On the 25th of May 2009, Dr. Binayak Sen, a human rights activist, award winning pediatrician and national vice president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) was finally granted bail by the Supreme Court after having been arbitrarily arrested and incarcerated for two years in the Raipur Central Jail. While the grant of bail for him has received media attention, unfortunately there is very little awareness regarding the circumstances of his arrest, detention, and the gross injustice behind the entire case.
Dr. Binayak Sen has helped set up a hospital in the poor areas of Chhattisgarh, and is also the founder of an NGO which works on health, alcohol, and women related issues in the rural districts. He is noted for extending healthcare to the poorest of the poor, and works with tribals and inmates of various jails.
About two years ago, he was accused of passing letters from a detained Naxalite leader whom he had been treating in jail, and arrested under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. This Act has widely been denounced as a draconian law which gives sweeping powers to the State, as it enables the authorities to arbitrarily arrest and detain individuals, and seek punishment on unclear grounds.
He was repeatedly denied bail by the trial court and High court, without furnishing any reason for the denial of bail. Regrettably, even the Supreme Court rejected his special leave petition for bail in December 2007. This was despite the fact that the charges against him were so far unproven; some of the witnesses meant to depose against him were declared hostile, others were dropped, and the remaining witnesses failed to provide evidence for the case of the prosecution.
Besides, there were no valid grounds for the denial of bail. Two reasons why bail may be denied are if the accused is a flight risk, or if there is a fear that the under trial may try to influence witnesses. Both these reasons were invalid: Dr. Sen had at the outset turned himself in when he heard that the Chhattisgarh authorities were looking for him; and there were no more witnesses left. Moreover, he is a heart patient who was deliberately being denied proper medical care at the facility of his choice, and the authorities ignored his pleas for treatment and help.
Why was he imprisoned when it was evident that the charges leveled against him were unsubstantiated and unproven? It is widely believed that Dr. Sen’s imprisonment is a result of his outspoken criticism of the practice of Salwa Judum.
Salwa Judum is a movement supported by the Chhattisgarh State authorities that aims to ‘solve’ the problem of Naxalism by arming non state actors. The movement has resulted in a mass displacement of tribals of the Bastar region, moving them en masse into camps. Thousands of people are now refugees in temporary camps, living in miserable conditions. These displacements are reported to have been accompanied by violence, rape, and ‘encounters’, all in an effort by the government to isolate the Maoists.
The State has claimed that these displacements are voluntarily taken up by the tribals themselves, but all evidence points to the fact that it is the State which is forcing people to shift under deplorable conditions. The State Government is also known for attempting to stop journalists from coming out with the truth.
In the months preceding his arrest, Dr. Sen had spoken out against the practice of Salwa Judum, saying that it was a ‘process in which hundreds of villages have been denuded of the people living in them and hundreds of people – men and women – have been killed’. He attempted to draw attention to the human rights violations in the State with regard not only to Salwa Judum, but also to other forced land acquisitions. It can hardly be doubted that his arrest and prolonged detention in jail was a way for the State to ‘punish’ him for his criticism of them.
There were worldwide protests against Dr. Sen’s arrest, with human rights organisations condemning the State. Many eminent doctors and scientists spoke out in favour of him being released as soon as possible. Amnesty International also called for a release of Dr. Sen, saying that the charges against him were baseless and politically motivated, and his continued detention is a breach of international law.
Even now, after his long delayed release, Dr. Sen has been cautioned against specific threats to his life by the Chhattisgarh government.
How was the practice of Salwa Judum allowed to continue in the first place, when it is clearly infringing upon the rights of the people? Why was Dr. Binayak Sen imprisoned for so long, when everybody was aware that the charges against him were false, and unproven? Why has the State been allowed to become despotic, and pass laws which do not conform to the principles of criminal justice? And how did the judiciary, which is supposed to be the impartial harbinger of justice fail to provide bail in this case? Awareness and debate on these issues urgently needs to be generated, so that we do not make the same mistakes again.
It is highly disturbing and frightening to think of the State itself as a possible perpetuator of terror. The ideals of democracy, justice, of fair and just trial to all were quashed in the case of Dr. Binayak Sen.