By Ramesh Gopalakrishnan, Amnesty International India Researcher
Ilina Sen says she has no plans to go to Bilaspur this Wednesday. That’s the day the high court in this central Indian state of Chhattisgarh will resume hearing on the appeal filed by her husband, the acclaimed Indian human rights activist, Dr. Binayak Sen.
Dr. Sen is appealing against the life-term sentence handed over to him last month by a district court here which convicted him for sedition and conspiracy against the State. Unsure when he would be released following the hearing, or whether he would be released at all, Ilina says she plans to meet him two days later in the relative quiet of the prison here.
The conviction and the unusually harsh sentence handed down to Dr. Sen, a proponent of peace and non-violence and pioneer of medical work, have drawn wide protests in India and in the international arena, including condemnation from intellectuals, social activists and workers, medical professionals and artists.
Dr. Sen’s case is a truly test case for India. And the world will be watching this week to see the result.
A vigorous international campaign is pushing for his release, comparing Dr Sen with Mahatma Gandhi, who spent three years in prison after being convicted in 1922 by a British judge, also for sedition.
What is Dr. Sen’s alleged crime? He was first arrested in May 2007 and held for seven months before being charged with collaborating with armed Maoists who have been fighting an increasing intense insurgency against the authorities in several states of central India.
The Maoists say that they are fighting on behalf of the adivasi, or indigenous, communities who are being increasingly marginalised by the acquisition of their traditional lands and habitats for mining and other major development projects as part of India’s current corporate-led development efforts.
As many as 30,000 adivasis remain displaced due to the conflict, which has already claimed at least 1,000 lives in southern Chhattisgarh. Dr. Sen has been a consistent critic of the conflict, and of the widespread human rights violations and abuses against members of adivasi communities perpetrated by all sides.
After his arrest, Dr. Sen spent a week in solitary confinement, and then two years in prison before India’s Supreme Court finally released him on bail in May 2009.
The Chhattisgarh authorities continue to contend that visits Dr. Sen made to Raipur prison during 2006-2008 to meet jailed Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal were aimed at establishing a Maoist network in Chhattisgarh. They maintain these visits contributed to the spreading of Maoist violence.
Dr. Sen insists that that his visits were as a human rights activist trying to ascertain Sanyal’s medical condition. He says they were made in full view of the prison authorities and there was no evidence proving that he was involved with any planned violence.
From the time of Dr. Sen’s arrest, Amnesty International has considered the charges against him to be false and politically motivated, terming his conviction and life-term sentence a “mockery of justice”. Declaring Dr. Sen to be a prisoner of conscience, Amnesty International has repeatedly expressed concerns about whether he has received fair treatment by the Indian legal system. Indeed, the judgment convicting and imprisoning him for life has simply side-stepped the crucial question of evidence while relying on intelligence reports and hearsay about his alleged association with the Maoists.
After his release on bail in May 2009, Dr. Sen moved to Vellore in the southern state of Tamil Nadu due to fears over his safety in Chhattisgarh. Over the same period, several other activists have faced detention, threats and harassment in Chhattisgarh, and elsewhere in central India.
Dr. Sen is not the only one to feel the pressure of the Chhattisgarh authorities. During his 2008 trial, the prosecution and the police repeatedly intimidated his wife, Ilina, and other human rights defenders, calling them Maoist sympathizers. Ilina Sen continues to face harassment and has recently been targeted by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), which wanted to charge her with not reporting on the presence of foreigners in an academic conference on women’s studies.
In May 2008, filmmaker TG Ajay, who was attending the trial proceedings, was detained for three months before he was released on bail. In January 2010, another Gandhian peace activist, Himanshu Kumar, had to flee the conflict region of Dantewada after persistent harassment by the police for highlighting human rights violations. And in October 2010, a local adivasi leader, Kartam Joga, who is one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court demanding an end to impunity in Chhattisgarh, was charged with murder and arrested.
Dr. Sen’s appeal hearing this week might well turn out to be important for all of them.
If he is released, and the charges against him are dropped, it will go a long way towards ensuring that the human rights defenders in central India and elsewhere are no longer vulnerable and those engaged in legitimate human rights activities are safe and protected. If he is not, India’s claim to a fair and impartial legal system, one that respects human rights and the rights of indigenous people, will be called into question.