Saturday, June 20, 2009

Binayak Sen's bail and after

The Chhattisgarh government's security centric approach has resulted in unjust detentions of anyone showing even democratic dissent.

Vice president of the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) and eminent medical practitioner Binayak Sen was finally released after he was granted bail by the Vacation Bench of the Supreme Court after two years of detention in prison in the state of Chhattisgarh. The inability of the prosecutors to explain the absence of corroboration of the official charges against him, after retractions by witnesses in his ongoing trial weighed in the judgment which was given almost immediately after the case began to be heard by the Vacation Bench. It is indeed a matter of relief for several activists, intellectuals, members of the civil society and the general public that the good doctor is finally out of jail after detention over the flimsiest of charges. It is now imperative to continue to point at the draconian laws and extra-constitutional executive policies and actions that are in sway in the state of Chhattisgarh, specifically - the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2006 and the detention of many people under this act.The PUCL has stated that 178 persons of various occupational backgrounds have been detained by the Chattisgarh state taking recourse to the Public Security Act or the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (2004).

The Chattisgarh state of affairs today is a pointer toward what is termed a "security centric approach" - to address the insurgency situation in some districts in the state.This approach has resulted in a horrific humanitarian problem in the South Bastar/Dantewada district in particular, with tribals displaced from villages, and armed "special police officers" pitted against Maoist insurgents - both mostly from the tribal community. The state government's Salwa Judum campaign - the vigilante programme that uses ordinary citizens as "security" personnel against the Maoists - has only exacerbated the lives of thousands of people who have been caught in the spiral of violence in the conflict. Estimates point out to 600 villages from where tribals were forcibly evacuated since the beginning of the Salwa Judum and who are still housed in makeshift relief camps.

The Supreme Court instructed the state government through its interim pronouncements to wind up this unconstitutional campaign in 2008, but the government's response has been to dilly-dally and there has been no let up in the tribal versus tribal war. The only sane voices that are coming about to halt the lawlessness are those from civil society demanding a halt to the military campaign, disbanding of the Salwa Judum, and for addressing the major societal, social and livelihood problems in the region.

The Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, passed by the Chhattisgarh state assembly in December 2005 broadens the ambit of existing laws on what is to be deemed "unlawful". "Unlawful" acts have been defined to include any such act which "create risk or danger for public order, peace and public tranquillity" or "create an impediment in the administration of law or institutions". Such a loose definition has enabled the government to stifle any dissent over its policies in "countering insurgency" or to frame charges against anyone who is critical of the government's actions. This is expressed in the manner in which Binayak Sen was kept in detention for two years over charges that were never corroborated and was denied bail for reasons that were evidently irrational. Or in the manner film-maker Ajay T.G. was arrested and detained on the basis of the Act. Even appeals from eminent persona such as Nobel Prize winners attesting to the impeccable humanitarian work of Sen, were rejected by the various agencies of the state who deemed Sen as a "risk to the state" and irrationally refused to grant him bail.

Beyond instruments of such laws, the state government has also resolved to physically intimidate any agency - NGOs or civil society activists or dissenters - who have taken positions antithetical to the government's in its "war" against insurgency. A case in point is the demolition by the state's police officers on 17th May of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram run by Himanshu Kumar in the insurgency affected Dantewada district. Kumar's work had focussed on return of displaced tribal villagers to their homes, exposing the crimes committed in the course of Salwa Judum vigilantism and that has made the state government to consider his work as so "hostile" to act in the manner they did. Kumar was later harassed by Salwa Judum members as a retaliation to an abduction of two local government officials by the Maoists.

Binayak Sen's release on bail must trigger a surge of activism that should demand an end to the lawlessness in the state. The state government must be forced to effect a real end to the Salwa Judum campaign and not just pay lip-service about this, repeal the Public Security Act, acknowledge and be open to dissent and criticism and to adopt a different approach to the insurgency. And efforts must be made by the government to deliver social, health and other welfare services to the affected tribals in the region. That is a more viable and lawful response to the Maoist insurgency.The repression of voices asking for a shift from this "security approach" and the cynical use of citizens as vigilante law enforcement adjuncts must be halted.

The state government can use legal instruments without having to take recourse to "special" acts such as the Public Security Act to tackle law and order problems related to the insurgency. But will Chief Minister Raman Singh who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has willed to implement this flawed "Chhattisgarh model" - encompassing the above - in states affected by Maoist violence elsewhere, pay heed? Especially when even the union home minister P.Chidambaram of the Congress party has termed the Salwa Judum to be "useful"?

Preliminary Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly. A completely changed final version exists here.

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