‘Justice on Trial’ in the Times of Tilism: The Absence of Binayak Sen and the Presence of Anna Hazare on Television in April 2011
Sometime today, the Supreme Court bench of the honorable Justices H. S. Bedi and C.K. Prasad will hear arguments for and against the petition asking that Dr. Binayak Sen, currently sentenced to life imprisonment by the Chhattisgarh High Court on charges of sedition and several other sections of the Indian Penal Code, be given bail.
Last week, the learned bench deferred their decision on the matter, because the counsel for the State of Chhatisgarh asked for more time to make their arguments as to why he thought Dr. Sen should continue to remain in detention. That time was given by the court. I hope that the bench entrusted with the hearing will, as of today, no longer find it possible to tolerate the moral and intellectual lethargy that the counsel for the State of Chhatisgarh has hitherto exhibited in arguing its case. To be fair, the counsel for the State of Chhatisgarh has a difficult task, because they have no case to plead. Naturally, all they can do is to ask for more time.
Last week, on the 6th of April, another bench of the Supreme Court, consisting of the honorable Justices B. Sudershan Reddy and S. S. Nijjar, heard arguments in another case – a Public Interest Litigation filed quite some time ago by Prof. Nandini Sundar and others against the Chhatisgarh Government’s arming of a militia – the Salwa Judum - and the violence pepetrated by it and its successor entities on the mainly Adivasi (indigenous, tribal) inhabitants of the great forest lands of Bastar. The hearing on the 6th of April featured a reading of a deposition by Swami Agnivesh on the impunity enjoyed by the successors of the Salwa Judum – the so called ‘Special Police Personnel’ who are called ‘Koya Commandos’ these days. The learned bench asked the counsel for the State of Chhatisgarh, what business the Government of Chhatisgarh had in arming a section of the population to attack other sections of the population. In reply, the learned counsel for Cchatisgarh asked for what they ask for whenever faced with a difficult question. The counsel asked for time. More time.
But had you watched television last week you could be forgiven for not having known that the state of Chhatisgarh had asked for more time, and yet more time, and still more time, to file their replies in two cases, whose outcomes will be of the utmost significance for our society, News television runs for twenty four hours, seven days a week. That is a lot of time. Last week that time was devoured by the devotional music coming out of a place in New Delhi called Jantar Mantar. A man called Anna Hazare did not eat for three, maybe four days. And television ate, digested and excreted the time that it took for him to stay hungry. Times Now, the ‘market leader’, we are told, in English Language News Television, for instance, devoted ‘ninety seven hours of programming’ (according to its pre-eminence, Arnab Goswami, who admitted as such towards the end of a ‘Newshour’ special) to the reportage, or should I say, spectacolage, of the rise and fall of Anna Hazare’s blood pressure and blood sugar levels and the effects that these fluctuations had on the ‘national consciousness’.
Had you watched television last week, particularly on the 4th, 5th and 6th of April you could be forgiven for not knowing that just about as many people as had collected around the hungry Hazare on the 5th and 6th of April had also gathered, on two of the same days, not very far from Jantar Mantar, in the Auditorium of the Alliance Francaise de Delhi to protest against what is happening to Dr. Binayak Sen and to several other political prisoners in india during the course of a three day event called ‘Justice on Trial’ . You would not have known that stencilled graffiti of Binayak Sen’s face behind bars, with the simple legend, ‘Free Binayak Sen’ is beginning to appear on all sorts of surfaces in Delhi. On walls, flyovers, hospitals and even police barricades. Binayak Sen’s face emblazoned on the skin of our urban fabric, like the viral proliferation of Irom Shormila’s stencilled visage suggests that there is something going on in the interstices of street and public spaces that mainstream representations of the city are unable to comprehend. At ‘Justice on Trial’ a slideshow of these images formed the backdrop of all the music acts, repeatedly bringing the street and its contingency into the precincts of the space of discussion.
