Behind the story
of Dr Binayak Sen is equally that of Shankar Guha Niyogi, his friend
and inspiration, murdered in 1991. Anand Patwardhan
I first met Binayak
Sen in 1986. Shankar Guha Niyogi, legendary leader of the Chhattisgarh
Mukti Morcha (CMM), had invited me to screen my film Bombay, Our City
for the mine workers of Chhattisgarh.
Detained: Binayak Sen with Niyogi’s daughter
tide swept India, it came up against a worldview that had successfully
forged class solidarity against all divides
Niyogi was no ordinary
union leader. Originally a worker in the Bhilai Steel plant, his thinking
went far beyond the wage struggle politics of most unions of the day.
Although the cmm’s ranks were drawn from marginalised workers
who barely earned minimum wages for often life-threatening labour, their
optimism and energy was there for all to see. Not only did I witness
democracy at work every evening when they gathered to discuss ideological
and practical issues, I also saw how innovative their thinking was.
Knowing that the predominantly adivasi workforce needed their own symbols
of struggle, the cmm revived the memory of a forgotten hero, Shaheed
Veer Narayan Singh, a 19th-century adivasi whom the British hanged in
1857 for feeding his people from the granaries of the rich.
In 1981, inspired
by Niyogi, Sen and two other doctors came to work among Chhattisgarh’s
mine workers. They were instrumental in setting up the modest but impressive
Shaheed Hospital, built and maintained with voluntary labour from the
miners. By the mid-80s, the hospital had grown from 15 to 50 beds with
its own operating theatre. The love, care and pride that went into work
at the hospital made it one of the most unique institutions of its kind.
Physician and worker alike were literally healing themselves.
that Niyogi and his comrades envisaged may have borrowed from Marx and
Engels, but it also borrowed from Gandhi. It was acquainted both with
the failures of the Left as well as with the environmental degradation
wrought by the development paradigm practiced world over. In India,
by the early 80s, disillusionment with the traditional Left as well
with in-fighting Naxal groups had set in, and there was a search for
an alternative vision. Niyogi and the cmm in Chhattisgarh, and Medha
Patkar and the Narmada Bachao Andolan in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya
Pradesh seemed the harbingers of a new, green, Left, that would use
not armed struggle but grass roots organisation and mass mobilisation
as its primary weapon. This Laal Hara (Red Green) was a potent force
that everyone hoped would lead us into the future.
The screening of
Bombay, Our City, a film on Bombay’s slum dwellers, was an instant
hit. Despite its meagre resources, the union had spent Rs 10, 000 to
buy a 16mm projector for the occasion — another example of forward
thinking that put real value on workers’ education. Over a thousand
workers attended the open air screening that evening and the discussions
that lasted long into the night were so lively that the union decided
to acquire a print of their own so they could continue to screen the
film after I had left. I said I would return but, to my eternal regret,
never kept my promise.
Slain: Shankar Guha Niyogi
In the early 80s, Niyogi
and Medha Patkar seemed the harbingers of a new, potent force,
the green Left, the Laal Hara
us. People like myself, who had earlier focused on workers’ issues,
became preoccupied with fighting the rise of the religious fundamentalism
that eventually demolished the Babri Mosque, and went on to engulf the
subcontinent in violence and hate. In a sense, Niyogi too became a victim
of this rising tide. As the BJP vied for power in the Chhattisgarh belt,
it came across a diametrically-opposed worldview that had successfully
forged class solidarity against all religious divides.
Niyogi and the cmm
had other powerful enemies. The workers’ growing confidence had
given the union the muscle to tackle social evils like alcoholism. The
union took to imposing small fines on those who drank, secretly returning
the amount to the alcoholics’ wives! The shrink in consumption
levels hit the liquor mafia hard. Other opponents included labour contractors,
who had lost an exploitative livelihood, and an industrialist/ politician
nexus that could not tolerate a strong workers’ movement.
On the night of
September 27, 1991, Shankar Guha Niyogi was shot dead as he lay asleep
in his hut. Those who organised the murder were never punished, although
everyone in the area knows who they were. The additional district and
sessions court found six persons guilty and awarded the death sentence
to the man who fired the gun and life sentences to the other five, including
two prominent industrialists close to the BJP, charged with planning
and funding the murder. With the BJP in power, the Madhya Pradesh High
Court freed the accused, citing lack of evidence.
The orphaned cmm
bravely struggled on, ably led by Janak Lal Thakur and Niyogi’s
other colleagues. Sen and his wife Ilina stayed on in the area, working
both with the cmm as well as in the field of health, and later began
work with the civil liberties movement. Sen became General Secretary
of the Chhattisgarh unit of the People Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
and the logic of ‘liberalisation’ led to worsening repression
of the region’s adivasis and workers. Naxal resistance grew in
this vacuum. In response, the state government launched one of its most
infamous operations, the Salwa Judum, which arms and trains civilians
to form paramilitary vigilante outfits against the Naxals. As pucl Gen
Secy, Sen documented and published reports on the reign of terror unleashed
in Chhattisgarh by a nexus of the administration and the paramilitary
forces. The State took revenge. They put out a warrant for his arrest
alleging that he had met a Maoist leader jailed in Raipur, and facilitated
an exchange of letters, despite the fact that the pucl had sought and
obtained official permission for the meeting. On May 14, Sen turned
himself in and has been held for over two months now as a Naxalite.
People are rallying
to the good doctor’s cause. Support has poured in from across
the country. Amnesty International has taken up the case. The medical
fraternity in India and abroad has responded, for Sen is that rarest
of rare doctors — one who walks and works amongst the poorest
and the most deprived. So far, our cries have fallen on deaf ears.
Binayak Sen is
a gentle, compassionate man, whom I am proud to have met. If he is to
be held a Naxalite for documenting State atrocities, then count me as
one too. And count all those thousands who have signed petitions for
his release and who will continue to fight injustice in this land wherever
it occurs, non-violently, but without fear.
Patwardhan is a documentary filmmaker