Blog by Domini Sowa (Amnesty International Scotland, Volunteer)
Dr Binayak Sen does not look like a man for whom the term ‘seditious’ would be applicable. Yet the 62 year old public health practitioner, activist and prisoner of conscience has been battling the charge of sedition since 2007. India’s most famous political prisoner came to Edinburgh to speak at a public meeting on Thursday the 14th hosted by the University of Edinburgh.
The talk took place on the occasion of Dr Sen’s trip to the UK to receive the Gandhi Foundation International Peace award for his tireless work in public health in one of India’s poorest states, Chhattisgarh. Dr Sen was joined by his wife, the activist and social worker Ilina Sen, Amnesty Scotland’s Shabnum Mustapha and the politician and former doctor, Richard Simpson MSP. Speaking to a packed room of activists, supporters and interested members of the public, the Sen’s spoke about their experiences in the wider context of inequity and dispossession of the deprived and indigenous people of India.
Dr Sen has worked assiduously for over three decades with the poor, indigenous and other marginalised people in Chhattisgarh on issues of basic livelihood, health services and social justice. As an office-bearer of the national civil liberties organisation, the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) Dr. Sen is also a prominent defender of human rights in India. In many ways, his roles as a doctor and activist informed one another and became entwined.
Due to his vocal criticism of the inequitable policies and unconstitutional police and paramilitary action carried out by the right-wing Chhattisgarh government, Dr Sen was arrested under draconian anti-terror legislation in 2007. The charges brought against him were widely believed to have been trumped up and the campaign to release Dr Binayak Sen grew quickly to include wide public support and patronage from key figures, including Richard Simpson MSP who sat on the panel.
At the talk Dr Sen did not dwell on his legal battle but rather on the social issues affecting the most destitute in India. He spoke movingly about the cases of the minority groups being forced off their land and communal holdings that have for years managed to just about sustain them. Focusing on the problem of famine, Dr Sen challenged the audience’s preconceptions of chronic food shortage to raise the point that under technical definitions, based upon percentages of the population under BMI 18.5, large regions of India have been suffering famine for years. Shedding light on the "rising" nation of India, Dr Sen stressed the extent of social inequality in the Indian subcontinent and the dire nutritional conditions that affect large swathes of the population.
Ilina Sen, wife of Dr Binayak Sen spoke next about the extent to which the Indian government is contributing to the problems affecting the nation in their desire for ‘development’. Although populations are campaigning against moves to build nuclear power stations in tsunami prone regions and destruction of land following the creation of hydro-electrical dams, resistance to the clearances is being silenced and people are being accused with sedition. This is the same crime for which Dr Bianayak Sen faces life imprisonment which was first introduced by the British Imperial authorities to suppress dissent to its rule. According to Ilina Sen, "human security is the basis of national security" and so in the interest of national security, it is necessary to safeguard the livelihood of the Indian population. This is something that the Indian government and state governments like Chhattisgarh are failing to do and the couple have long been campaigning for.
Amensty International actively supported the release of Dr Binayak Sen and the Scottish branch of the campaign gained momentum in spring 2008 around the first anniversary of his imprisonment. Ilina Sen informed the audience that her latest visit to Edinburgh was the first since 2008 during the height of the campaign. She acknowledged the significant support that her husband received from the international community and attributed the success of Dr Binayak Sen’s bail in April 2011 to the many campaigns backing him.
Dr Binayak Sen is still fighting for freedom and although it is a huge step that he was granted bail by the Indian Supreme Court, he is still not free in the fullest sense of the word. The couple’s first-hand experience of the inequality and corruption that affects India has not left them disheartened at the possibility of a positive change in the relationship between the government, the public and development. Speaking to the audience in response to a question about the future of India she said, "It is possible with imagination and political will, to do things differently"
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