‘Justice on Trial’ was organized by a rainbow coalition of artists, filmmakers, performers, journalists and activists, who succeeded in reaching out to a large and varied public with a spectrum of films, discussions, music, performances and contemporary art. in fact, it is arguable, that on the 6th of April, there were more people in the audience listening to people talking about the state of civil liberties, especially (but not only) in Chhatisgarh, at ‘Justice on Trial’ than there were at the ‘anti-corruption’ indefinite public hunger strike organized by a body called ‘India Against Corruption’ at Jantar Mantar. Things began to turn at Jantar Mantar only from the third day of Anna Hazare’s fast onwards, by which time, forty eight hours of non-stop televised public relations for ‘India Against Corruption’ (inc.) along with well timed tweets and re-tweets from the Ramdev network, brand endorsements from Bollywood (those wonderful, shiny people who are so clean that they rarely feel the need to make or receive payments by cheque) and several right-thinking, right living, right-wing eminences translated into large numbers attending the protest at Jantar Mantar and other venues elsewhere in the country.
This – ‘attendance’ - too – had a virtually self-perpetuating character. We heard people on television exhorting everyone to come to Jantar Mantar. And then we heard people at Jantar Mantar tell everyone on television that they had come because they had heard the appeal on television to come to Jantar Mantar. And then they repeated that appeal. And then the reporter, and then the anchor faithfully echoed that appeal. And then some more people turned up at Jantar Mantar. And so the wheel turned, and turned, and turned.
The three days of events at ‘Justice on Trial’ were also packed to capacity, regardless of the absence of television coverage, regardless of televised appeals. Newspapers, such as the Hindu and the Mail Today did carry substantial reporting of the proceedings, as did the website of a magazine called Hard News (after the event) . Even the Times of India carried Sharmila Tagore’s exhortation to young people asking them not to be indifferent to the fate of Dr. Binayak Sen. Facebook messages proliferated.
Afterwards, you could see Danish Husain and Mahmood Farooqui’s dastangoi performance for Dr. Sen on blogs like this one, and download (from Facebook and Youtube links) the sharp and highly political rap and ska music that the Delhi band – Ska Vengers performed, or the tracks that the alt-trock band ‘Them Clones’ presented, or compositions that emerging musicians like Imphal Talkies, Manzil and Faith Gonsalves – (who spoke of having met Binayak Sen as she sang her favourite protest songs ) performed. These uploads went viral, but television stayed immune. Remotes were remote from the action on Binayak Sen.
Even as Anna Hazare and Narendra Modi were delicately constituting their mutual admiration society, TV news could not bring itself to deal with the fact that barely days ago, a packed hall of several hundred people, (with several hundreds more spilling over around a projection on a screen outside the auditorium) had roared its applause at ‘Justice on Trial’ when the Ska Vengers called Modi out with their music for what he had allowed to occur under his watch in Gujarat in 2002. They called it ‘murder’. But television was not listening to the sharpness and intelligence of their music that night.
It was almost as if the television news was living up to the image that the Ska Vengers rapped out – (and you have to imagine this delivered in the slightly gravelly, ‘ska’ inflected baritone of Taru Dalmia a.k.a ‘Delhi Sultanate’ and the crisp, sinuous energy of Samara C as they sang) -
“…Now the guns them bust
Rougher than rough
Suffer in silence
News never cover you much
Cuz they love violence
Now we’re in a newsflash
Now ministers say
Insurgency must crush
So its encounter killing
And hands in handcuffs
Nuff leaders are madmen in a goldrush
And in GK they live posher than posh…”
No, ‘the News’ does ‘never cover you much’. Nor was the ‘News’ able to bear witness to the edginess, and the razor-sharp politics in the performances by Arjun Raina or Inder Salim. Arjun Raina, in full Kathakali regalia, drew parallels between Dr. Binayak Sen and Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist unjustly detained in the US prison system for decades in his performance ‘Bird on a Wire’. Something about the uncanny and fragile silence towards the end of his performance, as he spoke of what made his aged father recall his ‘Naxalite’ years in the late 60s and the early 70s, or what made Leonard Peltier tick in the silence of the prison yard made concrete sense on the first evening of ‘Justice on Trial’, but television would not have known what to do with that sense.
