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Home > India > News > Columnists > K G Kannabiran

The saga of State impunity

May 28, 2008

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Less than a year after the Chhattisgarh government arrested Binayak Sen, the general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, PUCL, another PUCL member, Ajay T G, has been arrested on charges of being a Maoist sympathiser.

The real question underlying these arrests is not of guilt or innocence, but rather, how far can the State go in harassing human rights activists who challenge it. So many civil liberties activists, colleagues of mine, have been killed by the state and their deaths left unaccounted for that I am beginning to despair.

Binayak Sen: A people's doctor

Dr Binayak Sen is a doctor focused on providing medical and health access to the poor. He graduated first in his class from CMC, Vellore, and has been practicing in Chhattisgarh for around 25 years.

Binayak, along with other activists of that area, established a workers hospital at Dalli-Rajhara. He did not know that as a people's doctor, his work could be sedition, could be conspiracy to wage war against a lawfully established government.

He extended medical health facilities to the impoverished men, women and children living in Chhattisgarh, which the government of Chattisgarh, despite its Constitutional mandate, was unable or unwilling to do. If Binayak Sen's attempt to fulfill the demands of the Constitution of India is an offence under the law, then, of course, he does not have any defence!

One of the 'crimes' charged against Binayak is that he visited Narayan Sanyal, a 70-year-old undertrial prisoner and an alleged Maoist in Raipur Central Jail a number of times and acted as his courier. The truth is that Binayak met him to assess his health condition and his desire to get legal aid, as is Sanyal's right under law.

Binayak applied for permission every time he visited Sanyal and there was never any demur by either the authorities or the intelligence service at any point of time. Now Binayak's efforts to try and provide an undertrial with medical and legal aid, efforts made in full compliance with the demands of the authorities, are a crime!

It seems that the law in this country is now employed more as a trap, than as an instrument of discipline; as a method of inculcating the habit of unquestioning obedience to those in power.

Ajay T G: The incarceration of another PUCL activist

On May 4, 2008, the Chhattisgarh government arrested another PUCL activist, Ajay T G, on similarly spurious charges. Ajay has worked with Professor Jonathan Parry, a world renowned social anthropologist at the London [Images] School of Economics, and also with Professor Murli Natarajan, who teaches anthropology at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

In September 2005, Ajay started an organisation, Drksakshi, aiming to provide a dignified educational environment for young girls from extremely impoverished families who live in an urban slum in Bhilai. By providing the nutritious meals and regular health check-ups, Ajay and his small team at Drksakshi have given some dignity and positive vision to all the children.

For this work, Ajay now stands accused by the state of being a Maoist sympathiser!

The Maoist movement: A political solution or a law and order issue?

In the absence of Constitutional governance, the formal structures listed in the Constitution of India have no impact on the struggle for equality, or on the quest for justice in all its facets, and do not provide any possibility of social transformation leading to the improvement of the living conditions of 80 per cent of the population.

Under these conditions, movements of varied sorts arise. The Maoist movement in Chhattisgarh aiming to overthrow the exploitative order is one of them. The state treats this as a law and order problem, and entrusts it to the police and its intelligence wing, granting them enormous impunity, and total immunity for all violent deeds.

If political movements are dealt with as criminal acts, without reference to law and legality, what meaning does our democracy have?

As a general secretary of PUCL, Binayak Sen opposed the destruction of households and displacement of tribal habitats in the name of Salwa Judum or police combing operations in the guise of searching for Maoists. Defenders of human rights do not have to support the politics of the targeted, and such defenders often do not, but they certainly must oppose the use of violent methods and of the kind of impunity that has been sanctioned to the state law enforcement agencies.

No honest person can doubt that Binayak Sen has been accused of terrorist activity precisely because the state did not like his condemnations of the human rights violations by the state.

State impunity: When the State turns lawless

As the last 40 years have shown, radical movements cannot be treated exclusively as a 'law and order' problem by the government. Political solutions must be found. When the government resorts to violence, it results in a variety of human rights violations, forcing human rights organisations to step in.

It was during such a process of contending with human rights violations by the state machinery that Dr Binayak Sen, like many other human rights activists who preceded him, risked his life and liberty -- not for any personal gain but to preserve the constitutional value system of India's democracy.

The question is if the State identifies civil liberties activities as extremist activity, how would one enforce human rights? India has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1998 Declaration of the Rights of Human Rights Defenders, but how is one to enforce them? Human rights and criminal justice are intertwined -- how does one effectively bring about integration between the two?

It is in the process of crime detection and intelligence gathering, investigation and apprehension of the accused that human rights violations takes place. The accused may be held in illegal custody for long periods, subjected to torture, coerced to confess to planted recoveries -- none of which is permitted by the Constitution.

These are the areas in which the human rights activists operate, but the law enforcement agencies see them as impediments to be put out of the way. With a view to silence criticism and produce results (it is the 'productivity ethic' that governs) the police very often end up framing persons on suspicion.

When the government employs the police to control political dissent, it trains the police force into a political force. When Hindu communalism came to the fore in Delhi, Mumbai and Gujarat, the ideologically trained police force bared its anti-minority claws and fangs.

In Chhattisgarh, we are witnessing its vindictiveness against left extremist politics as well.

The methods used by the government are in fact enlarging the constituency of the sympathisers of the Maoist movements. If the government wants to contain this movement, it will have to retrace its steps to sanity and make human rights a non-negotiable component of governance.

According to the Constitution, the government is obligated to ensure that justice -- social, economic, and political -- shall inform all institutions of governance, political justice being most important. That is what has been absent in Chhattisgarh throughout, as evident in the needless arrests and detentions of T G Ajay and Binayak Sen. The law enforcement agencies of India need to learn to distinguish between human rights activity and extremist activity.

K G Kannabiran is an eminent human rights lawyer and the National President of People's Union for Civil Liberties, an organisation founded by Jayaprakash Narayan.


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