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‘I have always condemned violence, whatever the justification’ : Interview with Binayak Sen

Vinay Sitapati
Indian Express
Posted: Saturday , Apr 25, 2009 at 0026 hrs IST

Arrested for being a Naxal supporter, Chhattisgarh doctor BINAYAK SEN has been in Central Jail, Raipur for the last two years. His trial is currently going on in the Raipur sessions court. In the 47 degrees Celsius heat and under the watchful eyes of the Central Jail authorities, he speaks to Vinay Sitapati.

The recent Chhattisgarh elections were particularly violent. Naxalites killed 11 security personnel and 5 election officers. Do you endorse this?

I can never endorse violence; I have always condemned violence in any form, whatever the justification. The killing of the security personnel is regrettable and the death of non-combatants [election officials], simply unacceptable. I want peace in the area, and violence by both the state and by Naxalites must stop. There is no military solution; the confrontations must stop. But I can’t be one-sided and just condemn Naxal excesses. The government also commits atrocities; I have to condemn that too.

Do you support the current general elections? The Naxals have called for a ban.

I don’t support the ban by the Naxals of these elections. I disagree with them. I support elections and in the past, I’ve have helped investigate poll rigging to ensure free and fair elections; I’ve helped expose so-called election booths that in reality never existed.

Even convicted criminals get bail quicker. Yet you’ve been in jail without bail for nearly 2 years. The police think that you’ll influence witnesses.

What witnesses? All the material witnesses against me have already testified in court — and have turned hostile or collapsed under cross examination. There are no witnesses left to influence. The Supreme Court has said: ‘bail denial must be based on evidence’. Where is the evidence against me? I’m approaching the Supreme Court again this Monday.

Your health has become a matter of concern. The court-appointed doctor has recommended that you get an angiography [heart checkup]. As a doctor yourself, what do you think?

In open court, I told the judge “I can have a heart attack any moment.” The doctor that the court sent me to confirmed that I have a heart problem and need medical treatment. As an undertrial, it is my right to undergo treatment by a doctor of my choice, particularly since I’m paying for the treatment. I want to go to CMC Vellore. I’ve studied there; I trust the doctors there. The government here seems to want to kill me.

You are now a global icon. Nobel laureates have written demanding your release; Amnesty International recently called you ‘a prisoner of conscience’. Do you think that all this international attention has irritated the police, judiciary and government of Chhattisgarh? Has this harmed your legal case?

I don’t believe in this ‘icon’ business. Widespread human rights abuse is taking place in Chhattisgarh and other states. I am simply, what in medical terms is referred to as, ‘an index case.’ What has happened to me shows what the government intends to do with any of its critics, anyone who questions their human rights record. The prosecution doesn’t have a case; never had a case. A judge as senior as Rajindar Sachar says: “Denial of bail for Binayak Sen is a blot on the Indian judiciary”. The way in which my case has been dealt with is an example of the paranoia that pervades the state in this war on terror. Any critic, any dissenter, is not tolerated.

The Chhattisgarh government also sees you in political terms — aspart of the war on Naxalism.

This is an irresponsible charge that the government has put on me right from the beginning. And the press in Chhattisgarh has been faithfully reproducing the charge that I’m a Naxal mastermind. I’m anything but. I oppose violence by the Naxals. But I also oppose violence by the state — I’m just a legitimate critic of the government.

You’ve shaved your beard. Part of the Binayak Sen iconography was the beard — your supporters said it made you appear saintly.

I had some skin problems, which was why I the beard had to be shaved. It’s also very hot.