Nor would it have known what to do with Inder Salim, known for his provocative but sensitive evocation of the situation in his native Kashmir through striking instances of performance art. Inder Salim dedicated his performance on the second evening to Dr. Binayak Sen by encasing his head in a cage, locking the cage, holding a brush between his teeth and painting the phrase ‘I Am Binayak Sen’ on a canvas with the motions of his caged head. He threw the key to the cage at the audience and said - ‘you are the key’.
Outside the auditorium, there was a constant throng of people on all three evenings. They bought books and badges, took in the exhibition of posters on Binayak Sen’s life and work designed by several well known graphic artists including Orijit Sen, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, and Parismita Singh and created a space of informal and convivial solidarity that is rare to find in the otherwise rather staid political culture of protest in Delhi. Many of the people who constituted this gathering were not the ones that one can characterize as the ‘usual suspects’ in such contexts. It was as if a new generation, and a new kind of person was tentatively trying out a new vocabulary of political presence, across and beyond the labyrinths of class, discursive formation and political style. This was a new Delhi and the tentative presence of the possibility of a new kind of politics. There were few of the usual cliches, the music and slogans were not the usual mix of piety and secular-liberal lamentation, nor, thankfully, were there any people holding hands and candles. There was anger, there was rage, there was joy and a certain surprise at the recognition that people could instinctively feel about the presence of something new between the things said and unsaid in the course of the three evenings.
Inside, there were images, words, music and a sense of urgency that rarely, if ever, felt heavy or oppressive. The screening of Anand Patwardhan’s film ‘Prisoners of Conscience’ on political prisoners during the internal Emergency (1975-77)and of the National Award winning documentary by Haobam Paban Kumar on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Manipur - ‘AFSPA : 1958′ prompted lively discussions. A question that hovered over the discussion went like this – “Does the detention of Dr. Binayak Sen and several others under colonial era laws like the Sedition act, or the exceptional violence and humiiatation visited, say, upon the Manipuri people as a consequence of the AFSPA constitute evidence of a sitation of an undeclared emergency?”. The Sahitya Akademi Award winning poet Manglesh Dabral, Patwardhan himself and Sharmila Tagore seemed to think so when they spoke on a panel that followed the screening of ‘Prisoners of Conscience’. But television was not listening. Nor was it listening when Vrinda Grover (lawyer) Prof. Ilina Sen (feminist academic & Dr. Binayak Sen’s courageous and dignified partner) and Aruna Roy (Right to Information Activist) spoke of the necessity, and the responsibility, to combat cynicism and despair even in the darkest of times.
In a panel on the third and final day, Kavita Srivastav (civil liberties activist and comrade of Dr. Sen), Arundhati Roy (writer), Prof. Amit Bhaduri (Economist), Prashant Bhushan (advocate) and Amit Sengupta (journalist) spoke at length about the exceptional situation in Chhatisgarh and the broader political and economic contexts against which the assault on civil liberties needs to be seen. The content of these discussions did not have the character of the stage managed consensus that we saw emerge in television studios on exactly the same evenings. There was nuance, there were divergences, differences of emphasis and an attempt at dealing with complexity. All this should have made news. It did not.
The parallel occurrence of two different public mobilizations at a distance of a few kilometers from each other in the national capital almost affords us with a set of laboratory test conditions for experimentally gauging the responsiveness of the electronic media to public issues. The results of this particular experiment are now transparently available.
As events go, the two mobilizations were comparable, at least to begin with. Both had sizable numbers of ‘idealistic’ and telegenic young middle class people – the kind that news television loves to have on air. The atmosphere, at both venues, had a defiantly festive atmosphere. And I can vouch for the fact that the music at ‘Justice on Trial’ was far superior. Both had their fair share of celebrities, Sharmila Tagore, rooting for Binayak Sen, Anupam Kher, rooting for the draft Jan Lokpal Bill.
