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.