26, 2008

Dr Binayak Sen, a prominent Indian civil rights activist continues to languish in jail since his arrest in May last year on charges of links with Maoists. His wife Ilina Sen talks to OneWorld South Asia about the current status of his trial and ways to bringing enduring peace.

For over 25 years, Dr Binayak Sen, a paediatrician and the national vice-president of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has served the tribals of Chhattisgarh. He was even a member of the State Advisory Committee on Health Sector Reforms in the Congress government.

He was critical of the government and its handling of the Maoist insurgency in the state and drew attention to the widespread human rights violations in which the Salwa Judum (Peace Movement), a self-proclaimed armed vigilante group supported by the government, allegedly had a hand.

In 2005, he led a team that investigated and published a report on the activities of Salwa Judum. Although he took up cases of Maoist prisoners among others and on several occasions organised legal aid for them, he never believed in the Maoist ideology and opposed violence in any form.

In May 2007, Dr Sen was arrested on charges of having links with Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh. His bail application was rejected and he continues to remain in prison. In an e-mail interview to OneWorld South Asia, his wife Ilina Sen tells us about the case and the impact of the recent assembly polls in the state.

Here are the excerpts:

OWSA: It's over a year since Dr Binayak Sen was arrested. Can you tell us where the case now stands?

Ilina Sen: The trial actually began in April 2008, after many hiccups. To date, 29 witnesses have been examined and the remaining are mainly procedural witnesses, that is, witnesses to seizures, arrests, etc. So in material terms, there is very little left. We have applied for bail to the Chhattisgarh High Court, and it has not been listed for hearing in over two months, which is a shame.

OWSA: There were reports of tampering of evidence. What exactly happened?

Ilina Sen: On 29 July, Shyam Sunder Rao, the prosecution witness to the search and seizure conducted at our house was examined. The items included newspaper and web-based articles on diverse subjects including jail reform, the Naxal movement, and American imperialism from journals like Economic and Political Weekly. Also seized was the CPU of his computer.

The Andhra Pradesh Forensic Science Laboratories’ report shows no incriminating material was found in the CPU upon examination; a postcard addressed to Binayak from Narayan Sanyal (the Maoist ideologue) duly sent through the jail authorities and related to his medical treatment/ legal defence was also among the seized documents. Another letter, which had come through post from an inmate of Bilaspur Jail, described the deplorable conditions in the jail. This had no criminal or personal significance. A total of 10 such items were listed in the seizure memo.

When witness Shyam Sunder Rao was examined and the seized items were opened in Court a total of 11 instead of 10 items were discovered. The 11th item was a photocopied letter from the Communist Party of India (Maoist) addressed to Binayak thanking him for all the assistance he had provided. The ten items legally searched for and seized had the signature of the witness, the Investigating Officer and Binayak. This particular letter had no signature of Dr Sen, found no mention in the seizure memo and was not a part of the original chargesheet.

Confronted with this evidence for the first time, Binayak’s lawyer Mahendra Dubey raised an objection to allowing this letter to be exhibited and included as evidence. However, this objection was not recorded in the statement recorded by the Court. During cross-examination, the witness was asked about the alleged letter. He had no plausible explanation regarding its presence when it was not mentioned in the seizure memo.

OWSA: Three courts have denied Dr Sen's bail. How come?

Ilina Sen: Courts are human institutions, not divine, and any human institution is bound to have been affected by the massive disinformation campaign that the police let lose against Binayak, the so called psy war.

In the case of the Supreme Court, the bail petition was rejected in a one liner with no reasons given. I believe recent Supreme Court ruling calls for the judgement to be adequately explained.

OWSA: Dr Sen and you have been on the Chhattisgarh government's health advisory board and other bodies. And now the government seems to have unleashed its fangs on you.

Ilina Sen: We worked with the state closely in the previous government. This government has packed all civil society spaces with people whose views are closer to theirs.

OWSA: Ajit Jogi, the Congress chief ministerial candidate has gone on record saying that if the Congress comes to power, they will disband the Salwa Judum.

Ilina Sen: I think it would be a very good thing.

OWSA: How often do you get to see him? Can you describe the conditions under which he is living?

Ilina Sen: The prison conditions are extremely poor but he is not in the worst condition than thousands of others. He was put in a solitary cell for about a month in March, but that was quickly withdrawn in response to widespread protest. I get to see him about once every week. I believe he spends his time reading and exercising.

OWSA: What was it that led Dr Sen and you to Chhattisgarh?

Ilina Sen: We both spent large parts of our childhood in undivided Madhya Pradesh so this was the natural place to come when Binayak decided to work in the area of primary healthcare. Before Chhattisgarh, he worked for a while in Hoshangabad in a Gandhian-Quaker institution. I suppose a radical Gandhian influence was always central to him. As for myself, my trajectory was a little different. I have always combined my academic interests with my activism.

OWSA: What are the major developmental challenges and changes that you've observed in your years of work in the region?

Ilina Sen: The resource-rich region of Chhattisgarh has attracted finance capital and rapid-fire development after the creation of the new state, often at the cost of sustainability, and often in violation of people’s rights to informed discussion, consent or dissent. Earlier, Chhattisgarh was a forgotten corner of Madhya Pradesh. Today, it is at the centre of the development debate.

OWSA: Tell us about the problem in South Bastar and your ideas of a resolution.

Ilina Sen: South Bastar is characterised by infinitude of chronic deprivation along with a complete absence of political discourse. We have on the one hand, the Salwa Judum, which the government dishonestly tries to characterise as a ‘people’s response to Maoism’, and on the other, a purely military engagement between the state-based forces and the Maoists, which acts as a proxy to a political discourse. Both parties to this engagement deliberately ignore the fact that a purely military solution, imposed by either party, even if it were possible, would neither be valid nor sustainable.

The first and most urgent necessity is the establishment of an institutional forum for political engagement without preconditions. The purpose of this forum would not be to search for solutions, but rather to concentrate on the identification and recognition of participants in the forum, and the elaboration of an agenda as well as the guarantees necessary for the forum to conduct its business, i.e., talks about talks.

Once this institutional mechanism is in place, it would undertake, a specific series of measures directed at relieving the humanitarian situation on the ground. As an immediate priority, the problems to be addressed would include food and water, shelter and livelihood, healthcare and transport and infrastructure.

This body should also be in a position to restore citizenship records and voter rights. Widespread displacement and population dislocation have made this a critical issue at this particular time. Transparent mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that citizenship rights are preserved and entitlements to democratic decision making ensured.

It would not be possible or practicable to wait until full restoration of normalcy in all the above parameters is achieved. However, significant progress in a forward direction, that demonstrates the their commitment to peace and political discourse, will have to precede the negotiations before they move towards full demilitarisation. It is our belief that significant progress towards a ceasefire and eventual demilitarisation can only take place when the ordinary people have a stake in the maintenance of the peace.

OWSA: Where does the movement for Dr Sen's release stand?

Ilina Sen: The campaign continues at varying pace and intensity. There is some talk of building a sustained campaign again around December 10, the International Human Rights day.

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