Seventeen prominent artists, including Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Probir Gupta, Ram Rahman, Gigi Scaria, Mithu Sen, Shreyas Karle and others – contributed art work to an exhibition held in solidarity with Dr. Sen at the ‘Justice on Trial’ venue. They read out a statement that asked, among other things, for the scrapping of the Sedition law, in the presence of no less an eminence than the veteran American feminist, and civil rights activist Angela Davis. Angela Davis spoke to the gathered artists and others at the exhibition, saying that were it not for people like them in the United States , she too, like Dr. Sen, would still have been languishing in prison in California.
The artists statement, which was read alound during the opening of the exhibition, says -
“…The Sedition Law directly attacks the freedom of expression, and is therefore impossible to reconcile with the conditions necessary for a healthy atmosphere for culture, art and intellectual life. As artists, we understand that we are directly affected by any attack on the freedom of expression and conscience. We understand the value of liberty, because without it, we cannot work. It is for this reason that we cannot be indifferent when we witness attacks on liberty. No civilized society sends an individual like Dr. Binayak Sen to prison for doing what can only be regarded his duty as a medical professional and as a civil rights activist. If it can happen to Binayak Sen today, it can happen to anyone tomorrow…”
Under ordinary circumstances, one would expect that were you to hear some of the most prominent (and rightly so) contemporary artists in this country, whom the media otherwise loves to lionize (not because it is interested in the content of their art but because it is eager to ‘scoop’ the prices of their work) speaking out against the detention of political prisoners and arguing that the law on sedition must go, you would find a news-hungry media just as eager to report such an occurrence as it is when it flashes a Bollywood celebrity’s politically-correct tweet, or re-tweet. Mysteriously, this was not the case. Neither Subodh Gupta, nor Bharti Kher, nor Probir Gupta, nor Sharmila Tagore, nor Angela Davis made the cut on Television. Was it because they were all taking a stand about a man called Binayak Sen? (Sharmila Tagore, who had done her homework, even gestured towards the atrocities committed by the Salwa Judum and the Koya Commandos, but again, the electronic media was not listening.)
Irom Sharmila, who featured briefly in Haobam Paban Kumar’s film on Manipur, whose hunger striking credentials stretch far more impressively than Anna Hazare’s do, has rarely, if ever, made it on television in any meaningful way. And that is not because she is any less telegenic think than the cute veteran from Ralgan Siddhi, So lets rule that out, but, could it be, could it just be that this is because Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Kiran Bedi and Rishi Kapoor haven’t quite made up their minds about what to do regarding the ‘corruption’ eating into the Indian Republic’s moral centre courtesy the Armed Forces Special Powers Act? Perhaps, like the counsel for Chhatisgarh in the Supreme Court, they too need some time to think about this ‘other’ kind of corruption. More time, much more time.
Yes, a reporter and camera crew of one news channel did make an appearance on one of the days at ‘Justice on Trial’ , but their report has not yet seen the light of day. Perhaps the managing editors of the channel the crew represent did not think they had the time to show that report. Like the counsel for the State of Chhatisgarh, and the worthies I just mentioned, perhaps they too, need more time, and yet more time, before they can listen adequately to what is happening in prisons and court houses across our world-cup winning Republic over the din of the relentless background muzak of their anti-corruption campaigns.
Some people, such as the lawyer Prashant Bhushan, even appeared in both places – at Jantar Mantar, and at ‘Justice on Trial’ . Prashant Bhushan spoke eloquently about what is happening at Chhatisgarh, and is of course one of the prominent faces in the movement crystallizing around the draft Jan Lokpal Bill. And yet, you did not see Prashant Bhushan talk about Binayak Sen on TV last week. We saw Swami Agnivesh repeatedly on Television, as an interlocutor for Anna Hazare, and yet, no one found it necessary, in the course of all his appearances, to ask him even a single question about the fact that his deposition had been heard the the very same day in the Supreme Court in the PIL against the State of Chhatisgarh on the issue of the Salwa Judum.
