On December 24, 2010, a court in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh sentenced Dr. Binayak Sen, a 61-year-old pediatrician and human rights activist, to life in prison under the country’s controversial sedition law. He was accused of aiding the Naxals, India’s largest armed guerrilla insurgency, by passing letters between an imprisoned Naxal ideologue, Narayan Sanyal, and a Kolkata businessman. Prior to his arrest, Sen worked with the people of Chhattisgarh for more than thirty years, providing medical care and advocating for their human rights.

Sen’s conviction has sparked a wave of outrage around the world. Forty Nobel laureates have signed a letter urging his release, and activists such as Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy have spoken out in support of him. The case is the most visibly draconian step in the Indian state’s increasing crackdown on dissent and freedom of information. In one of many such cases, Roy, a Booker Prize–winning author, was also charged with sedition in November of 2010 over her remarks about the disputed Indian territory of Kashmir.  

In the past several years, the Indian government has become ever more desperate in its struggle against the Naxals, a Maoist movement rooted in some of India’s most marginalized regions. The Naxals are a loosely organized group that seeks to overthrow the Indian government through a prolonged guerrilla war. They are a brutal product of the lopsided growth in Indian development. While tech-heavy urban areas boom, vast swaths of the countryside still do not have access to basic healthcare and sanitation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly declared the group to be the most serious internal threat to India’s national security. They currently control at least 92,000 square kilometers of the Indian countryside, and their influence is growing. To combat the Naxal movement, India has used a variety of repressive measures, which in Chhattisgarh has taken the form of the Salwa Judum, an armed, semi-trained civilian militia accused of gross human rights violations.

While Sen has unequivocally condemned the violence of the Naxal movement, his most potent critique is against the Salwa Judum, whom he sees as engaged in “a concerted programme to expropriate from the poorest people in the Indian nation their access to essentials…including land and water…hundreds of villages have been denuded of the people living in them and hundreds of people—men and women—have been killed.” In 2005, Sen chaired an investigation that concluded that Chhattisgarh’s economic development, driven by a mining industry that benefits a wealthy minority, impoverishes indigenous tribes and drives them off their ancestral lands. Sen also spoke out about mass killing, rape and forcible eviction of tribals, all committed by the state in the name of fighting the Naxal insurgency. The Salwa Judum and the state security forces have been ineffective at containing the Maoist insurgency.

Sen was one of the only critics of the state’s policy, which may partially explain the severity of his sentence. Ilina Sen, Binayak’s wife, said that his sentence was expected because “we have seen Chhattisgarh change before our eyes into a paranoid state, unable to effectively tackle the challenges of governance in areas that are disturbed and where inequity is the highest. The entire case against Binayak was launched as he was one of the few persons who spoke of such issues and human rights violations as a result of state policy.” Ilina is now facing arrest herself on trumped-up charges by the Maharashtra state government. She is accused of neglecting to register foreign delegates to a conference.

Dr. Sen has been long recognized in India as a public health and human rights advocate. Before his arrest, he worked with the state government on community health programs in Chhattisgarh, and started a clinic and a hospital in the area that provided healthcare to some of India’s most under-served populations, including the Adivasis (indigenous tribes). Chhattisgarh is desperately poor—63 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and only one in five children is born in a hospital or a clinic. Soon after Sen’s initial arrest, a journalist traveling through the area met villagers who begged him to “do something, save the doctor.  We have no one to go to now.”

The evidence provided to the court during the two-year trial is circumstantial at best. The state’s case relied heavily on the thirty-three visits Sen made to Sanyal, the 74-year-old Naxal leader, in jail. Each time, Sen had asked for the explicit permission of the state and was said to have been medically treating Sanyal. The court also convicted him on the basis of three unsigned letters complaining of prison conditions found in the possession of a Kolkata businessman, Piyush Guha, who was also arrested and charged in connection with the case. The prosecution alleged that the letters were from Sanyal and that Sen had illegally given them to Guha.

Seven months after he was arrested, the Indian Academy of Social Sciences conferred the R.R. Keithan Gold Medal on Dr. Sen. The citation read “The Academy recognizes the resonance between the work of Dr. Binayak Sen in all its aspects with the values promoted by Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation.”

Sen’s case is now being appealed to a higher court. Indian legal scholars have pointed out that, while Sen faces life in prison, similar convictions have only carried sentences of up to three years in prison. On February 10, 2011, Sen was denied bail.

The case is increasingly becoming a source of embarrassment for the Indian government. On January 30, Free Binayak Sen, a coalition of fifty-eight organizations, held an international day of protest in twelve cities across North America. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused the Indian government of trying to “silence peaceful political dissent,” while the British Medical Journal and Lancet both carried scathing editorials in support of Sen. A recent Time magazine piece said that “Sen’s conviction has raised serious concerns about free speech and called into question the soundness of reasoning in the Indian judicial system.” According to Somnath Mukherji, the nationwide coordinator for the Free Binayak Sen movement, the wide response is connected to “a larger picture in which dissidents are being silenced around the world. It’s also part of a worldwide trend in which the access to natural resources is reducing even while food prices rise and markets become saturated. It’s why the Maoist movement is gaining support in Chhattisgarh and it’s why people protested in Egypt.”