Hold those celebrations cheering India as the world’s most populous democracy.
Two years ago today, the Chhattisgarh Police arrested Binayak Sen, a paediatrician who has spent three decades treating the poor in the state’s remote parts, for collaborating with Maoists. Sen was accused of helping communication between clandestine groups that couldn’t interact with each other freely. In fact, he was meeting a sick Maoist leader, with permission from a senior police official.
The State has at its disposal draconian, colonial-era laws—tightened in post-independent India—which it used to arrest Sen, and to keep him in jail. It has vigorously challenged his appeals, despite his deteriorating health. Last year, the Global Health Council gave him the Jonathan Mann Award for health and human rights; 22 Nobel laureates have called for his release; and Sen symbolizes the kind of dignified prisoner of conscience who inspires people who have never thought of civil liberties to campaign for his freedom.
Sen has strong views. He has spoken out against injustice. But he has condemned the Maoists’ violence, and appealed for peace. As Sudeep Chakravarti, author of that authoritative account, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country (2008), puts it, Sen’s advocacy of India’s “wretched of the earth” has upset the cozy, corrupt nexus enriching local politicians. Big business wants access to the state’s natural resources, and forest-dwelling communities are in the way. Maoists, claiming to represent the poor, challenge the state. To counter them, the state and local elite have encouraged Salwa Judum (purification hunt), the vigilante paramilitary group that has terrorized the poor, ostensibly to ensure they don’t cooperate with the Maoists, but in the process alienating them, forcing them to flee—coincidentally freeing land for resource exploitation. Such cynical, myopic policies have led to decades of bloodshed in many parts of the world, most notably in Latin America.
And yet, those seeking Sen’s release are told: Not so fast. Let the law take its course. Don’t embarrass the state. Tone down your voice.
Human rights activists shout because the state does not listen. To make yourself heard, you have to scream—it is unpleasant, but necessary. That’s what Teesta Setalvad has been doing in another context: Gujarat. She has sustained a heroic campaign for the victims of the Gujarat riots of 2002, enraging those who believe Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is the answer to all of India’s problems.
Setalvad identifies with the victims: Many have experienced severe trauma, seeing their loved ones being raped, murdered, or maimed. She investigates what happened because the state has ducked its responsibility. She speaks for them because few others do. Her opponents are waiting for her to trip up. Last month, she was accused of tampering with evidence and tutoring witnesses. Those are serious charges—and her critics say the special investigation team (SIT) had made them, even though SIT wouldn’t confirm if it had made such charges, calling the leak inspired and motivated; and the Supreme Court termed the leak a betrayal of faith. Recall as well that in the Best Bakery case, judge Abhay Thipsay had ruled out the possibility of Setalvad having tutored witnesses.
People such as Sen and Setalvad, and other dissenters such as Medha Patkar, challenge the modern Indian state. They sound unreasonable. They seem self-righteous. They speak for others, and they often appear to sit on a high moral ground. That seems sanctimonious to some; it can even appear irritating. Why, hasn’t India just shown the world what a fine democracy it is by organizing the world’s biggest electoral exercise? But just as India basks in that glory, these activists remind us of the rot within. They interrupt the grand narrative.
If only they’d speak softly, or even better, simply shut up! But why should they? Democracy thrives on uncomfortable questions; not recognizing that shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea of dissent. Being stubborn, refusing to reason and remaining steadfast to one’s moral core are the characteristics of such individuals. In Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing (2001), Ian Buruma shows how years in Chinese prisons had so incensed Wei Jingsheng that once in the West, he refused to obey perfectly sensible rules. He’d smoke in rooms, standing under “no smoking” signs; he would drive through red lights. He defied rules because he would not bend.
Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, Mohandas Gandhi fasting in an ashram, Aung San Suu Kyi refusing to acquiesce with the generals and Vaclav Havel ignoring the Party’s lies and living the truth—these men and women were obstinate, and for good reasons.
Think of their adversaries—a racist regime, a colonial power, a military junta and a Communist dictatorship. Is that the company India wants to keep?
Sen, Setalvad and others such as them are India’s jewels. They honour us. Silencing their voices belittles us. They belong in our public arena, not in our jails.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org