Dr Binayak Sen seems a bit like an Arundhati Roy. He’s demonised at home and valorised abroad.
The latest in his foreign honours is the Gandhi Foundation Peace Award he receives today at the House of Lords in London along with Bulu Imam.
His detractors see an old western prejudice at play – find an Indian naysayer, laud him as a prisoner of conscience, and then heap awards on him to show India in a bad light. Consider the headline for an upcoming event in London on June 14.
Imprisoned for speaking out in India – with Dr. Binayak Sen.
It’s part of the great burra sahib conspiracy to keep India in its place.
But Dr Sen is no Arundhati Roy. He does not arouse the same knee jerk antipathy. Despite his connection with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), most people knew little about him till the government decided to make an example of him so that other liberals would think thrice before piping up against the heavy hand of the state.
In that it grossly overplayed its hand. A recent profile of Dr Sen in the Business Standard ends with this line by the reporter:
As I leave, I overhear that Sen must be on his way to court. He has to get his passport from there. He can’t travel to London to accept the Gandhi International Peace Award without it. For the Indian state, Sen is still a convict.
Obviously, Dr. Sen got his passport since he’s receiving his award in London. The government might claim that the flurry of international awards (Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights, the Heinz R. Pagels Award, the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights), the campaign for Dr Sen which included 44 Nobel laureates, has had no impact on it. If the man is guilty, it maintains, a western award does not make him less guilty.
In 2008, when Dr. Sen got the Jonathan Mann award, the first time a South Asian received that award, there was a huge clamour of voices demanding he be allowed to go to Washington D.C. to accept it. The government refused to back down. Dr Ilina Sen, his wife, accepted it on his behalf saying simply that “in other circumstances” he would have been there. Instead of using the occasion to really give a black eye to the government she spoke of the larger issue at hand, none of which was particularly new or incendiary.
It is impossible to seek a purely law and order or vigilante solution to what are basically the problems of non-inclusive growth…We are firmly committed to Peace: but to a Peace animated by justice and equity and based on the values of life and liberty. In the absence of these, restoration of peace through military action can only lead to the graveyard of peoples’ aspirations.
But this award is different. It’s the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award. It’s previous recipients include the Parents Circle Forum made up of bereaved families on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The chair of the award is Lord Bhikhu Parekh, a recipient of the Pravasi Bharatiya Sanmman and a Padma Bhushan from the President of India. No one in the government wants to see the headline “Indian govt prevents Binayak Sen from receiving Gandhi Peace Award.” Whether the granting of the passport to Dr Sen is evidence of the government quietly back pedaling or not, one thing is clear. Instead of being its whipping boy, Dr Binayak Sen has become the government’s hot potato.
Even the most conspiracy-minded person has difficulty swallowing a worldwide web of conspiracy involving Amnesty International, Dr Amartya Sen, the Harvard School of Public Health, the alumni of Christian Medical College in Vellore and a Conservative and a Labour MP in the British House of Commons. If the government wanted to gain any PR points in its battle against Maoist insurgents it gravely miscalculated by its ham-handed attempt to throw the book at Dr Sen. It picked the wrong martyr for its cause. Instead of showing itself as the good but tough guy in the bitter fight against Maoists, it came across as the bully picking on the paediatrician. It wanted to make an example of him. It made him a symbol instead, well beyond Chhattisgarh. Now when he speaks about the eviction of slum dwellers in Nonadanga in Kolkata it matters.
Dr Sen still remains a rather unlikely activist. Asked about his future plans, he retorted simply “I’m going to focus on staying out of jail.” Probably this mild manner made the government misjudge the impact of throwing him into jail. But it is this mild manner that caused the huge uproar to free him even among people with little sympathy for Maoists.
In the end, the government was wise to let him to go to London to receive his Gandhi Peace Award. He will get to speak his mind in his lecture and then come home to Raipur and await his day in court. But had he not gone, the silence of Dr Binayak Sen would have been far more damning than anything he could possibly say in his speech.