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A Case of Conscience: Shiv Viswanathan writes to Manmohan Singh on the conviction of Binayak Sen

December 28, 2010

This open letter by SHIV VISWANATHAN has been circulated by Communalism Combat

Dear Professor Manmohan Singh,

I hope you don’t mind the temerity of this letter. It is written as one scholar to another, one citizen to another. I know you are a PM and people like me may not be influential. However some things must be said and said clearly.

I was aghast to find that Doctor Binayak Sen has been given a life term for sedition. Let me put it simply. I think it is an appalling act of injustice and a betrayal of an ethical vision. 

The point I wish to make is simple. We do not have to agree with Binayak Sen, anymore than we have to agree with Mahaswta Devi or Arundhati Roy or Baba Amte. But these have been voices of conscience. These are people who have care and healed, given a voice to the voiceless. They represent the essential goodness of our society. They are Indians and outstanding Indians and no nation state can negate that. I admit that such people are not easy people. They irritate, they agonize over things we take for granted or ignore. They take the ethical to the very core of our lives. Let us be clear. It is not Sen’s ideology that threatens us. It is his ethics, his sense of goodness. We have arrested him because we have arrested that very sense of justice in ourselves.

Sen is a man with courage, a professional doctor with the conviction that healing has to go beyond medicine, that the body cannot heal when the body politics is ill. He is a reminder that health, politics and ethics go together. Another man who said it but a bit differently was Mohan Das Gandhi.

Sen is a reminder of the deeper travails of our society. We hate the poor for their poverty. Worse, we hate those who fight for the poor. Somehow it has become fashion to condemn human rights, to treat activists as fifth columnist, to regard them as fronts for terrorists groups.

A human rights activist has the courage to point out the humus of terror is injustice. Oddly and predictably people who fight injustice are condemned as terrorists. A human rights activist often has to defend a man he disagrees with, keeping both the activist and the disagreement alive.

The sadness of our state is that its categories have become numb and lifeless. Categories like the nation state, the idea of security, our sense of territoriality lack a recognition of generosity, the courage, the challenge to categories that dissenters make. Yet the risk the dissenter takes is preferable to the silence that exonerates violence torture, injustice or genocide. Mr.Binayak Sen should be in your cabinet Mr.Singh, or a member of your development councils, not in jail. A life giving career cannot be met with a life sentence. Think of your own angst and silent suffering after 1984. You are an honest man, a sensitive man and a gentle man. Think of the slow indifference to justice then.

The word Naxal or Maoist sins less than it is sinned against. It is a term that black-boxes a variety of reactions to violence and injustice. Some of them seek to meet violence with violence, some seek to engage with the roots of violence. Others sympathise quietly with victims of injustice. When was empathy a crime? It is a strange world where to call a man a naxal sympathizer condemns him as much as the Naxal activist. The word Naxals is also applied to tribals who fight for justice or the activists who fight along with the tribals. To condemn all is to condemn a large part of India. If fighting for justice or caring for an old man is sedition, then the seditious need a param vir chakra, as warriors against injustice, not a life sentence. To punish Sen is not just bad law, it is an act of cowardice. It is odd that it is Sen who believes in the law at the very moment the law condemns him. Both radicalism and the rule of law are human creations and both demand critical scrutiny. It is time for a conversation. A society where those who fight for decency are attacked cannot be a decent society. You are a decent man and a thinker. All I ask is that you think about the case of Binayak Sen. Invite him for tea listen to him. It will tarnish you or the rule of law. It might show you the yawning gap between law and justice.

Think of it, Mr.Prime Minister that ours is a society that spends more on defending the Raja, Radia and Kalmadi than Binayak Sen. The law works for the first three who corrupt the core of our system but fails for Binayak Sen who upholds some of its finest values. Tell me Mr.Singh how long can a society remain sane without confronting such ironies?

Let me frame it in a different way. Today’s sedition might be tomorrow’s axiomatics. We often define as sedition what we can’t understand or can’t stand. It challenges our sense of security, the security of categories. It might be easier to understand Sen’s work within a framework, a spectrum of thought.

Begin with the Arjun Sengupta report on the informal Economy. It shows how we have sinned against the life world of hawkers, traders, scavengers, trades which constitute 70% of our economy. Then think of Jairam Ramesh claiming forests are not as renewable as we think and that tribes and forests have a connectivity that we must understand. That shakes up the naïve theory of growth. Then think of Mahasweta showing how tribes have been converted to bonded labour, how mining has corroded our country. Then place Binayak Sen in that spectrum as a doctor and a human rights activist. It is the Chattisgarh bureaucracy that sounds tyrannical and unreasonable. One realizes sedition has become a stick to beat down dissent or to even erase concern for the downtrodden.

To impose a life sentence on Sen is to freeze our own lives of possibility. It is time not just to release Binayak Sen but to honour him and the ideals he worked for. Our democracy for all its bumbling can still rise to the occasion

Shiv Viswanathan



13 Comments leave one →
  1. saeed permalink
    December 28, 2010 12:53 AM

    after so much blood your indian forces drained in kashmir, do u still expect democracy? brother, u are in a deep nightmare, get well soon..

    death to fascists
    long live resistance

    • Shreya permalink
      December 28, 2010 2:40 PM

      What we live in can hardly even be called a democracy now.
      The time for action has come.
      The situation with Dr.Binayak Sen is one in many to come, and one out of many that have already happened; so many atrocities already committed have not had light shed upon them, but that does not make their reality any less.
      This farce of a democracy has to be overthrown, and justice reinstated.

      long live resistance.

