Supporters in 12 cities- in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.- took to the streets to mark the Global Day of Protest on January 30th demanding the freedom of Dr. Binayak Sen and many other political prisoners, the repealing of draconian laws, and the disbanding of vigilante forces in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The coordinated actions- demonstrations, vigils, public meetings, film screenings, public marches, etc. (click here for video) were the result of a call by the Free Binayak Sen coalition, a broad grouping of over 57 civil society groups.
Dr.Ramachandra Guha, a well-known historian from India who has also worked to highlight grave human right violations by the government of Chhattisgarh joined the protest in Harvard Square, Boston, and urged the 50-odd protesters not to lose sight of the many ordinary adivasis (indigenous people) who, like Dr. Sen, are also victims of persecution, and have had their homes burnt or kinsfolk murdered by state-sponsored vigilantes, but in the prevailing atmosphere of intimidation are too terrified to file FIRs or seek justice.
Demonstrations were held in front of the Indian Consulates in New York, San Francisco, Washington DC and London, while in Vancouver, Canada, 80 people marched from the Public Library to the Consulate of India. Panel discussions and public awareness events were held in Amherst, Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles. Supporters in the cities of Seattle and Austin held candle light vigils.
Protesters invoked the names of political activists, leaders of mass movements, human rights activists, journalists such as Ajay T.G., Lachit Bordoloi, Prashant Rahi, Shamim Modi, Abhay Sahoo, Bhukhan Singh, Niyamat Ansari, Govindan Kutty, Vernon Gonsalves, Ashok Reddy, Dhanendra Bhurule, Naresh Bansode, Kopa Kunjam, Sukhnath Oyami, Kartam Joga, Asit Sengupta, Sudhir Dhawale, KK Shahina, etc., some who have been charged under UAPA/CSPSA, some that have been denied bail for long periods, and often without any charges being filed; and some who have been convicted after deeply flawed judicial processes, such as Piyush Guha and Narayan Sanyal .
For Indian supporters of Dr. Sen, his case raises larger questions about the state’s punitive targeting of individuals (through the use of repressive legislation or extrajudicial killings, AKA “encounters”) and communities (through military offensives such as Operation Greenhunt) in response to their dissent against its vision of neoliberal development. As Dr. Manan Ganguli, who participated in protest actions in London, said, “there is a crisis in India today. Binayak’s conviction is just one example of it”.
The Coalition has worked since 2007 to highlight the increasing assault on civil liberties in India in the name of national security, and the use of repressive laws to target human rights defenders and journalists for speaking out about injustice and exploitation. The case of Dr. Binayak Sen, in particular, has captured the imagination of people worldwide and he has now become a highly visible symbol of a wider resistance to the political economy of resource extraction which in India has brutalized indigenous communities, and has subjected them to forced displacement, poverty and violence.
Dr. Binayak Sen is a renowned pediatrician, public health specialist and the national Vice-President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) with a lifelong commitment to the issues of community health and human rights. He was arrested in May 2007 on fabricated charges of sedition, and joined dozens of other human rights activists in Indian jails who have been arrested under draconian laws including the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA, a federal-level law), the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA, a state-level law) as well as other repressive legislation such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), Sedition laws, etc. which allow the State to bypass legally mandated due process, and are inconsistent with constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Dr. Sen earned the ire of the government for opposing Salwa Judum, a private militia movement armed by the Government to combat ‘Maoist insurgency’. Salwa Judum, and its current avatar, the Ma Danteshwari Swabhimani Adivasi Manch have unleashed a reign of terror in Chhattisgarh that has resulted in the displacement of at least 300,000 adivasis. Many human rights groups and independent citizen’s groups such as the Asian Center for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and India’s National Human Rights Commission have documented these atrocities, and have called for an end to such privatized forms of state violence. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, has publicly expressed concern over the shrinking space for civil society in India, and about the “…branding and stigmatization of human rights defenders, labeled as ‘naxalites (Maoists)’, ‘terrorists’, ‘militants’, ‘insurgents’, or ‘anti-nationalists”.
The internationalization of the Free Binayak Sen campaign since 2008 has worked to highlight similarities between the struggles of marginalized and indigenous communities worldwide and has led to solidarity between seemingly disparate communities. At the rally in Vancouver, Canada, Ashley Zarbatany from the Social Justice Center at the University of British Columbia drew parallels between Dr. Sen and other icons of resistance such as Ken Saro Wiwa from the Niger Delta and environmental activist grandma Betty, “…who have become iconographic of the willingness to stand up against exploitation of the land and of human rights despite what it may cost them”. In Boston, Sergio Rios from the ‘Boston May Day Committee’, who survived three years of incarceration under the Chilean dictator General Pinochet claimed Dr. Sen as an inspiration for everyone worldwide that is “…struggling to speak, to organize, to defend, and to help”.