We are a cowardly elite


When truth is imprisoned and men reign over the law, India should stir up a storm, not watch unfazed

Aseem Shrivastava

Aseem Shrivastava

A FAMOUS STORY links two great Americans. When the United States invaded Mexico in 1846, Henry Thoreau, the great naturalist, refused to pay his taxes in an act of civil disobedience against the US and was sent to prison. His close friend and mentor from Harvard, Ralph Waldo Emerson came to see him in jail. Emerson quipped, “What are you doing inside?” The reply made Emerson blush. “What are you doing outside?” asked Thoreau.

Truth Trapped (above) On 2 February, 2008, Sen was taken in a police van to Raipur’s sessions court
Truth Trapped On 2 February, 2008, Sen was taken in a police van to Raipur’s sessions court
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Dr Binayak Sen, one of India’s noblest doctors, imprisoned by a cowardly Chhattisgarh administration because he exposed their crimes, might well speak to us in the manner of Thoreau were we to visit him. On May 14 it will be exactly two years since his unlawful arrest. There are times when jails become one of the few places of honour left in the world. After all, where would you like to find yourself if robbers and murderers were masquerading before the public as magistrates, judges and hangmen?

India today finds itself crouched in one such corner of shame. While well-known serial killers gamely garner tickets from national parties for elections and mass murderers sagely deliver their homilies from our television screens, women and men of integrity and courage must lurk and slide in the dark alleys of our cities or in the forlorn jungles of the land. It is a state of affairs which would have appalled and nauseated decent citizens a generation ago, let alone the heroes and heroines of our freedom movement. The sad truth is that as a civilisation, India’s standing in the world has suffered a precipitous fall during the last several years, even as our elated elite’s vainglorious aspirations to superpower-hood never miss a morning to announce themselves. Are they out of step, or are we? Time will tell, though it is as much up to us to determine which way the die of destiny will roll.

As the Indian justice system declines like our polity, are we going to keep sipping beer and watching the IPL?

After six decades of freedom from colonial rule, India is still a largely poor country. One of the most severe forms of deprivation suffered by the poor is with respect to health, particularly so in a time when the cost of healthcare has shot up so dramatically. In such a context, it is worth asking how many Indian paediatricians one can name who have given 30 years of their lives as a volunteer in unstinting service to the needy poor in the countryside. At a guess, the actual number is in three figures and the name of Dr Binayak Sen figures prominently among them.

Endurance Still in prison,Sen, a serious heart atient,wishes to be released on bail to undergo treatment
Endurance Still in prison,Sen, a serious heart atient,wishes to be released on bail to undergo treatment
Photo: Rupesh Yadav

LETTERS AND APPEALS from Sen’s mother, 22 Nobel Laureates, Ex-Chief Justice of India — V.R.Krishna Iyer, Noam Chomsky and hundreds of other people of eminence in public life from around the world only reveal their ignorance regarding facts of the case. The Chhatisgarh government obviously knows better where justice lies. Thus, Dr Sen continues to languish in prison despite a serious cardiac condition.

One Rowlatt Act was enough to precipitate Jallianwalah Bagh nine decades ago, causing an intensification and acceleration of the Indian freedom struggle. A slew of far more invasive laws in ‘independent’ India — the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Unlawful Activties Prevention Act, to name just a few of the many that have been passed in recent years — draws a cowardly, paralysed silence today.

Binayak Sen is not the only human rights campaigner unjustly detained by the Indian state. Thousands of such people are languishing in the jails of the North-Eastern states, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere. One of the most remarkable cases is that of Irom Sharmila, a woman from Manipur who has been on a hunger strike since November 2000 demanding the complete repeal of the AFSPA. She was arrested for attempted suicide that year, and has since been force-fed by the authorities to keep her alive.

In the name of fighting terrorism and extremism, Indian governments have gone to absurdly barbaric lengths to maintain their hegemony in a time of growing State illegitimacy. India’s appalling human rights record in recent years has led the internationally renowned Human Rights Watch to conclude in their report last year:

“Despite an overarching commitment to respecting citizens’ freedom to express their views, peacefully protest, and form their own organisations, the Indian government lacks the will and capacity to implement many laws and policies designed to ensure the protection of rights. There is a pattern of denial of justice and impunity, whether it is in cases of human rights violations by security forces, or the failure to protect women, children, and marginalised groups. The failure to properly investigate and prosecute those responsible leads to continuing abuses.”

A universe of human struggle for dignity stands between rule by men and the rule of law. Today, in India we live — de facto—under the rule of men rather than the rule of law. As the moral decline of the Indian justice system keeps pace with the decay of the polity, are we going to keep sipping beer while watching the IPL on television every night? How long before the government admits that, election or no election, it can never assure the security of sportsmen and women again?

We need to subject state functionaries to the same standards that they reserve for us citizens. Our judgment of truth and falsehood, right and wrong have suffered enormous reverses since the days of globalisation and 24/7 entertainment began. Consider taking a little quiz.

What is common to the following people? Socrates, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Binayak Sen, Irom Sharmila, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Write your answer.

Now consider a second group of people and write down what they have in common: Osama Bin Laden, Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, Narendra Modi, Jyoti Basu, Bal Thackeray, George Bush, Tony Blair, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin.

The right answer is this. The first group of people all belong to a set who went to prison for speaking up against the injustices of their respective governments. The second group of people are mass murderers who have been fortunate enough to never be tried for their crimes. It is time to find our moral balance.

Many years ago, a dissident in Orissa, Damodar Rath protested the foolish injustices of the state government by going on a fast outside the prison where many similar people were incarcerated. His one and only demand was to be locked up inside with his friends. He sat there for ten days before the warden finally asked him why he wanted to suffer so foolishly. Rath’s riposte was that there were better people inside than outside the jail. The prisoners were released immediately!

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