Branding Binayak: Balmurli Natrajan
Guest post by BALMURLI NATARAJAN
Writing on the history of insanity in the age of reason in seventeenth century Europe, French philosopher Michel Foucault notes: “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” Foucault’s insight into the workings of power is an incitement for us to think boldly in public, sadly an endangered species in today’s India.
The recent judgment on the Guha-Sen-Sanyal case prompts one to wonder: Could state functionaries know what what they do does? Could ruling elites who watch silently or goad and guide the guardians of law and order to perform at their bidding know what what they do does? Could the state’s branding of Binayak and thousands of others as Naxalites, Maoists, terrorists or seditionists (terms that it conflates but without scholarly or legal basis) allow civil-liberties activists to create a brand Binayak?
For, even as the international campaign to free Binayak and others gains momentum, it is quite clear that Binayak has already become a brand ambassador. Brand Binayak is poised to unravel the myth of ‘democratic growth miracle’ called Brand India that is carefully constructed by India’s investor classes as a positive contrast to totalitarian China. The so-called underbelly of India’s famed runaway growth rates is now revealed as being really the belly itself. Bloated like the distended bellies of India’s malnourished children, adivasi and Dalit populations who Binayak’s team of dedicated health specialists have sought to heal back to life. Only to be crushed by the repressive state.
Binayak has himself asked his supporters to treat him as a sign – as standing for something other than himself. The image then of a frail and incarcerated Binayak actually turns out to be a powerful weapon to nails the lies of state. Much like the wishes of the legendary ex-slave abolitionist Frederick Douglas who noted in 1852 about slavery in the United States that “no abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.” Douglas’ reference to the light is the then emergent international news media which has since managed to shine through to every corner of the world, expose secrets and shame nations in the process.
Brand Binayak then is a powerful beacon that issues an SOS to the rest of the world about the alarming state of political, economic, legal and cultural affairs in India. About how political muscle (armed militia such as Salwa Judum or its variants today, draconian laws and militarization of large tracts of mineral-rich and forested areas of central India), economic terrorism (development projects that never benefit those whose lives it demands as sacrifice via forced displacement and lost livelihoods), legal bloopers such as the Sen-Guha-Sanyal judgment, and a general valorization of the culture of greed and goondaism.
It is a searing searchlight that reveals hidden truths in the jails, courts and “refugee camps” of Chhattisgarh such as the fact that thousands of ordinary people, mostly adivasis but also civil liberties activists and intellectuals, languish in jails, many of them without any possibility of even a chargesheet to their name. For, despite the reluctance of the government to admit that a “civil war” exists in this part of the country even while the military is openly deployed, this region is indeed a warzone for the most vulnerable populations who face the brunt of special and draconian laws used to snuff out their life and life chances.
It is a flare sent up by the forgotten to light up the madness of what Sen has consistently pointed out as the structural violence of the state and its failed development policies coupled with an apathetic society reveling in a GDP-led civilization. As studies have shown, the character of India’s economic growth has actually decreased the foodgrains intake for the bottom half of the rural and urban poor, increased food insecurity, and placed India at 65th out of 83 countries in the 2009 Global Hunger Index. The world now knows the true health of Indian society, thanks to Sen’s ilk. That India’s malnourished children after all make up a whopping 47 percent of India’s children below the age of 5 years, and 41 percent of all the world’s malnourished children according to recent World Bank, UNICEF, and UN reports. And, what better way to expose the “pathologies of power” – that power marks the bodies of the poorest – than for Sen’s team to have shown that a full 50 percent of adivasis and 60 percent of Dalits have body mass index of less than 18.5 which is the cut-off figure for determining a state of “permanent famine” according to WHO standards?
Brand Binayak is surely a spark that has lit a bonfire in the hearts of those who would otherwise remain mute onlookers or simply go about their lives staying out of trouble. Whatever be the endgame of the state, the intellectually honest and ethically courageous Binayaks, Guhas and Sanyals of the world speaking truth to power have won this recent round.
Now that the state has effectively ended the good doctor’s work among India’s impoverished and oppressed, the real genocide of poverty compounded by absence of healthcare and erosion of fundamental constitutional rights for bulk of its citizens will be that much easier for the world to see. Perhaps those Indians who want to continue to believe that India’s economic growth has either no costs or is equally borne by all and who wish to continue to blindly beat their chests about living in the world’s largest democracy will now appeal to the Indian state to release Binayak Sen right away?
Balmurli Natrajan teaches anthropology in the USA and is a member of International Campaign to Free Binayak Sen