April 21, 2011

"We Are Walking in a State of Famine": Dr Binayak Sen

After spending nearly four months in the Raipur Central Jail on charges of sedition and aiding the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), health and human rights activist Dr. Binayak Sen was released on bail on Monday evening. In an interview with Aman Sethi at his residence in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, Dr. Sen spoke of the need to re-examine the sedition law and build a platform to tackle the structural violence, that he believes, pervades society.

Some of the most significant interventions on ideas of rights and freedom have come in the form of prison writings, for instance Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks. From mundane issues like prison schedules, to your thoughts at the time, what was your time in prison like?

In prison you feel completely cut-off, as if you are only hearing the echoes of what is happening in the outside world. We received three newspapers for our barrack — The Hitavada, The Hindu and the Danik Bhaskar — but we get papers full of holes — literally. They [prison authorities] cut out all news regarding Maoists, naxalites, and anything related to the cases or trial of any of the people in jail…We also had a television that showed Doordarshan, that is how I learnt that the Supreme Court had granted me bail.

At present, the greatest violence is structural violence. Violence is not restricted to a few groups; it pervades the structure of our society. We need to break out of this structure of violence through a process of dialogue.

Could you elaborate on this idea of structural violence?

By structural violence I refer to the fact that half our children and our adults in this country suffer from malnutrition. Malnutrition casts a dark shadow over other diseases like malaria and tuberculosis.

For example, a study by the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau says that more than 60 per cent of Scheduled Tribes have a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5. According to the World Health Organisation, if more than 40 per cent of the population of a community has a BMI of less than 18.5, the community can be considered to be in a condition of famine. A third of our live births have low birth weights, this is what I mean when I talk of structural violence.

When you speak of dialogue, who must get into dialogue with whom? Also, is it possible to address issues of nutrition in a conflict zone like Chhattisgarh?

This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: the reason we have [overt] violence like we have in Chhattisgarh is because of an underlying problem of structural violence. We need to enter into dialogue with the state and also groups involved in the issue.

Talks [with groups like the Maoists] cannot just be about abjuring arms or violence. We need to have a dialogue on issues like displacement. These problems are much bigger than us. So we need to be able to create a legitimate platform from which we can address these structures of violence.

If we can build the platform, dialogue will follow. I don't want to get into specific solutions at this stage, but how can we tackle issues if we are permanently walking in a state of famine?

A Raipur Additional District and Sessions Court convicted you of conspiring to commit sedition and also invoked provisions of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005. Do you feel we need to rethink such laws?

On of the things that I realised while I was in prison is that there are hundreds of people who are in exactly the same legal situation as I am. I fear that governments are using this law as a short cut to imprison people. We need to find out exactly how many people are fighting such cases. The Union Law Minister, Veerappa Moily, has spoken of reviewing the sedition law. We would like to tackle things from our end by taking the matter before the people.

As for the Public Security Act, the People's Union of Civil Liberties, of which I am one of the vice-presidents, has filed a writ challenging this law in the Bilaspur High Court.

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