Behind bars: Supporting tribal rights is his crime
Nine months after the arrest of Binayak Sen, growing public voice against the illegal detention is the only way to save him.
Most of us do not realize that the causes of ill health lie outside the four walls of hospitals and are often beyond the reach of most doctors. Things like lack of food, safe drinking water and unclean living conditions cause ill health. As do social inequalities and an unjust society without human rights. Nowhere is this ill health more obvious than in the case of tribals, women and children among the marginalized. While most doctors prefer treating patients within four walls, paying no attention to the ill health prevailing outside, here is a unique doctor — who paid closer attention to the problems outside the hospital. He even ventured to find solutions by joining hands with the marginalized people in remote and forsaken areas of Chhattisgarh.
To the tribals in the state, Dr Binayak Sen — winner of the Paul Harrison award —needs no introduction but to the world outside, he is MD in pediatrics from the Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore. On one hand, our Union health minister is crying hoarse about the refusal of doctors to work in rural areas. Dr Sen's venture into rural areas, however, has landed him in jail. For the past nine months, the doctor has been languishing in Chhattisgarh jail, despite national and international condemnation by human rights organizations. During this period, Dr Sen has lost 20 kgs of body weight and continues to ail from heart problems. The only crime he committed was to work for the rights of tribal people, who fell victims to the state sponsored programme called Salwa Judum.
The Chhattisgarh police arrested Dr Sen on May 14, 2007. He was then sent to Raipur Central Jail under state and national laws — the Chattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA), 2005 and the Unlawful Activities Act (UAPA), 2004. Amidst painful delays in legal proceedings, Dr Sen's bail petition was rejected by the high court on July 23, 2007 and by the Supreme Court on December 12, 2007. His application for parole to receive the Keithan gold medal awarded to him in December 2007 by the Indian Academy of Social Sciences was also rejected on technical grounds.
Dr Sen's association with Chhattisgarh dates back to 1981, when he started to work with a trade union leader, Shankar Guha Niyogi, at Dalli-Rajhara. Along with trade union work, he helped establish the Shaheed Hospital at Dalli-Rajhara in 1982. Thus was born a hospital, where the very people who built it where able to use its facilities.
This pioneering effort by workers to build and run their own hospital and healthcare for trade union workers and tribals has become a model for effective and low-cost healthcare (general and special) for the marginalized. Later in 1994, he and his wife set up an NGO Rupantar in order to provide medical and healthcare facilities for the poor. He got active with the PUCL — People's Union for Civil Liberties, an organization initiated by Jaiprakash Narayan. According to PUCL, since 2005 the Chhattisgarh government has a growing record of "crimes against humanity", using excessive and unwarranted police power in the name of resolving the Naxalite problem. The organization has been campaigning against Salwa Judum. In particular, they want the state to account for the 155 fake encounters that took place during 2005-2006.
They have been demanding investigation into killings and other illegal acts by the so-called Salwa Judum movement in connivance with the state police. The state realized that the only way to stop PUCL from exposing its illegal activities is to put Dr Sen behind bars. When some of us met Dr Sen recently in jail, he remarked, "Let us not personalize my arrest, but focus on the wider issues". Lack of development, erosion of nutritional security and the impact on public health of corporate-led industrialization, are the issues he wanted to be highlighted.
The state has failed to get any hard evidence to incriminate Dr Sen, but that hasn't stopped Dr Sen from decaying in jail. The only way to save him is more voice of people against his arrest. Those interested to join the cry can click on http://www.freebinayaksen.org.
By Gopal Dabade
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