Binayak Sen, who received bail Friday, was arrested in 2007 for acting as a courier for an imprisoned Naxalite leader Narayan Sanyal. He had visited Mr Sanyal more than 30 times in prison in the state of Chhattisgarh, with the permission of the police.
Rights activist granted bail
NEW DELHI // India's top court has granted bail to a jailed paediatrician and human-rights activist charged with sedition for helping a group of Maoist revolutionaries that has been labelled a terrorist organisation by the government.
Dr Binayak Sen, who received bail Friday, was arrested in 2007 for acting as a courier for an imprisoned Naxalite leader Narayan Sanyal. He had visited Mr Sanyal more than 30 times in prison in the state of Chhattisgarh, with the permission of the police.
In a 2008 interview published in Down to Earth, an Indian science and environmental magazine, Dr Sen had said that he had only visited Mr Sanyal "in the capacity of a human-rights activist. He asked me for help and I couldn't deny him that. Everybody has the right to legal aid and medical care."
At the time of his arrest, Dr Sen had in his possession letters from Naxalite leaders and some Maoist literature, which formed the bulk of the evidence presented against him.
A district court sentenced Dr Sen to life imprisonment last December and revoked his bail. The Chhattisgarh High Court has yet to rule on his appeal. The Supreme Court's decision only applies to the revocation of his bail.
"He may be a sympathiser, but it (does) not make him guilty of sedition," the two-judge bench observed. "The worst that can be said is that he was found in possession of general documents (sympathetic to Naxalism), but how can it be said that such possession would attract the charge of sedition? If someone has an autobiography of (Mahatma) Gandhi… will he be called a Gandhian?"
Dr Sen's case illustrates the complications of India's struggle with Naxalites and the pitfalls inherent in its fight against a guerrilla rebel force that has managed to garner considerable popular support in rural villages by demanding land and jobs for agricultural labourers and the poor.
In recent years it is estimated about 2,000 people _ including police, militants and civilians _ have been killed in the violence.
Named after the district of Naxalbari, where it originated in 1967, the Naxalite movement aims to bring about a people's revolution, much as was envisioned by Mao Zedong in China. One of India's intelligence agencies, the Research and Analysis Wing, estimated in 2006 that the Naxalites had at least 20,000 armed cadre, and many thousands more who were unarmed.
According to numbers from the Press Information Bureau, the Naxalite movement was, as of 2009, active in 180 out of India's 640 districts, spread across 10 states but most prominent in West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. In 2006, the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, called the Naxalite movement "the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country".
It was in Chhattisgarh that Dr Sen practised medicine for nearly three decades, helping to set up a low-cost hospital. He also became general secretary of the state's unit of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, which has protested human-rights violations against civilians in the government's crackdowns on Naxalites.
In that 2008 interview, Dr Sen pointed out that the Naxalite movement had taken root in villages because "of the total absence of government infrastructure in these areas. The rural poor have very valid grievances against the state and the Maoists tapped into these."
"However, I don't condone the Naxals. I don't approve of their violent methods. In fact, I've spoken strongly against them several times," he said at the time.
The root of the Naxalite problem is a lack of development in many parts of rural India, resulting in frustrations that feed the Naxal forces, said Dilip D'Souza, a Mumbai-based writer who is working on a book about Dr Sen to be published later this year.
"Like a lot of doctors, Binayak saw that health care in these areas wasn't just about health but also about hunger and development, and it tied in to the larger policies of the state," Mr D'Souza said. "So he spoke up against that. And this case shows that anybody who criticises the government and its operations is liable to be branded a Maoist, as Binayak was."
The fact that the Naxalite movement has received tacit or material support from villagers in Chhattisgarh or West Bengal has also blurred the distinction between civilians and Naxal cadre, says B Raman, a former intelligence official and a counter-terrorism analyst. "Sometimes it does happen that there is an unintentional violation of human rights," Mr Raman said. "In Dr Sen's case, the evidence was flimsy."
In his book Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, the journalist Sudeep Chakravarti quotes Chhattisgarh's director-general of police, who cautioned colleagues about the indistinct nature of the Naxalite movement. "Whatever is visible is only the tip of the iceberg," the policeman said. "Whatever numbers (of Naxalite strength) are coming up, there are 10 times more underground."
The Naxalite insurgency, Mr. Raman noted, was in this way different from the insurgency that emerged in the state of Punjab, by groups that demanded a separate homeland for Sikhs. "In that case, the leaders of the movement and the cadre were all sons of the soil, people who could be easily identified," he said. "So it wasn't complicated to distinguish who was who."
In areas where Naxalites are active, however, the leaders of the movement are often migrants from other states. "Then there are people like Dr Sen, or other people with sympathy for leftist ideologies, who may have gone into Chhattisgarh for humanitarian reasons," Mr Raman said. "So it does become more complex to differentiate between activists, ordinary civilians, and Naxalite combatants."
Mr D'Souza admitted that, for paramilitary forces fighting the Naxalites, it was difficult to make this distinction. "But that's the nature of guerilla warfare everywhere," he said. "That's why the lesson should be that the government tries instead to tackle the lack of development, which is the root of this issue."
Dr Sen's case, Mr. D'Souza said, was based on "nonexistent charges" and should have been thrown out by the district court. "Is it always going to take the Supreme Court to save us from similar foolishness?" he said. "For so many ordinary people, the lower courts are their only recourse, and if the lower courts are going to behave like this, it's a scary thing for democracy."