Granted, corruption makes news, and ought to make news. But how do even begin to understand and explain the silence and the void on television when it comes to a consideration of disappearances, the burning of villages, rape, and the impunity enjoyed by the militia armed by the state. Is the density of the discourse around corruption so intense as to constitute a black hole which swallows every form of dissent that cannot be translated by television into an automatic call for strengthening the state ?
By the time the last act on the last evening of Justice on Trial – Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain’s brilliant Dastangoi performance – ‘Dastan e Sedition banaam Hakim Sen’ ended, the atmosphere in the auditorium had been absolutely electrified. Farooqui and Husain began, as they always do, by invoking with their words, in Urdu, the most beautiful, delirious, incisive and wicked language known to humanity, the image of a ‘Tilism’ – a magic sphere governed by the magician Afrasiyab and his minions – whose spell has to be broken by itinerant ‘Ayyars’ (tricksters who are virtuous, intelligent and mischievous as hell). In this dastan, dedicated to Dr. Sen, the two story tellers set their tilism in a barely disguised Chhattisgarh, which they called Kohistan, and took us into the depleting undergrowth of its MoU threatened forests and the thickets of its courtrooms and prisons.
The baroque form of the dastangoi tradition makes it possible for us to conceive of tilisms within tilisms, spells upon spells, enchantments upon enchantments. And the spell of televised spectacle, which sculpts the noise as well as the silence of our political life, is precisely such a device. It envelopes everything from the ‘Judum-Judum’ noise of stormtroopers in the forest to the drone of judgements meted out in courtrooms and television studios. It conjures entire revolutions in and out of thin air at a moments notice, wraps repression in bright colours and makes it dance to noble sentiments and stirring music. It is an enchantment spun by great spin-doctors, emperors of dissimulation, the veritable Afrasiyabs of our times. It is to combat such powerful spells that a few ayyars of Delhi – artists, filmmakers, writers and others, and hundreds of decent, good people who are as disturbed by disappearing people as they are by disappearing money had gathered for those three evenings last week at the Alliance Francasie de Delhi.
As often happens in a dastan, Afrasiyab’s spell may have won the first round, and the tilism seems all powerful now. But the memory of how the Ayyars acted, as recounted by the chroniclers of our time, may yet succeed in breaking the spell that drapes the currently supine form of justice and liberty. The people of Kohistan, Hindustan, may yet open their eyes. Chhatisgarh may see an end to a meaningless war. Dr. Binayak Sen may yet return to his clinic and Kopa Kunjam to his vitally necessary work.
I have heard it said that Judges generally stay aloof from the tilism spun by television and the powerful elite that set its agendas. This morning, as dawn breaks, I hope that the honorable judges who will sit on the two benches that will hear the two cases pertaining to Chhatisgarh will make up their minds, uncontaminated by the silence and the noise of the tilism at the end of the remote-controls in their living rooms. I hope they will act by listening to their consciences and by paying attention to what I pray is their innate sense of fairness and justice. In any case, regardless of whether they do so or not, the Ayyars who stood by Dr. Sen last week in Delhi had better stay prepared to combat the spell for the long haul. The tilism is not going to break so easily. But give in it will in the end. We have to make sure that there can be no other way for this dastan to end.
POSTSCRIPT : Since this post was written and uploaded this morning, we have received the news that the Supreme Court bench of Hon’ble Justices H.S. Bedi and C.K. Prasad has granted bail to Dr. Binayak Sen. This is very welcome news. A friend (Samina Mishra) posted on facebook that a small crack seems to have appeared on the Tilism. We will all have to keep working to ensure that this crack widens, and that one day, the spell of the Tilism is broken.