Binayak and the Big Questions

When we ask for sacrifice but fail to deliver, it’s not hard to see why some might get disillusioned with their country

Binayak Sen sits inside a police jeep after his arrest in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. AP PHOTO
01 May, 2011

I THINK I GRASPED THE FULL IMPORT of the case against Binayak Sen on one shadowless March day, as I walked through the "new" village of Bokrakachhar, in a remote corner of Chhattisgarh, while the noonday sun beat mercilessly down. From one end, I looked along two ruler-straight rows of identical pista-green blocks that made up the village, searching for a tree, or even a large bush, that could give me some shade. There was not one to be found—and that's when the case hit home for me.

Bokrakachhar, home to 36 families of Baiga tribals, used to be deep inside the Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary. In 2009, Achanakmar was declared part of Project Tiger—the nearly 40-year-old Government of India initiative "to ensure a viable population of tiger in India for scientific, economic, aesthetic, cultural and ecological values", as their website puts it. That meant Bokrakachhar and a few other villages had to move out of the "core zone" of the sanctuary.

Hence the creation of "new", or resettled, Bokrakachhar, comprising 36 government-built, concrete-block homes and zero trees. It is actually one of three new villages that exist side by side, a treeless total of about 100 concrete-block structures. This development has been held up as a model, in fact, and other Baiga are brought here to see what they will get when they agree to move.

I moved slowly through Bokrakachhar, suffering from the heat. People sat under their parapets, the only shade available. In every house, I noticed electric wires running neatly along the walls, with smart white switchboards and even the occasional fan. Why were these people not sitting inside, under their fans?

Standing outside his home, Dhanga Singh (name changed) cleared that up tersely: "No electricity," he said.

"Oh, you have regular power cuts?" I asked. "When will the electricity be back?"

"No," said Dhanga. "You don't understand. There is no electricity. One year we've been here, but we've never had electricity."

State authorities move these Baiga, build houses for them and wire the houses, but there's no electricity. Also: no school, no healthcare, no water supply apart from two handpumps. And, maybe I mentioned, no shade. This is the charade that passes for resettlement.

What is the connection to Binayak Sen? This much: when you're a doctor practising in rural India, as Sen was, you come to understand that health does not stand by itself. It is intimately linked to poverty, justice, hunger, governance and charades. In treating your patients, you run up against these themes all the time. How could you not? To reach the nearest doctor, for example, Dhanga Singh would have to pick a Tuesday, walk 1.5 km from Bokrakachhar to a tarred road, wait there for a bus, then ride an hour to a village named Bamhni. Why Tuesday? That's when a team from the Jan Swasthya Sahyog (JSS), a rural hospital in Ganiyari, 60 km away, comes to Bamhni to run an outreach clinic.

Six decades after India became free, it's not hard to find Indians whose only access to healthcare is at a once-a-week clinic over 90 minutes away on foot and then by bus. Try selling that kind of access to the average urban Indian. What decibel levels will his protests touch?

Imagine you're that doctor in rural India. Over years that stretch into decades, you see and absorb things around you. Eventually, you cannot help speaking about the way that the people who are your patients live. Eventually, you begin to understand why some might choose to support a movement that speaks of a phantasmagoric Maoist utopia.

I happen to believe that there was no evidence to convict Binayak Sen: I am aware of considerable inconsistencies in the case against him, each of which seem to me like grounds to have dismissed it. I also believe, for that matter, that there's no place in our democracy for an antiquated law on sedition.

These issues have already attracted considerable comment in the four years since Sen's initial arrest, and especially in the months since he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison last December. But there is a deeper lesson in the Sen case, that is, if we're willing to see it. It lies in the chance to understand why ordinary Indians would support what so many think of as an abomination: a movement whose avowed intention is to overthrow the Indian state.

Let me be clear: this is not to say Sen argues for such overthrow, nor that I do. Nor that the families of Bokrakachhar do—I really have no idea. But when we ask a village to make great sacrifices in the name of development or wildlife and, in return, we deposit them in the soulless wasteland that is new Bokrakachhar—when this transaction is not an aberration or something that's never happened before—well, blow me away, but it's not hard to see why people might get disillusioned with their country.

The questions posed by Sen's trial, in other words, are questions that we've known all along—questions that many among us prefer to avoid asking. Here are a few more:

What is it about the way we have chosen to develop that has left so many Indians dissatisfied?

Why is it acceptable that large numbers in this country are so poor that authorities run programmes for them to buy grain at '3 per kilogram; and plenty so poor that they cannot afford even that price, so authorities sell them grain at '1 per kilogram (Dhanga Singh being among them)?

What are the health implications of poverty this acute and widespread?

When we resettle a village, why is it so hard to assure its residents even a minimal improvement in the way they live? How can a newly constructed village, built by the government and wired for electricity, not have power coursing through those new wires from day one?

There are many more such questions, but you get the idea. The decision to grant Sen bail—thus deferring concerns like evidence and charges—offers the opportunity to think through such questions. Consider that if we didn't have to ask the questions—if large numbers of Indians did not live such lives—it's plausible that the Maoist insurgents would not have the support they clearly do. Not that the insurgency would not exist, but that it would not have support. (There's a difference.) If we didn't have to ask them, Sen would not have raised issues that attracted attention from Chhattisgarh authorities and became part of the case against him. (It says something, that on his release on bail, he spoke about malnutrition in the country). If we didn't have to ask them, insurgencies in this country would be starved of the lifeblood of popular support.

This is no airy-fairy "hearts and minds" argument that glosses over Maoist crimes. Fight Maoists, certainly. But let's acknowledge that hardship and injustice fill too many Indian lives. Tackling that is a bigger headache than any threat Maoists might pose, but remains nevertheless the most effective way to defeat them.

The problem, though, is that on the evidence of the last 60 years—the evidence in a ghastly place called Bokrakachhar—we are not interested in effective ways.