Understanding Sen

Published : Nov 16, 2012 00:00 IST

The book relates the bizarre events that turned social activist Binayak Sens meaningful life into a cruel experience.

SOME issues need to be kept alive, and in his excellent book The Curious Case of Binayak Sen, Dilip DSouza does exactly that.

Although Dr Binayak Sens story is well known, there is a need to retell it because it is a frightening lesson that an ordinary citizen intent on social justice can be arrested and jailed simply because he worked to ease the injustices meted out to others.

Binayak Sen, paediatrician, public health specialist and civil rights activist, shot into public notice in May 2007. He was arrested on the grounds of being a courier between the jailed naxal leader Narayan Sanyal and a businessman named Piyush Guha. Three years later, a Sessions Court found all three guilty of sedition and of cooperating with terrorist organisations, and sentenced them to life. A flood of protests followed, leading to Sens release on bail in April last year, but the questions remain and inevitably, as in cases of injustice, the answers are elusive, possibly because there are no justifiable reasons for injustice.

Much has been written on Sen and his arrest and his alleged association with naxalites, but DSouzas book is different. He tells a story, and who is not interested in reading a story? Using his skills as a journalist and a writer, DSouza draws you into what happened to Sen.

At the very start, he explains why he wrote the book. He speaks with frank but measured admiration of Sens commitment as a doctor, his work in rural India, and the reputation he built for himself among the poor. DSouza writes, This is not to paint some glowing picture of heroism in action. Thats not a pursuit that interests me. Having met him, I know it doesnt interest Sen either. But I do admire Sen for reaching a place few of us find in our lives: he makes a living doing what he wants, on his own terms, and as it turns out, its what he was trained to do. How many of us can say the same about ourselves? This is why it is worth making an effort to understand Sen.

The book is not a journalistic recounting of facts. It is DSouza trying to understand the bizarre events that turned Sens meaningful life into a cruel experience. And this is what draws the reader into the story. The reader is a co-explorer with the writer. The questions that arise in the readers mind seem to arise simultaneously in the writers writing. Thus, it is not a passive read, nor is the reader being taught as so often happens when a writer discovers things for himself. DSouza takes the reader on a journey with himself, to feel as exposed as he does to the frustrations of questions with no answers and to experience the elation that comes with understanding.

DSouza looks at the facts of the case clinically, sifting through charge sheets, court evidence and judgments. He comes up with some basic questions. What, for instance, is the definition of Maoism and why has it acquired such radically negative connotations?

As he writes, One mention of the word Maoist, and plenty of people otherwise sceptical of governments become instant believers. And why does the sedition law still exist when its relevance is long over? In fact, there is an entire chapter titled Sedition wherein DSouza deals with what he calls a hot-button word that when used sets off revulsion that leaves no place for argument or reason.

Citing earlier cases and present examples of speeches and writings, he delves into the meaning and relevance of sedition.

What constitutes sedition? According to Justice Verma [Raipur Session Judge B.P. Verma], you have committed it if you brought or attempted to bring into hatred or contempt, or excited or attempted to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India. This is a vast brush. At any given time, plenty of us are dissatisfied with our governments this has been an Indian truism for decades. Take Anna Hazare and his entire India Against Corruption movement, or the opposition in the Lok Sabha that has spoken loudly about the 2G scam. Are these people not exciting disaffection, as they should, as should we all towards the government? Arguing on the nitty-gritty of sedition and devoting an entire chapter to it may seem like an unnecessary deviation from the story of Sen, but it is actually integral to the issue because the case was not so much about Sen the individual, but rather what he stood for and how the state reacted to that.

The other aspect in the book is the concern DSouza expresses over not only governance but society in general. He sees Sens situation in the larger context of the ills of society, and in this he spares no one, not even himself.

It is not a hysterical self-flagellation meant to ease ones conscience but rather a perceptive thought process that makes the reader quietly acknowledge his own small role in the making of society. He unflinchingly spells out the problem of diminishing social conscience and gives the example of the Shaheed Hospital in Dalli-Rajhara, Chhattisgarh. The hospital, which started operating in 1981, was built by mine workers who were tired of the empty promises of mining companies.

Although Sen is no longer with the hospital, DSouza visited it since it was important in understanding Sens psyche. There he met Dr Saibal Jana, who had worked with Sen but stayed on even after Sen left.

DSouzas descriptions of the rural hospital are as deep and raw as the wounds that the doctors there treat: the pathos of the people who have little access to medical care, their overwhelming gratefulness for even the most basic treatment, their constant worry about the costs, and their dull acceptance that sometimes they will have to live with growing tumours, mutilations and broken limbs that set awkwardly simply because of a lack of funds. This is the daily situation that makes up the lives of people like Sen and Jana.

DSouza, while expressing his respect for them, asks, What happens when doctors like Jana retire where are the younger doctors, fired with the same purpose and desire that Janas generation had, twenty-five years ago?

The common thread that holds The Curious Case of Binayak Sen together is that of justice, but DSouza does not deal with justice in its most basic definition. Going beyond analysing the role of the judiciary and the executive in a democracy, he opens the word up to include unjust development, especially the poor state of rural health care, structural violence and other injustices that have become integrated into the system and are really the root cause behind movements such as naxalism getting a foothold in Chhattisgarh.

Perhaps the most damning and concise summing up of Sens case is a poster by Orijit Sen from the Free Binayak Sen campaign. Reprinted on the back cover of the book, it shows a trimurti of Nelson Mandela, Binayak Sen and Aung Sang Suu Kyi, and reads Mandela was jailed by racists, Suu Kyi by dictators and Binayak Sen by the worlds largest democracy.

The mindlessness, the insinuations, the blatant structured injustice that Sen was mired in, DSouzas book covers it all.


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment