By Swapan Dasgupta
At the risk of appearing to be callous or, indeed, flippant, it may be suggested that the elevation of Binayak Sen from a relatively unknown activist to a cause celebre is partly due to a dramatic image makeover. When Sen was arrested in May 2007 by the Chhattisgarh police on charges of aiding and abetting the Maoist insurgency, the photograph of him in circulation was that of a thickly bearded stereotype of the Bengali intellectual espousing unattainable radical causes over endless cups of tea and unfiltered cigarettes.
The Sen that appeared before the public in May 2009 after the Supreme Court granted him bail on grounds of ill health presented a striking departure. The lush beard had gone and, instead, there was the benign face of a man who had withstood two years of incarceration in inhospitable jails with fortitude. If the captions hadn't indicated this was Sen, he could have been easily mistaken for either a kindly primary school teacher or a jholawala with an NGO.
The earnestness, however, was intact. But if the pre-2007 portrait of a Bengali Che Guevara prone to reckless excitability was quaintly disturbing, the post-2009 image was distinctly non-threatening. Like the distracted Kobad Ghandy, Doon School's contribution to the Indian revolution, the Sen that smiled and posed for photographs after being sentenced to life imprisonment seemed incapable of either malevolence or subversion. He just didn't fit the mental picture of a dangerous man.
The striking mismatch between what TV images suggested and what the Sessions Court Judge in Raipur pronounced may help understand why the recent discourse on Sen has been so woefully one-sided. To the young and the impressionable, to the cause-hungry 'intellectuals' and to NRI grandees on their winter vacation, Chhattisgarh is India's Heart of Darkness. In this imagined state, governed by the political first-cousins of those who administer Gujarat, heavy-handed policing, law of the jungle, capitalist iniquity and the brutal suppression of tribal rights exist in equal measure.
"For the past several years", Sen is quoted by a PUCL pamphlet as declaiming shortly before his initial arrest, "we are seeing all over India—and, as part of that, in … Chhattisgarh as well—a concerted programme to expropriate from the poorest people in the Indian nation their access to essentials, common property resources and to natural resources, including land and water."
It is not that Sen's perception of a "concerted programme" of expropriation is widely shared, even by those horrified by the harshness of the sentence. If Amartya Sen in his scholarly avatar is any guide, democracy is the great corrective and India is about as rumbustious a democracy as you can get. In that case, is Chhattisgarh the rotten apple?
The prevailing discourse has presented the issue as a simple war between the forces of enlightenment and darkness. Sen was the barefoot doctor who attended to the sick and needy, articulated their hopes and fears, and raised his voice against state oppression. For that he was targeted, framed and sentenced. "If the High Court has its thinking straight and unbiased", declared the Nobel Prize winner Sen, "it will overturn the decision." Anything else, he argued, would imply that "as happened in Gujarat—justice is difficult to get in the state which is under the control of a political regime that is keen on justifying its policies, some of which are very deeply problematic, rather than bringing justice to a people living in Chhattisgarh…"
Such an assertion is astonishing in its arrogance. Disagreement with a judicial verdict is part of the democratic debate. But to assume that any alternative perspective implies a bent and biased system is rash. It has as much validity as Ilina Sen's outburst that state intolerance could compel dissidents to seek political asylum overseas.
Sen may or may not be an overground functionary of the Maoist underground that specialises in murder and extortion. At present, we can only go by the Sessions Court judgment. Yet, by leveraging the publicity surrounding his arrest and conviction, his supporters have given the Maoist insurgency unintended legitimacy. It is one thing to claim that the evidence against Sen has been planted by a vengeful police. That's a technical issue of evidence the higher courts will review. But 'human rights' activists have used their anger with the judgment to turn every TV studio into not merely an appellate court but a political forum to cast aspersions on the credentials of both the criminal justice system and Indian democracy.
The right to campaign peacefully for Sen is a feature of India's open society. However, the campaign's success in creating a paranoid discourse suggests interesting possibilities for those who have no time for the India we value and cherish.