Karela Fry

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Ramachandra Guha on Binayak Sen

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In an opinion piece in HT Ramachandra Guha traces a history of private commitment to public good and its fallout:

[Shankar Guha Niyogi] had gone to the Bhilai region as a young man and started working among unorganised labour. While workers employed by the Bhilai steel plant were represented by unions affiliated to the major parties, the labourers in the mines and ancillary industries were unrepresented, and hence shockingly exploited. Under Guha Niyogi’s leadership they came together in unions, and demanded and obtained better wages. But their leader’s vision was never merely economistic. He opened clinics for them and schools for their children, and, with the help of their wives, ran a successful campaign against alcoholism. Guha Niyogi was also a precocious environmentalist, urging factory owners to protect workers from pollution, and asking the general public to conserve the water bodies, forests and overall biodiversity of the region.

A man of quiet dignity and an almost heroic commitment to the poor — like Mahatma Gandhi in both respects — Guha Niyogi inspired many middle-class professionals to join him. Among them was Binayak Sen, a gold medalist from the Christian Medical College in Vellore, who, with the world at his feet, moved to Chhattisgarh in the early 1980s. He has lived in the region ever since, ministering to patients from a wide variety of backgrounds. If his mentor’s vision went beyond higher wages, Sen’s goes beyond medical ailments. He became increasingly interested in the social rights of the area’s adivasi population, who live on the margins, without access to decent schools or regular employment.

In 1991, Guha Niyogi was murdered by a man hired by industrialists who disapproved of his attempts to enhance the self-respect of the workers. Now, 20 years later, his friend, colleague and protegé has been awarded a life sentence by a court in Raipur for the crime of talking to Maoist prisoners in jail. Binayak Sen has never fired a gun; he probably does not know how to hold one. He has explicitly condemned Maoist violence, and even said of the armed revolutionaries that theirs is “an invalid and unsustainable movement”.

In the eyes of the government of Chhattisgarh, the crime of Binayak Sen is that he dared question the corrupt and brutal methods used to tackle the Maoist upsurge. In 2005, the state government promoted a vigilante army that spread terror through the districts of Dantewada, Bijapur and Bastar. In the name of combating Naxalism, it burned homes (and occasionally, whole villages), violated tribal women, and attacked (and sometimes killed) tribal men who refused to join its ranks. As a result of its depredations almost a hundred thousand adivasis with no connection at all to Maoism were rendered homeless.

Sen was one of the first to document the excesses of the vigilante army, and to expose the hand of the state government in promoting it. That his charges were true I can confirm, for I visited the region shortly afterwards, in the company of a group of independent citizens, who included the respected editors BG Verghese and Harivansh, and the distinguished anthropologist Nandini Sundar, winner of the Infosys Prize. Our report, War in the Heart of India, provides a sober, non-ideological account of the crimes of the state and Union governments in this regard.

Sen’s conviction happened in a court subject to intimidation by a government run by (and I use the word advisedly) paranoid politicians (helped by sometimes paranoid police officers). His conviction will and should be challenged. As it stands, however, it is a disgrace to democracy. His brave wife commented on the verdict that if “one who has worked for the poor of the country for 30 years, if that person is found guilty of sedition activities and conspiracy, when gangsters and scamsters are walking free, I think it’s a scandalous situation”. Any reasonable Indian would concur.


Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

December 27, 2010 at 4:27 am

2 Responses

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  1. Fried Karela looks like you are one of the fan boys who never met Shankar Guha Niyogi in real life. Back in 1987, I was a graduate engineer trainee at Dalli Rajhrah mines and have first hand experience of dealing with this vile/evil goon. He is no saint, as you make him out to be. He was an ordinary crude goon as evil as they come. Good riddance i say, if someone got to him, it was bound to happen. Those who play with guns are bound to get shot at some point in their lifetime, so no surprises or tears from my side. You sir should check your facts and present a balanced view. We were there and you apparently were not, so stop spreading canard and stop canonizing an ordinary criminal.

    S Joglekar

    March 1, 2011 at 12:07 am

    • Ramachandra Guha’s article may start with Niyogi, but it is more about Sen. Your comments are entirely about Niyogi. As far as I know, Mr. Niyogi was a trade union man (the Wikipedia article on him is just a stub: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shankar_Guha_Niyogi). I have heard every unionist described in the terms that you use. However, your claims would certainly interest readers. It would have been good if you had left links to news items which bear out your side of the story.

      Arhopala Bazaloides

      March 3, 2011 at 3:44 pm

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