Thirty years ago, in an act I still feel guilty about, I woke up a very great Indian from his sleep. I was volunteering at a conference in New Delhi, and had been asked to fetch the Member of Parliament from Dhanbad, AK Roy, from his quarters in Vithalbhai Patel House. Roy, a labour leader legendary for his integrity and his wide range of reading, had been elected from the mining town as an Independent, his campaign funds raised from the workers themselves. It was characteristic of the man (and perhaps also of the times) that instead of asking for a Lutyens’ bungalow or even a spacious flat on South Avenue, he settled on a single room in a tall, dark, unattractive building off Parliament Street.
We students asked the reception for Roy’s room number, took the lift up, and knocked on the door. No one answered. We knocked again. At this stage we should probably have left and told the organisers that the MP was not in. But we were students, eager to prove our keenness, so we knocked several times more and also shouted to attract attention. Finally, the door opened, and an erect man in a khadi kurta-pyjama stood in front of us, rubbing his eyes. He asked who we were and what we wanted, meeting our answers with an extraordinarily gentleness of manner. His friend, and temporary host, had apparently gone out on an errand.
The man we had woken up was Shankar Guha Niyogi. He was resting perhaps after a long train journey, and in any case for a man who worked where and like he did any sleep snatched anywhere was a bonus. Originally from Bengal, Guha Niyogi had gone to the Bhilai region as a young man and started working among unorganised labour. While workers employed by the Bhilai steel plant were represented by unions affiliated to the major parties, the labourers in the mines and ancillary industries were unrepresented, and hence shockingly exploited. Under Guha Niyogi’s leadership they came together in unions, and demanded and obtained better wages. But their leader’s vision was never merely economistic. He opened clinics for them and schools for their children, and, with the help of their wives, ran a successful campaign against alcoholism. Guha Niyogi was also a precocious environmentalist, urging factory owners to protect workers from pollution, and asking the general public to conserve the water bodies, forests and overall biodiversity of the region.
A man of quiet dignity and an almost heroic commitment to the poor — like Mahatma Gandhi in both respects — Guha Niyogi inspired many middle-class professionals to join him. Among them was Binayak Sen, a gold medalist from the Christian Medical College in Vellore, who, with the world at his feet, moved to Chhattisgarh in the early 1980s. He has lived in the region ever since, ministering to patients from a wide variety of backgrounds. If his mentor’s vision went beyond higher wages, Sen’s goes beyond medical ailments. He became increasingly interested in the social rights of the area’s adivasi population, who live on the margins, without access to decent schools or regular employment.
In 1991, Guha Niyogi was murdered by a man hired by industrialists who disapproved of his attempts to enhance the self-respect of the workers. Now, 20 years later, his friend, colleague and protegé has been awarded a life sentence by a court in Raipur for the crime of talking to Maoist prisoners in jail. Binayak Sen has never fired a gun; he probably does not know how to hold one. He has explicitly condemned Maoist violence, and even said of the armed revolutionaries that theirs is “an invalid and unsustainable movement”.
In the eyes of the government of Chhattisgarh, the crime of Binayak Sen is that he dared question the corrupt and brutal methods used to tackle the Maoist upsurge. In 2005, the state government promoted a vigilante army that spread terror through the districts of Dantewada, Bijapur and Bastar. In the name of combating Naxalism, it burned homes (and occasionally, whole villages), violated tribal women, and attacked (and sometimes killed) tribal men who refused to join its ranks. As a result of its depredations almost a hundred thousand adivasis with no connection at all to Maoism were rendered homeless.
Sen was one of the first to document the excesses of the vigilante army, and to expose the hand of the state government in promoting it. That his charges were true I can confirm, for I visited the region shortly afterwards, in the company of a group of independent citizens, who included the respected editors BG Verghese and Harivansh, and the distinguished anthropologist Nandini Sundar, winner of the Infosys Prize. Our report, War in the Heart of India, provides a sober, non-ideological account of the crimes of the state and Union governments in this regard.
Sen’s conviction happened in a court subject to intimidation by a government run by (and I use the word advisedly) paranoid politicians (helped by sometimes paranoid police officers). His conviction will and should be challenged. As it stands, however, it is a disgrace to democracy. His brave wife commented on the verdict that if “one who has worked for the poor of the country for 30 years, if that person is found guilty of sedition activities and conspiracy, when gangsters and scamsters are walking free, I think it’s a scandalous situation”. Any reasonable Indian would concur.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. The views expressed by the author are personal.