There is almost a mythic power in the spectacle of India going to the polls. Just the number of people going to the booths in every corner of the country, the gigantic scale of the organization, the numerous political parties — all add up to a fascinating and undoubtedly significant exercise in democracy. Especially now, with the civilian governments in countries around India gasping for life, or turning into ruthless victory-mongers at the expense of minority populations. Within India, too, tragedies stalk the exercise of the people’s franchise. In the mythic perspective, these endow India’s general elections with something akin to a noble aura.
The last day of this magnificent exercise will also be the day on which Binayak Sen completes two years in prison. The doctor, who has for years been treating adivasis in the poorest and least developed areas of Chhattisgarh, has been repeatedly refused bail, although on May 4 this year the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Chhattisgarh government to provide him with “the best possible medical aid”. Sen is seriously at risk from cardiac problems and has reportedly said in open court that he may get a heart attack any time. To be fair to the Chhattisgarh government, it is willing to offer its hospital facilities to the prisoner. But their prisoner insists on being treated in his old medical college in Vellore. Although he is within the law in choosing his place of treatment, the state government does not see why it should comply.
Worse, his wife, Ilina Sen, has been telling the world exactly what the Sens and their friends fear — that Binayak may not leave a Chhattisgarh hospital alive. Ilina has carefully documented the sequence of events since his application for medical treatment, and recorded her use of the Right to Information Act to find out what means the government used to make the denial of her husband’s request official. At the end, she writes: “Under these circumstances, Binayak is absolutely right to fear that his life may be in danger in any facility controlled by the state in Chhattisgarh.”
No doubt the chief minister of Chhattisgarh would consider this a wife’s paranoia, since according to him, in “the lanes and by-lanes of Chhattisgarh [Sen] is a non-issue”. Faced with demands for his release, the Union home minister has reportedly said that the Centre cannot do much, since Chhattisgarh has a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government. That does make Binayak Sen into a “non-issue”, a mere object of political balancing acts, of reductive reasoning — or conditioned unreason — that has, in the 62 years since Independence, lost all touch with the desire for justice, equity and human rights which must have once inspired the democracy now going so studiously, so spectacularly, to the polls.
With Binayak Sen, we touch the dark heart of India’s democratic glory. Amid the terrors that reside in that secret place, one of the keenest is the fact that today very few thinking people in India are unaware of who he is, and how much he has achieved in his life before prison. But even the world’s knowledge of what true courage means, what it is to be just, to stand up to all forms of violence — particularly that against the poor, what legal procedure is, how State repression works, has made no difference to Sen’s incarceration.
Last Friday, a group of British members of parliament signed a resolution expressing concern at Sen’s continued detention under “politically motivated and trumped-up” charges, the delay in giving him a fair trial, the denial of his constitutional right to bail and his state of health “due to lack of appropriate medical care”. It asked for the prime minister’s intervention. They are not the first. In April this year, a former Supreme Court judge wrote to the prime minister, saying that the case against Sen should have been dismissed by now, or he should have at least got bail, since the hearings have not thrown up “a shred of evidence” against him.
Earlier, a statement by Noam Chomsky and many others had expressed distress at the grave injustice being done, and asked that Sen be released. Scholars, doctors, lawyers, activists within and outside India have condemned Sen’s imprisonment (part of which was in solitary confinement for no given reason); they have been organizing protests, and constantly writing to the Chhattisgarh chief minister, the president and the prime minister to free the doctor. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties, of which Sen is the general secretary, has been running a ceaseless campaign for justice. Amnesty International has called his arrest “manifest evidence of an increasing trend worldwide to silence peaceful dissent by imprisoning lawful humanitarian activists on charges of terrorism”.