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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 16, April 9, 2011

A Case of Conscience - Letter to the Prime Minister

Thursday 14 April 2011

by Shiv Vishwanathan

(This letter was sent sometime ago. But it is being published now as the movement for Dr Binayak Sen’s release is gathering increasing momentum with every passing day.)

Dear Dr Manmohan Singh,

I hope you don’t mind the temerity of this letter. It is written as one scholar to another, one citizen to another. I know you are a PM and people like me may not be influential. However, some things must be said and said clearly.

I was aghast to find that Doctor Binayak Sen has been given a life-term for sedition. Let me put it simply. I think it is an appalling act of injustice and a betrayal of an ethical vision.

The point I wish to make is simple. We do not have to agree with Binayak Sen anymore than we have to agree with Mahasweta Devi or Arundhati Roy or Baba Amte. But these have been voices of conscience. These are people who have cared and healed, given a voice to the voiceless. They represent the essential goodness of our society. They are Indians and outstanding Indians and no nation-state can negate that. I admit that such people are not easy people. They irritate, they agonise over things we take for granted or ignore. They take the ethical to the very core of our lives. Let us be clear. It is not Sen’s ideology that threatens us. It is his ethics, his sense of goodness. We have arrested him because we have arrested that very sense of justice in ourselves.

Sen is a man with courage, a professional doctor with the conviction that healing has to go beyond medicine, that the body cannot heal when the body politic is ill. He is a reminder that health, politics and ethics go together. Another man who said it but a bit differently was Mohandas Gandhi.

Sen is a reminder of the deeper travails of our society. We hate the poor for their poverty. Worse, we hate those who fight for the poor. Somehow it has become a fashion to condemn human rights, to treat activists as fifth columnists, to regard them as fronts for terrorist groups.

A human rights activist has the courage to point out the humus of terror is injustice. Oddly and predictably, people who fight injustice are condemned as terrorists. A human rights activist often has to defend a man he disagrees with, keeping both the activist and the disagreement alive.

The sadness of our state is that its categories have become numb and lifeless. Categories like the nation-state, the idea of security, our sense of territoriality lack a recognition of generosity, the courage, the challenge to categories that dissenters make. Yet the risk the dissenter takes is preferable to the silence that exonerates violence, torture, injustice or genocide. Binayak Sen should be in your Cabinet, Dr Singh, or a member of your development councils, not in jail. A life-giving career cannot be met with a life sentence. Think of your own angst and silent suffering after 1984. You are an honest man, a sensitive man and a gentleman. Think of the slow indifference to justice then.

The word Naxal or Maoist sins less than it is sinned against. It is a term that black-boxes a variety of reactions to violence and injustice. Some of them seek to meet violence with violence, some seek to engage with the roots of violence. Others sympathise quietly with victims of injustice. When was empathy a crime? It is a strange world where to call a man a Naxal sympathiser condemns him as much as the Naxal activist. The word Naxals is also applied to tribals who fight for justice or the activists who fight along with the tribals. To condemn all is to condemn a large part of India. If fighting for justice or caring for an old man is sedition, then the seditious need a Param Vir Chakra, as warriors against injustice, not a life sentence. To punish Sen is not just bad law, it is an act of cowardice. It is odd that it is Sen who believes in the law at the very moment the law condemns him. Both radicalism and the rule of law are human creations and both demand critical scrutiny. It is time for a conversation. A society where those who fight for decency are attacked cannot be a decent society. You are a decent man and a thinker. All I ask is that you think about the case of Binayak Sen. Invite him for tea, listen to him. It will tarnish you or the rule of law. It might show you the yawning gap between law and justice.

Think of it, Mr Prime Minister, that ours is a society that spends more on defending Raja, Radia and Kalmadi than Binayak Sen. The law works for the first three who corrupt the core of our system but fails for Binayak Sen who upholds some of its finest values. Tell me Dr Singh, how long can a society remain sane without confronting such ironies?

Let me frame it in a different way. Today’s sedition might be tomorrow’s axiomatics. We often define as sedition what we can’t understand or can’t stand. It challenges our sense of security, the security of categories. It might be easier to understand Sen’s work within a framework, a spectrum of thought.

Begin with the Arjun Sengupta report on the informal economy. It shows how we have sinned against the life world of hawkers, traders, scavengers, trades which constitute 70 per cent of our economy. Then think of Jairam Ramesh claiming forests are not as renewable as we think and that tribes and forests have a connectivity that we must understand. That shakes up the naïve theory of growth. Then think of Mahasweta showing how tribes have been converted to bonded labour, how mining has corroded our country. Then place Binayak Sen in that spectrum as a doctor and a human rights activist. It is the Chhattisgarh bureaucracy that sounds tyrannical and unreasonable. One realises sedition has become a stick to beat down dissent or to even erase concern for the downtrodden.

To impose a life sentence on Sen is to freeze our own lives of possibility. It is time not just to release Binayak Sen but to honour him and the ideals he worked for. Our democracy for all its bumbling can still rise to the occasion

New Delhi Shiv Viswanathan

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