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Binayak Sen's conviction should alarm us all

December 27, 2010 11:26 IST
On Friday, a court in Chhattisgarh sentenced Dr Binayak Sen to life imprisonment on charges of sedition.

A whole section of Indians is appalled, says Dilip D'Souza, because we can see no evidence for the things he is accused of.

That a State's machinery can ask for and obtain a conviction -- and a life sentence at that -- on such grounds should alarm us all.

On the day that Binayak Sen was sentenced to life in prison, I was at a children's court in Mankhurd.

I was there because I got introduced to a young father from Chhattisgarh and his two little daughters, 8 and 5. When a couple I know well met them a few nights earlier, he said he was going to turn the girls over to a 'madam' who had promised him Rs 1 lakh (Rs 100,000) for them.

This was attractive for these reasons:

  • His wife left him three years ago.
  • He works as a security guard in a Bombay suburb. He lives in a shed with 12 other men: no place for two young girls to also live.
  • In fact, there have already been times when some men in the shed tried to do 'dirty things' with his girls.
  • He has no way to ensure the safety of the girls.

  • Better, all things considered, to sell them to this 'madam'.

    The aghast couple persuaded him not do anything in haste, assured him that they would try to help. A shelter for street children they got in touch with was willing to take them in, but needed a court order to do so. And that's why the man took a day without pay from his job to go with us to the children's court, and that's when the message about Binayak Sen's sentencing came in.

    Why is all this relevant to Sen's case?

    Because via this young father and his girls, I get a glimpse of the way a lot of Indians live. And if I want to think about the meaning of Sen's case, I cannot escape that and any number of other glimpses.

    But consider first the reactions to Sen's conviction. A whole section of Indians is appalled, above all because we can see no evidence for the things he is accused of. That a State's machinery can ask for and obtain a conviction -- and a life sentence at that -- on such grounds should alarm us all.

    But far from alarm and dismay, a whole other section of Indians is ecstatic. 'An antinational got what he deserved', says a typical message I got. For such people, the only thing that matters is that Sen is accused of meeting a man the State machinery calls a Maoist, an imprisoned man who is 67 years old. This meeting, no questions asked, is enough to turn Sen into an 'antinational'.

    Governments now know well: Mention the word 'Maoist', and plenty people otherwise sceptical of the government become instant believers.

    It's clear where my opinions are, of course. No way that the people appalled, like me, are suddenly going to turn ecstatic. But no way either that the delighted folks are suddenly going to share my dismay.

    So I won't waste my time trying to convince them.

    I will instead offer that glimpse, a reminder of the way too many Indians live.

    On this day that Binayak Sen was sentenced to life in prison, I heard a judge tell this father who feared for his daughters' safety: "You should have made a police complaint about the men who tried to mess with your daughter!"

    "I tried", said the father. "They told me to go away."

    "You should have gone back ten times if necessary!" said the judge. "This is a question of their moral security!" But this judge who was concerned about moral security refused to let the man take his daughters to the shelter that was willing to take them in. Not even for this night.

    "Go back to where you live," said the judge. "Make a police complaint about the men first, then approach the children's court."

    That was the end of that. So let's list the lessons for the day.

  • A young man can find no worthwhile work in his home in Chhattisgarh.
  • He comes to the big city to make a living, earning Rs 3,500 a month, far more than he would at home.
  • Back in his village, his wife runs away, abandoning their daughters.
  • Left with no choice, he brings the daughters to the big city to live with him.
  • Grown men do "dirty" things with the little girls.
  • He decides to sell them to a "madam" for a lakh, attractive because that's nearly three years' salary.
  • When he's persuaded via a chance encounter to try a saner route instead, a judge tells him to take them back to the same place of depraved grown men.

  • Poverty and deprivation in India have plenty of dimensions: hard lives, injustice, apathetic authorities and more. I could list figures, I could cite examples. The point is simple: This is the context for the rise of Maoists and the reason they have such a lot of support in areas like Chhattisgarh.

    You may think what you like about Binayak Sen. But until you open your eyes to the realities of that context, until we all fully understand every facet of the way too many Indians live even today, until we acknowledge that level of support -- we will have Maoists with us.

    Merely branding them terrorists won't free us of the enormous problem they present to the Indian State, to us all.

    Understanding the context, on the other hand, might start doing the job.

    After the futile court appearance, the young father made up his mind. He was going to take his daughters to the station, spend the night on the platform and catch the morning Gitanjali Express back to Chhattisgarh. We sat with them for a dinner of dal-chawal and scrambled eggs before they left.

    "Eat properly," he said to one daughter when she didn't want any more to eat. "There's no food for two days now."

    Dilip D''Souza