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Indian Jailbirds

A year on and Dr. Binayak Sen is still being detained in a Chhattisgarh prison. Sen is a public health specialist and national Vice President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.  In April this year, he was conferred the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights.  He is due to receive it at the end of this month.  The Global Health Council was polite in its letter to the President of India and the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh.  ‘Please consider finding the means to allow him to receive his award in person.’

The Chhattisgarh authorities barely stirred.  For them, the good doctor is knee deep in the Naxalist campaign waged by the Communist Party of India (CPI).  In providing medical treatment to Naxalite leader Narayan Sanyal in the Raipur jail, Sen purportedly aided and abetted Sanyal’s ‘anti-national’ activities.   The charges were more than suspect: the meeting had taken place with the full knowledge and permission of the Deputy Superintendent of Police.

With his detention on charges of sedition, Sen joined an assortment of human rights activists who are filling India’s jails.  Journalist and civil rights activist Lachit Bordoloi was arrested in February for his links with the United Liberation Front of Asom.  Praful Jha, a journalist from Chhattisgarh, was arrested in January for alleged links to the CPI.  Ditto Govindan Kutty, editor of the monthly journal People’s March based in Kerala and fellow journalist Prashant Rahi.  Allegations of torture abound.  While India seduces the West with its economic prowess, it is gradually strangling its political dissenters.

The government in New Delhi gives the impression of being under siege.  In some ways, it is.  A spate of bombings over the last few years, the deadliest being the attacks in Jaipur in March, have rattled officials.  In his National Day speech in August 2006, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saw Naxalism and terrorism in general as the two biggest threats to India’s internal stability.  Such threats are being countered with a vigor that is alarming the human rights fraternity.

Anti-insurgency campaigns tend to be fraught with crude euphemisms.  Law makers and law enforcers often resemble a cadre of creative writers: they seek to draft statutes that inculpate rather than clarify; they charge suspects with inventive crimes.  In such a climate, the Indian Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code have been relegated as inconvenient hurdles.

Such campaigns are also characterized by a conspicuous use of ‘irregular’ activity.  If insurgents wage war with cloak and dagger (or in the case of the Naxalites, axes), the authorities will respond in kind.  Enter the civilian militia organization, Salwa Judum, part of Sen’s prison dilemma.

When it first appeared on the Indian political scene in 2005, the group was described as a spontaneous uprising against the Communist Party of India, a manifestation of indigenous (or adivasi) dissatisfaction with Maoist repression. A closer inspection by the PUCL in April 2006 revealed a ‘state-organized anti-insurgency campaign’. Sen has been vocal in condemning it.

With government assistance, ostensibly to combat Maoist insurgents, the Salwa Judum milita has proven its mettle against tribal minorities.  Its violence in Dantewada District within Chhattisgarh is undisputed, a mixture of threats, retaliation and a scorched earth policy.  Tens of thousands of residents have been displaced, relocated to ‘relief camps’.  These are potential deathtraps, given the dearth of amenities.  Authorities underline Maoist excesses and measures – those of the Salwa Judum are hailed as proportionate counter-measures.

The authorities have various legal weapons at their disposal, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (CSPSA), and the particularly brutal Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967.  These have been collectively known as the ‘Black Laws.’ The previous statute covering the subject, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, had been given a pasting by activist groups.  Its abolition in 2004 was cold comfort to reformers.  The legislative debris of POTA was merely absorbed into the ‘Black Laws’ of 2004.

The CSPSA, a creature of the Bharatiya Janata Party, broadened the criminal emphasis on ‘unlawful’, targeting those with tendencies to disrupt public order.  Reportage on supposedly ‘terrorist’ groups and activities is strictly prohibited, so we are none the wiser as to what is actually going on amongst ‘terrorist’ organizations.  The UAPA facilitates lengthy detention periods without trial and a requirement for reasonable evidence.  Secrecy and concealment of government abuses is thereby assured.

Sen’s detention has sparked outrage.  22 Nobel Prize winners have expressed ‘grave concern’ at a jailing which violates the freedoms of opinion, expression and association protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  But many will follow his footsteps as prison benchwarmers.  The catalogue of abuses by the Indian government, at federal and local level, will only grow.  And Sen is unlikely to be Washington on May 29 to receive his award.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.  He can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com.

 

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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