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Activist's life term sparks street protests across India

By Emily Wax
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; A07

NEW DELHI - Street protests spread across India this week after a court handed down a life sentence to a prominent activist and physician who has long drawn attention to the country's growing economic inequalities.

In a case that has prompted denunciations by international human rights groups and scholars, prosecutors said Binayak Sen, 60, had aided Maoist rebels in rural India, visiting Maoist leaders in jail and opening a bank account for a Maoist, charges that Sen denies. Human rights activists allege that police planted evidence and manufactured testimonies, and Indian judges have criticized the Dec. 24 judgment.

Soli Sorabjee, a former attorney general, called the ruling "shocking."

"Binayak Sen has a fine record," he said. "The evidence against him seems flimsy. The judge has misapplied the section. And in any case, the sentence is atrocious, savage."

Sen, a pediatrician, has worked for decades to help people displaced by violence and government land seizures in India's mineral-rich regions. Despite the country's booming economy, hundreds of millions of Indians remain mired in poverty - a stubborn inequality that has helped fuel a deadly Maoist insurgency in as many as 20 of India's 28 states.

The ragtag Maoist rebels, called Naxalites after Naxalbari, a village in West Bengal state where the movement was born in 1967, seek to gain power through armed struggle. They claim to fight for the poor and India's marginalized tribal groups but have also been accused of widespread atrocities. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the Naxal movement the "biggest single threat to India's internal security."

Sen, who was arrested in 2007 and was not granted bail for two years, says he was targeted solely because he was a vocal critic of the government's use of armed groups to push villagers out of mineral-rich forest areas. His sentencing comes as major economies, including the United States and China, are seeking access to India's growing markets - a sign of the country's emergence as an economic superpower.

"Anyone in India who dissents or questions the superpower script is ostracized," said Kavita Srivastava, national secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, of which Sen is a vice president. "Sen's arrest is happening because this government is extremely anti-poor. Our much-praised 9 percent growth is coming at the cost of displacing millions of people with land that is being given away for mining and corporate development."

Sen's difficulties with Indian authorities have drawn global attention before. In 2008, an effort led by 22 Nobel laureates failed to secure Sen's release on bail so he could travel to Washington to receive the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for his efforts to reduce the infant mortality rate and deaths from diarrhea.

This time, protests erupted after a court in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh convicted Sen on two counts of sedition and conspiracy, sentencing him to life imprisonment. He was found not guilty of a third charge of waging war against the state, a crime punishable by death.

A growing number of Indian intellectuals and human rights activists have spoken out on his behalf this week.

"Binayak Sen has never fired a gun. He probably does not know how to hold one," historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in the Hindustan Times. "He has explicitly condemned Maoist violence, and even said of the armed revolutionaries that theirs is an invalid and unsustainable movement. His conviction will and should be challenged."

Sen's wife, also a doctor, said in an interview that she is launching an international campaign to do just that.

"He is a person who has worked for the poor of the country for 30 years," Ilina Sen said. "If that person is found guilty of sedition activities when gangsters and scamsters are walking free, well, that's a disgrace to our democracy."

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