Thoughtcriminals

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The New Year didnt start well. On January 1, 2011, I got this mail from a Pakistan Today reader called Khota Punjabi:

Hello mayank. Having an exotic name gives u no right to get published. I find ur articles in pak today to be rather silly and tedious. Please stop.

At least this hurts only me, and possibly the editors of this newspaper. But something more troublesome is taking place in my country.

One cold afternoon, a day after Christmas, I went to Jantar Mantar after receiving a chain text message on the cell phone: Join citizens protest against the conviction of Dr Binayak Sen at 2.30 pm on December 27, Jantar Mantar.

Famous for its 18th century solar observatories, Jantar Mantar, close to the Indian parliament, has democratic pretensions. We Indians go there to celebrate, to protest and to make our voices heard. Our democratically elected rulers, though, hardly care.

Accused of passing messages between Maoists, a rebel group that has declared to overthrow the Indian state, Dr Sen, the 59-year-old health worker and rights activist, was sentenced to life imprisonment by a lower court in Chattisgarh, the central Indian province where the Maoists insurgents have a considerable influence. The doctor was held guilty of waging war against India.

This is a man who left the high life of Indias booming cities to provide health care in the interiors of Chhattisgarh, where 45 per cent of people live below the poverty line. Some parts are so underdeveloped that sick people have to walk miles to reach the nearest medical clinic. There, Dr Sen opened dispensaries and schools, and soon, he compromised his patriotic integrity by highlighting starvation deaths, dysentery epidemics, and extra judicial killings of so-called Maoist rebels by the state police. This goes against the mass media controlled narrative of a shining country marching head on to become another China.

Finally, the doctor hit below the belt. He began criticising Salwa Judum, a private militia movement armed by the Chhattisgarh government to combat the insurgents. (What it really led was to a horrible civil war like situation between the same, equally poor people while the state funded one of the groups with arms and money).

The doctor was with the bloodthirsty Maoists.

This is how the state thinks.

In an interview to the Delhi-based magazine Down to Earth in 2008, the doctor had said, “The Naxals managed to set base in villages because of the total absence of government infrastructure in these areas. The rural poor have very valid grievances against the state and the Maoists tapped into these. However, I dont condone the Naxals. I dont approve of their violent methods. In fact, Ive spoken strongly against them several times.

Doctor, thats no excuse. If you are not with the state, you are with the Maoists. You must be finished.

In 2007, the police arrested the doctor. The local court rejected his bail plea twice. The High Court too denied bail. So did the Supreme Court. The doctor was left in solitary confinement. In May 2009, the Supreme Court granted bail. In December 2010, a court in Chhattisgarh, despite shoddy evidence, convicted him with treason. Within ten minutes, the doctor was arrested.

One of the evidences that the prosecution produced against the doctor was an e-mail sent to him by his wife in which there was a reference to ISI. It turned out that it was not the initials of Pakistans intelligence agency but a reputed Delhi-based organisation called Indian Social Institute. Such goof-ups didnt bother the respectable judge.

On the fourth day of this outrageous judgement, civil rights activists gathered in Jantar Mantar, chanting comradely slogans in support of Dr Sen. Some carried placards that said, If fighting justice is sedition, than arrest us all! One face in the crowd was that of author-activist Arundhati Roy. Facing charges of sedition because of her Kashmir has never been an integral part of India statement last year, she is in the hit list of Indias most wanted traitors. Talking to reporters present in the Jantar Mantar, Roy said, Weve come here because we disagree with the courts judgment. She then added, The judgement is a warning to others. In another group, a woman, who met Dr Sen moments before his arrest, said, When the judgement was delivered, he looked completely defeated. Another activist said, The upper court may repeal the decision but Dr Sens life has been destroyed.

Yesterday, Ilina Sen, Dr Sen’s wife, came to Delhi and held a press conference where she said that she want to leave India and seek asylum in a country that is truly liberal and democratic. She said, We aren’t safe here. I have two daughters, one 25 and the other 20. Our phones are tapped, we are followed. We want to live.

Still, the doctor is lucky. Think of thousands of sympathisers of various other causes in India who too have been dumped into jails because of their ideologies, their fates unknown to us.

And India is the worlds biggest democracy.

PS: Khota Punjabi: Dont be so rude.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website (The Delhi Walla) and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.