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A Fable For The Cola-Wallahs

At a time when India’s plumbing a moral low, the life of Binayak Sen becomes an example

A Fable For The Cola-Wallahs
Reuters (From Outlook, January 17, 2011)
A Fable For The Cola-Wallahs

In post-globalisation India, middle-class heroes are usually entrepreneurs who make a fast buck, stars that glitter brightly and talk glibly, cricketers who hit the ball hard. In an aspirational world of consumer goods, fine dining and malls, values such as service, integrity, simplicity are becoming rare. Perhaps that is why the story of Binayak Sen, the skilled doctor who turned his back on material success to work among the poor in Chhattisgarh, reminds us of our moral vacuum. The fact that Binayak has ended up in jail facing a life sentence makes his story all the more compelling. Even as the man stepped back into prison on December 24, to life in a cramped and solitary cell, he was transformed into a middle-class hero.

Schoolchildren asked: why has a doctor who was helping the poor been sent to prison? Medical associations and citizens’ groups across the country protested. At a time gross corruption gets uglier by the day and the Niira Radia tapes expose tycoons and TV anchors alike, the tale of the good doctor has struck a chord. Sociologist Ashis Nandy says that “because he was there on the ground doing something that is outside politics, he has his own legitimacy”.

“Because he was there on the ground, working outside politics,” says Ashis Nandy, “he has his own legitimacy.”

The middle class is not particularly supportive of radical thinkers, writers and activists. Binayak’s medical work had also led him to advocacy of a certain public health agenda and human rights. He joined the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in the ’80s and was elected its national vice-president in 2002. He was a critic of the policies of the state government in combating Maoism and also enjoyed the respect of the people among whom he worked. That, it is widely believed, is the reason why he was targeted and arrested on May 14, 2007.

In the beginning, there was no real sympathy for Binayak, tarred as he was by the single brush stroke of “Maoists and their sympathisers”. The mainstream media too played along with that discourse initially. Then, however, the narrative about him began to change. Wife Ilina Sen believes that it was during the campaign for his bail (granted by the Supreme Court on May 25, 2009) that people got to know about his life and work. Now, she says, “there is sympathy both nationally and internationally, but not in the Chhattisgarh establishment”.

Ilina addresses a press conference in Delhi. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)

The turning point in the public campaign to free Binayak Sen had come in May 2008 when 22 Nobel laureates, including Amartya Sen, wrote to the prime minister and the president urging them to free Sen who, they said, had been “incarcerated solely for peacefully exercising his fundamental human rights”. The fact that Sen is an alumnus of the Christian Medical College in Vellore, which has a network worldwide, has helped generate support and organise protests for him, in India and abroad. Peter Agre, the 2003 Nobel laureate in chemistry, had travelled to CMC early in January 2008 where he familiarised himself with Sen’s work and trial. It was Agre, as the chair of the US National Academy of Sciences Committee on Human Rights, who mobilised many of the laureates to support Sen’s release.

This time round too, the campaign is being handled in a creative way. On January 4, Binayak Sen’s birthday, a month-long drive to collect food and feed the homeless in Delhi was launched. The idea is to focus on malnutrition, one of his great concerns. The same day, a group of physicians in India got together to launch the India chapter of Physicians for Human Rights to drive home the point that doctors cannot continue to treat patients and ignore the social conditions that cause illness. “Binayak is not just talking about an alternative. He has been working quietly on the ground, whether it is in the development of low-cost diagnostics or delivery of healthcare,” says Satya Sivaraman, editor of who has been involved in both the campaign for the doctor’s bail and now for his release. Clearly, Binayak Sen is not an issue that will just melt into thin air. On January 8, Amartya Sen will release a book on him. There is a petition signed by over 8,000 people that Sivaraman hopes can be delivered to the president. A big cultural event in support of the doctor is also being planned in Delhi. Across the county too citizen’s groups have taken up his cause.
Pranhita, Binayak’s daughter, says that while out on bail, her father delivered numerous lectures at schools and colleges across the country such as the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai and the St Stephen’s College in New Delhi. That helped the young understand him and his work better, she says. Nupur Asher, a 2010 graduate of St Stephen’s College who met the man once, says, “I see him as a great role model for young people like us, especially since he has been brave enough to go out to the forests to treat the poor and continued to do so even after being released on bail.” Facebook, the networking site that is a mirror of what the young are exercised with, is brimming over with thousands of supporters of groups that call for his release.

Could Binayak Sen then become an icon for our times? A slogan in his support says, quite simply, “If Binayak Sen is guilty of sedition, so are we.” The radical chic certainly see it as a cause. People Tree, a Delhi-based design studio and shop, has already launched a hand-painted T-shirt featuring Binayak Sen and is expected to follow it up with screen-painted ones. “I think the artworks are a result of the outrage and anguish that artists, like writers, feel about the shrinking democratic space and the false judgement,” says Orijit Sen, co-founder of People Tree.

Radical angst is only to be expected. What sets the issue apart is the great support the doctor is now drawing in middle-class India. Politicians from the Congress party admit that the verdict of the sessions court in Raipur is an embarrassment for the country and say they hope it will go away. Lawyers across the political spectrum know the case is bogus and could only have been made to stick in Chhattisgarh that has draconian laws to combat Maoists. Outside the state, in fact, even the BJP is very muted about the issue.

“There is sympathy both at home and abroad,” says wife Ilina, “but not in the state establishment.”

Ashis Nandy says that Indians are not really ideologically inclined but tend to be inspired by exemplary lives lived. “As a people, we understand faith and morality, but do not relate to ideology. So it is Binayak’s work as a doctor that gives him a legitimacy an activist or a writer can never have.” As Gandhi believed, a life should be the message. And as the narrative about Binayak Sen has changed, so has the image. Earlier, when the case began, the media repeatedly used a photograph that showed the doctor looking rather fierce with a long, flowing beard. Now the beard has gone and he looks much more the picture of the benevolent doctor. From Maoist sympathiser, he has become the good doctor.

Support in the media too has been across the spectrum this time round. Even outlets who routinely label writers and activists as anti-nationals have been cautious. Usually, the right-wing brigade on the internet heckles and abuses individuals perceived as being liberal and/or radical. But in this case the picture seems somewhat different. Kanchan Gupta, writing in the pro-BJP Pioneer, is one of the few commentators who has termed it a “fair trial”. For a change, the critics of his view outnumber the supporters.

The next question, therefore, is whether the Binayak Sen affair can actually be an education. Human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves says, “Binayak Sen is no longer just a person. He has become a symbol.” At one level, the story is about a great surge of sympathy for a man of commitment and courage. At another level, the issue can also be a turning point for the way in which mainstream society and the media either disregard or pillory activism. Gonsalves says the “Binayak episode indicates a sea-shift in the way society sees social activism”.

Perhaps. But, at the very least, it reminds us that there are people who care about how the other half lives.

By Saba Naqvi and Debarshi Dasgupta

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