      • December 28, 2010 7:50 PM

        yes! long live resistance! yesterday it was arundhati roy, today its Dr. sen. tomorrow it could be any one of us!

  2. Rijul permalink
    December 28, 2010 1:03 AM

    Absolutely terrific! Heartfelt, honest, optimistic in despair. If only it were heard. And heeded!

  3. Upal Deb permalink
    December 28, 2010 1:17 AM

    ‎”We do not have to agree with Binayak Sen, anymore than we have to agree with Mahaswta Devi or Arundhati Roy or Baba Amte. But these have been voices of conscience. These are people who have care and healed, given a voice to the voiceless…. They represent the essential goodness of our society. They are Indians and outstanding Indians and no nation state can negate that. I admit that such people are not easy people. They irritate, they agonize over things we take for granted or ignore. They take the ethical to the very core of our lives”….yes these are the defining lines…Thanks to Shiv for writing, to Brinda for sharing..
    Let me add an imagined voice of Binayak Sen to Shiv’s offering:

    “My anarchic heart
    accepts a provisional government,
    while I continue
    in clandestine negotiations with your eyes,
    with your mouth invading all my limits,
    in this war that you pronounce to me
    in this open love between us” (Teresa Calderon, Chilean poetess)

  4. December 28, 2010 9:10 AM

    “Think of your own angst and silent suffering after 1984”
    Think, Prof. Singh, please think.

  5. Arvind Sardana permalink
    December 28, 2010 4:50 PM

    Very well said. This is an attempt to gag. Even the media in MP and CG are paranoid with sedition. Newspapers report that human right activists who all along shed crocodile tears would have now learnt a lesson!
    The CG govt can’t stand any critique of Salwa Judam. The way to break this paranoia is to discuss the critique of Salwa Judam openly and let them arrest us all.

  6. umar khalid permalink
    December 28, 2010 6:18 PM

    Notwithstanding my complete sympathies with Binayak Sen and his work, i can help feeling aghast at the discourse around his arrest. Rather than focusing on the politics of Binayak Sen and that of the state, it seems as if it is only a matter of reminding the state of how good a doctor and a human being he was! This author also by talking about what he calls ‘his ethics, his sense of goodness’ and not his ‘ideology’ also seems to suggest that there was no politics that Sen espoused, and neither was there any politics behind his arrest! Moreover, rather than looking at Sen’s arrest as another indicator of Indian state’s inherent undemocratic nature and the exposing it further, for the author (and a lot of the other human rights grouops, NGOs, etc) it is only a matter of reminding the state of his inherent goodness to get him released which will eventually ‘restore’ democracy, making it seem as if Sen was the only political prisoner in the country! Not surprisingly, it is the state which is endowed with the sole agency when it comes to finding ‘solutions’ to these situations. It as if it did not create them in the first place, which once again has a politics behind it.

    Such an approach only leads us to getting selective about the injustices we want to support. No wonder there is not a single mention of Narayan Sanyal or Piyush Guha in this article nor in most of the discourse in the civil society.

    • neerja dasani permalink
      January 7, 2011 1:03 PM

      mr. khalid, thank you so much for your intervention. just wanted to share with you that some of us here in tamil nadu are debating the same concerns and will hopefully be able to reflect them in the various campaigns across the state.

  7. a rose cellar permalink
    December 28, 2010 7:40 PM

    journalists and writers are making me nauseous by repeating ad nauseam that manmohan singh is honest; thus,his integrity cannot be questioned.
    pratap bhanu mehta found some ethereal quality in his stoic approach towards poilitics!
    a person who did not utter a word when christians were raped and killed in orissa by members of vhp/bajrang dal, a person who has no understanding of the economic disaster that millions of citizens are facing, a person who considers an increase in the use of nuclear energy to be the touchstone of his principles, a person who heads a corrupt government—- such a person is being hailed as honest! how about re-thinking? what about (tacit)complicity?
    in any case, this call to shake him out of his deep slumber and silence is being wasted on a man for whom shakespeare would have said:
    There are no tricks in plain and simple faith;
    But hollow men, like horses hot at hand,
    Make gallant show and promise of their mettle;
    But when they should endure the bloody spur,
    They fall their crests, and like deceitful jades
    Sink in the trial…( Julius Caesar, Act iv, Scene ii, lines 22-27)

  8. January 1, 2011 1:52 PM

    Genius Rose. Thankfully you are aware. Splendid analogy: Julius Caesar, Act iv, Scene ii, lines 22-27.

  9. Dr mubeen shah permalink
    January 3, 2011 9:21 AM

    A very interesting article exposing the facade of democracy in India.I being a Kashmiri know it for a long time were actions of the police -political system is unfortunately with the pliability of the courts either in delaying or in combination with the above nexus harming the credentials as well as society in India.the indifference of the civil society in India to the atrocities done the political and police nexus in Kashmir is now reflected in other states which will result in weakening of the nation state of India in the long run.time is running out and I hope writers ,the media particularly the electronic media relate the actual things and expose this nexus and fight for the people and set right the state.unfortunately the hon’ble prime minister who is a gentle and good soul by not taking any action in so many cases werein he himself had committed zero tolerance in Kashmir to human rights is found wanting and one commentator has aptly said that it would mean tacit support of the people who are afflicting the atrocities in Kashmir and also have been doing it India.

  10. B.S.Divakar permalink
    January 17, 2011 6:20 PM

    Namasthe Shiv Vishwanathan,

    I have had a glimpse of your firm vision & voice @ NINASAM. HEGGODU.
    I sincerely hope IF NOT THE P.M. atleast MANMOHAN SING


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