Human Rights in India and the Case of Binayak Sen

Satya Sivaraman is an independent journalist, filmmaker and human rights activist based in New Delhi. He is the author of "Asia Sees America and other Rants."


In your article "The Mistrial of Dr. Binayak Sen" you write, "Anyone trying to figure out, after the recent Mumbai attacks, whether India will ever win its war on terrorism should take a close look at a court case currently underway in the central Indian province of Chhattisgarh." Who is Binayak Sen?


Dr. Binayak Sen is a medical doctor who has been working in the province of Chhattisgarh. He’s a graduate of the prestigious Christian Medical College in Vellore, in south India. When he was employed at the one of the top universities in Delhi, he decided to go to this province where there was a very interesting independent trade union movement called the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, where the union leaders, apart from the usual union kind of activities and activism, wanted to also address issues of health, particularly for workers, because the state of public health and public health infrastructure is so poor in many parts of India.


So he went there and he helped set up the Shaheed (Martyrs) Hospital, which became the first hospital run by a trade union in this country. It was low-cost health care for the first time affordable to a lot of people, not just workers but the whole area around the hospital. Shankar Guha Niyogi, the leader of the trade union movement was the visionary behind this whole idea of integrating health care into trade union activities. Health care as in direct intervention in health care; not just demanding that the government give them medical facilities but also actually doing somebody about it hands on. Niyogi was assassinated in 1991 by goons allegedly hired by the owners of the Simplex Group of companies.


So sometime after that Binayak and his wife, Ilina Sen, who is a sociologist, decided to set up their own organization to do work among rural poor, particularly the indigenous tribal communities. Chhattisgarh province was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in the year 2000, largely because it has a significant indigenous community as part of the population. The idea was that it should be sort of a state where special attention is paid to them. The reality is that the politics of Chhattisgarh is dominated by non-tribals who are migrants from other parts of India, mostly from surrounding states. And also, the pattern is similar to the rest of India, where, by and large, upper-caste Hindus dominate everything, from politics to economy to culture. The same is true of Chhattisgarh.


And these indigenous people are called Adivasi.


Yes. To complete what I was saying, Binayak Sen spent maybe over a decade or more running this clinic in a place called Bagrumnala in Raipur district in Chhattisgarh, which is largely a forested area with a large tribal population, and where there is hardly any kind of health care available to the people. He and his colleagues have been running this clinic there and doing some outstanding public health work, because in a country like India, basic infrastructure is missing in rural areas. There are no roads, there is no electricity, there is no drinking water—nutrition is a big problem in many of these areas. So he was doing some outstanding work in terms of actually trying to figure out, how do you deliver health care in a low-cost manner to people who have got absolutely nothing. So people were coming from a radius of around 100 kilometers to his clinic. Every Friday they would be there for various kinds of procedures and diagnoses, and the rest of the week he and his colleagues would be out to the villages and do work there.


It was in the course of this work that he got involved with a variety of other issues, which may or may not seem to be directly related to public health, but in a developing-country situation, or for that matter anywhere, health is not just about human bodies, not just about doctors and hospitals and medicine; it’s ultimately about what kind of society you are. It’s about the politics of your society. It’s about the distribution of resources. It’s about the environmental conditions in which you live. And so many other socioeconomic factors. Dr. Sen obviously figured that out very early.


Bastar district in particular of Chhattisgarh also became the hotbed of rebellion what is called Naxalite or Maoist. The Communist Party of India-Maoist is a far-left organization which believes in armed struggle. It had a bit of strength in that area, which grew in the early part of this decade. They stepped up their activities and immediately came into conflict with a huge range of state and non-state vested interests in that region.


The forest areas of Bastar, like forest areas elsewhere in

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