As I recover from one of the most stressful Christmases of my life (thanks to all the sick patients in the ward), I know there is not way I can complain, especially since, on Christmas Eve, a court sentenced Dr. Binayak Sen to life imprisonment for the crime of 'sedition'. The good doctor, whose academic credentials, personal integrity and devotion to the poor have all been vociferously covered in every communication medium over the last few days, now spends Christmas and New Year in solitary confinement in a prison, where he had earlier, already spent 2 years awaiting charges. It seemed for a time that the Free Binayak Sen campaign had succeeded in gaining justice, but now everything is back to square one and things look even more bleak than before.
In all the reporting on the trial and its aftermath, it has been encouraging to note that there has been no discordant voice - one and all have denounced this travesty of justice as an act of vengeance by a government whose unlawful actions against the poor people have been showed up by this tireless warrior. It seems impossible that in a country where some of the greatest thieves this world has ever known not only thrive but are elected as our leaders, the voice of a man whose only crime was to love the poor and whose only desire was to see that they got their due, has been cruelly silenced by a verdict which defies every law of common sense known to man. It is I guess, one of the great ironies of our beloved nation, right up there with the fact that some of the world's richest men come from a land where the majority of people struggle for daily sustenance.
The story of Binayak Sen and his struggle, while far removed from the comfort of my life, does however, sound a resonance with an inner movement that was awakened in me many years ago. The 2 years I spent in Jharkhand, where, at that time, a very similar struggle to the one going on in Chattisgarh raged, left some long-lasting impressions on my young mind. My first year was spent learning the ropes of a junior doctor in a mission hospital, managing the labour room, doing Caesarians and involving myself fully in patient care. But early in my second year, I was given the opportunity to join the community health team, which gave me a new understanding of the ground realities of the area.
When I left for Jharkhand, I had no idea at all of the Naxal movement and no clue that I was going to work in one of their strongholds. My parents did not say much - it was only later that I learnt of their trepidation as they put me on the train. During my first year, I began to see the abject poverty of the local people which made healthcare the least of their concerns. But it was only in my second year, when I began to visit their homes and understand the stories of their lives that I realised the desperate state they had been left in by many decades of feudalistic injustice by the rich landlords. And I began to understand the basic ideology of the Naxal movement - to return the land and its riches to the local people who, in their simplicity and innocence, had been throughly bespoiled by those with power, who were, in general from other places. And as the injustice of it all began to trouble my idealistic mind, I began to identify more and more strongly with the Naxal struggle and agree with its basic ideology. However, while I sympathised with the struggle, I was totally against the methods - which, at that time mainly involved the indiscriminate killing of policemen, in different raids. The closest police outpost to the hospital was about 20 kilometres away, about halfway to the district headquarters. After a series of raids with much loss to life and limb, the police were forced to withdraw and the outpost remained unmanned for most of my second year!
As I became closer to the people and they began to trust me, I began to meet some of the 'party' leaders and have short conversations with them. I began to dream of becoming the 'party' doctor, which would give me access to the highest levels of leadership and thus a chance to reason with them about the violent nature of their struggle. I began to hope that love and a strong development agenda of the hospital team would slowly bring a change in the outlook of some of these men, who for the most part, I felt, were misguided and confused about the direction of their struggle. Of course, these remained just dreams, as for a variety of other reasons, it became clear that the time had come for me to leave and I suddenly dropped everything and relocated.
But as I reflect on Binayak Sen and the charges for which he has been sentenced to a life in prison, I realise that in a small way, I too am guilty of crimes similar to what he has been charged with. Guilty of the crime of being friendly with the poor people who are struggling against many decades of injustice, knowing all the while that some of them were involved in armed struggle against the government. Guilty of the crime of condemning a government system which is corrupt to the very roots. A system where no government official has ever been seen in a village for many, many years. A system where every statistic is cooked up in the comfortable confines of government offices. And where every government scheme is 'successfully implemented', which only means that the money has found its way into the bank accounts of the right people and the reports have been meticulously dreamt up and typed.
The truth of the matter will take many, many pages to fully describe. The plight of the people can only be imagined, even by me, who spent much time with them. And the story will go on, and on. For there are very few Binayak Sens left in this world. Very few who are willing to take up the cause of the poor at their own risk and loss. Our lounges and coffee parlours are filled with educated intellectuals who decry the injustice meted out to this man. In fact, there has supposedly been more support from the Indian diaspora for Dr. Sen than from this country. But for all the outcry, there are few of us who are willing to take it to the next level. To look at ourselves and see what role we have to play in the great Indian dichotomy. For many of us are surely playing a role, by acts of commission or omission, in keeping the poor, poor while we ourselves enjoy wealth and riches. I am ashamed to think that even after being exposed to the harsh reality of it all, I still have nothing much to offer except empty words. My selfish desire to protect what is mine and safeguard my future prevents me from taking any meaningful action. For after all, that is what mankind is programmed genetically to do - survive... And, as far as possible, in the greatest comfort. My only hope is to follow more closely in the footsteps of my Saviour. For only then is it possible to love without counting the cost, to fight without heeding the wounds, to toil without asking for rest, to labour without asking for any reward. And I pray that as I seek to be faithful to His call, He will strengthen me in the areas where I am weak. But till the day when injustice is no more and all men are truly equal, let us pray for the voices of conscience that we have among us - the Binayak Sens of this world. And hope that their struggles will be short-lived. That their spirits will hold up under the constant stress. And their reward will be consummate to their work.
To sign a petition to the President of India, asking for justice for Dr. Sen, please click here.