The man who stood for quiet contemporary dissent has been offered a swivel chair. It could be an olive branch wrapped in poison ivy. What is worse than the government’s offer of an advisory role in the Planning Commission ? with its history of being a white elephant ? is Binayak Sen’s acceptance of it.
Both the Central government and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) are arguing that this post is only an extension of what Dr. Sen has been doing all along. This is true, but it is an uncomfortable situation not relegated to what one man has done or not done. He was arrested on May 14, 2007 for conspiracy, for war against the state and treason, and for being a member of a banned organisation ? the CPI (M). A 1000-page chargesheet deemed him to be anti-national and slapped sedition charges against him for possession of Naxalite literature. Last year he was awarded a life sentence based on skeletal evidence.
Chhattisgarh’s Chief Minister Raman Singh, reacting to the Sen appointment, said, "He has not been absolved of the charges by the court, but just given bail. Is there such a dearth of experts in the country that the Centre had to take the advice of a person accused of sedition? The people of Chhattisgarh do not approve of this."
Much as I understand that he has political motives, the sudden change in attitude does need to be probed. This is beyond the BJP feeling victimised or even stating, "The government must ask itself what is the tradition it is trying to establish by Sen’s appointment and whether it is good for democracy and the whole federal structure". It is about how by using the same law books, there is a play of semantics to suit different establishments.
The 12th Planning Commission has included him on the steering committee that will deal with malnutrition, infant and maternal mortality in the rural and tribal areas. After 30 years doing this work, he is now considered among the "best brains". One would have to be foolish to buy into the anointment of his "expertise". The Centre had not intervened even once when the trial was on.
Later, on an appeal, the Supreme Court dismissed the trial court’s verdict: "We are a democratic country. We must draw a line. He might be a sympathiser. But it does not amount to sedition. We are going on admitted facts as per prosecution case. Does it connect him with Naxalite violence? Does it mean he has committed sedition?"
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The foundation for the current co-opting of Dr. Sen was laid when Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who has led the battle against the Naxalites, had said, "I am happy to know Sen has got bail. I have always believed if one is not satisfied with a lower court order, one can get reprieve by approaching a higher court".
This is democratic in principle. How many people have recourse to such options? It also leads us to the important question about the fate of those falsely convicted who are languishing in prison. How many of them will get such opportunities? Most of us have not believed the charges against Dr. Sen, but this can set a bad precedent. It could also legally legitimise real criminals who contest elections.
His response has been one of elation: "I am very happy to get this information… I will surely attend the first meeting of the committee. I will like to bring on board and work for ensuring further equity in health-related issues for deprived communities."
The government is using him for two reasons: One, to send out soft feelers for electoral purposes that it is not against tribals and not all tribals are Maoists and not all Maoists are bad. After his bail, the Supreme Court even allowed him to visit Red areas, thereby giving the benefit of doubt to the people there and the possibility that they cannot be implicated by association. Two, he is an international star and the Planning Commission is dealing with health issues and needs a global forum to sell its poverty. One does not expect better from the establishment.
What prompted his acceptance? Does he, a maverick who went it alone, not understand that there is nothing like a free lunch in politics? Does he like any individual seek to be free of any allusion to his treason? Will he alter his ideology, and it will surely be compromised when he has to sit with bureaucrats who might not see the issues the way he sees them?
I am surprised that the PUCL that has thus far been steadfast and committed to counteracting every charge is also pleased with this announcement. It is an organisation that has dealt with several human rights issues. What if someone else, not from a leftist banner of thinking, had been offered a position when the rightwing party was in power?
There is indeed some hierarchy involved and not just due to the fact that Nobel laureates had petitioned the government against the charges. It is how we need to see Naxalism as not mere dissent but as a political movement with its own political compulsions and motives.
There is an almost smirking attitude towards the Kashmiri movement because it has not been intellectualised and has an outside element factored into it. It also does not lend itself to romanticisation.
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The first images I was exposed to were of blood stains on gritty walls in the streets of what was still called Calcutta. It was dark and we refused to blink as we wanted to miss nothing. As it turned out, we could have shut our eyes and the same images would assail us. This was cinema verite and as part of the serious film festival clique it was mandatory to watch the clock tick. Naxalbari had become the hotbed, but in the languorous manner that Bengal so enjoys it reached its shores years after the uprising of farm labour in parts of the Southern regions of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and even Tamil Nadu. It slowly spread towards the east and some parts of the western regions. It was not a battle against the government or the corporate sector; it was against the rich farmers or estate owners.
Is Naxalism today more an extremist movement rather than a fight for tribal rights? There were reports that two Naxal women had come to Mumbai. The urbanisation is not new, except that it is now the other way round. Most of the Maoist leaders and spokespersons are from the educated and elite class; their protest has been in the addas, holed up in corners and coffee houses arguing polemics. It is only natural that they became the voices for the poor, bonded to land and survival, have none.
You run through a roster of the big names and institutions like the JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) figure prominently. The 70s was the period where university students developed ideas about liberation. Interestingly, this was pre-Emergency. People like Kobad Ghandy had studied with Sanjay Gandhi in the posh Doon School. They were busy making posters and sticking them on the walls of Delhi. They stayed up late at night smoking beedis, drinking cheap alcohol and indulging in some sort of orgy or the other. There were no strings attached to any other aspect of their lives; they were committed only to nightfall and paper wars. In the morning they’d wake up in soft beds and drink orange juice. It was a schizophrenic existence.
After acquiring degrees most went on with their professional lives to become part of establishment-like professions, often behind the very walls they had pasted those posters on. Others decided to take the road that led to the interiors. Binayak Sen was one of them. He may not have been a ‘poster’ boy then, but he has become one now. First for those fighting against the sedition charges; now for those who think he is an asset. Neither of these should be taken at face value, but his not being a traitor does not mean he has to be the man the system can command at will.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man’, the protagonist experiences a profound introspective dream that exemplifies the situation Sen is in: "I knew that it had something like a human face. Strange to say, I did not like that being, in fact I felt an intense aversion for it. I had expected complete non-existence, and that was why I had put a bullet through my heart. And here I was in the hands of a creature not human, of course, but yet living, existing. ‘And so there is life beyond the grave,’ I thought with the strange frivolity one has in dreams. But in its inmost depth my heart remained unchanged. ‘And if I have got to exist again,’ I thought, ‘and live once more under the control of some irresistible power, I won’t be vanquished and humiliated’."
Binayak Sen is now answerable to a faceless being. This is the dissent of the system. Paint over blood stains.
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/