World’s Largest Democracy

As you go through this blog you will notice that there is one that really irks me about India. The repeated and hyped up lines “India is shinning”, “India is the new superpower” or “India is the world’s largest democracy” grate on my nerves each time I hear it. People who mouth these lines obligingly, are the ones who are living comfortably in their apartments/condos while earning a decent salary completely oblivious or willfully ignore the huge number of disenfranchised fellow Indians who go about their lives eating mango kernels for sustainment. That is the real picture. Yes, it’s true that in some sectors of the population India is doing quite well….but how can one make big claims without understanding that most of the claims are just empty rhetoric.

Here is a case of State gone mad. This is a story of a doctor who, like Gandhi, gives up everything for the sake of helping other people. His story is of encouragement, inspiration and ultimately, in the “world’s largest democracy”, disillusionment.

The story of Binayak Sen is the story of the dangerously thin ice India’s democratic rights skim on. The story of every dangerous schism in India today: State versus people. Urban versus rural. Unbridled development versus human need. Blind law versus natural justice. It is the story of an India unraveling at the seams. The story of unjust things that happen — unreported — to thousands of innocent people, the story of unjust things waiting to happen to you and me, if we ever step off the rails of shining India to investigate what’s happening in the rest of the country. Most of all, it is the story of what can be done to ordinary individuals when the State dons the garb of being under siege


OVER THE YEARS, Binayak’s medical work had morphed into social advocacy — the two umbilically linked in a state like Chhattisgarh. As Dr Suranjan Bhattacharji, director, CMC Vellore, says, “Binayak walked the talk. He was an inspiration for generations of doctors. He stirred us. He reminded us that it takes many things — access, freedom, food security, shelter, equity and justice — to make a healthy society. He was the alternative model.” In 2004, CMC honoured Binayak with its prestigious Paul Harrison Award. In a moving citation, it said, “Dr Binayak Sen has carried his dedication to truth and service to the very frontline of the battle. He has broken the mould, redefined the possible role of the doctor in a broken and unjust society, holding the cause much more precious than personal safety. CMC is proud to be associated with Binayak Sen.”

Yet, barely three years later, on May 14, 2007, in a Kafkaesque twist, the State pressed a button and deleted Binayak Sen’s long and dedicated history as a humanist and doctor. The police arrested him as a dreaded Naxal leader and charged him with sedition, criminal conspiracy, making war against the nation, and knowingly using the proceeds of terrorism (sic). Imagine the bewilderment. “Just a namesake doctor” the prosecution asserted, and with that act of wilful cynicism, a life of soaring vision and service was extinguished. Reduced to the rubble of the Indian justice system.Since Binayak was arrested, three courts have denied him bail, most damagingly, the Supreme Court on December 10, 2007 — International Human Rights Day: an ironic detail.


Sometimes the true measure of people is revealed in the small, random remarks of those who know them. When the Supreme Court denied him bail, an old man told an activist at a rally for Binayak, “If the courts are not going to free our doctor, should we storm the jail?” Then he continued ruefully to himself, “But what’s the use? All the other prisoners would run away, but Dr Binayak would stay back.”


With predictable myopia, the Indian State has been meeting grievance with violence, illness with extermination. Not cure. Draconian laws. CRPF battalions. IRP battalions. Increased militarisation. Thousands of crores for upgrading police. Special funds for Naxal-affected States. An invitation to competitive violence: that has been the government’s response to grassroots militancy. In Chhattisgarh, this manifested itself particularly harmfully in 2005 as the government-sponsored counter-revolution: the now infamous Salwa Judum, which pitted villager against villager and triggered a bloody civil war. 644 villages have been forcibly evacuated by the government, their residents forced into sub-human camps. Smoke out the support, is the State’s war cry. Civil rights activists tell you, the State’s real quarry is not even the Maoists, but the iron-rich soil, ready to be handed to private corporations, Nandigramstyle. There are rumours that the makeshift camps are now going to be turned into official revenue villages, which will force tribals to abdicate all the original evacuated land to the government. All of that is speculation still; but the excesses of the Salwa Judum are real.

It is against this backdrop that Binayak Sen caught the self-serving eye of the State.


Binayak Sen, however, seems curiously aloof from all of this. As the police hustle him into the van, he presses his face against the iron bars and says urgently, “You must understand, there is a Malthusian process of exclusion going on in the country. You cannot create two categories of human beings. Everybody must wake up to this, otherwise soon it will be too late.” The concerns of the humanist are apparent even through the imprisoning bar. “If they arrest people like me, human rights workers will have no locus standi. I have never condoned Maoist violence. It is an invalid and unsustainable movement. Along with the Salwa Judum, it has created a dangerous split in the tribal community. But the grievances are real. There is an on-going famine in the region. The body mass is below 18.5. Forty percent of the country lives with malnutrition. In Scheduled Castes and Tribes, this goes up to 50 and 60 percent respectively. We have to strive for more inclusive growth. You cannot create two categories of people…”

I have no idea what the future holds for India. Maybe it will be able to pull out of this dream and start living in reality. Maybe the people will realise that it’s important to have a strong society both in the urban and rural communities. Maybe none of this will happen. Then India is bound to self destruct.

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