Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Binayak Sen, India and Justice!!

“How many does it take to metamorphose wickedness into righteousness?

“One man must not kill. If he does it is murder. Two, ten, one hundred men, acting on their own responsibility, must not kill. If they do, it is still murder. But a state or nation may kill as many as they please, and it is no murder. It is just, necessary, commendable and right. Only get people enough to agree to it, and the butchery of myriads of human beings is perfectly innocent.

“But how many does it take? This is the question. Just so with theft, robbery, burglary, and all other crimes. Man-stealing is a great crime in one man, or a very few men only. But a whole nation can commit it, and the act becomes not only innocent, but highly honorable…

“Verily there is magic in numbers! The sovereign multitude can out-legislate the Almighty, at least in their own conceit. But how many does it take? Just enough to make a nation.…Alexander the Great demanded of a pirate, by what right he infested the seas. By the same right, retorted the pirate, that Alexander ravages the world. How far was he from the truth?”

- Adin Ballou, American social reformer and abolitionist (1803-90)

A famous story links two great Americans. When the United States invaded Mexico in 1846, the great naturalist Henry Thoreau, in an act of civil disobedience, refused to pay his taxes as a mark of protest against US actions and was sent to prison for his sin against the state. His close friend and mentor from Harvard, Ralph Waldo Emerson came to see him in jail. Emerson quipped “what are you doing inside?” Thoreau's reply made Emerson blush. “What are you doing outside ?”, he replied.

There are times when jails become one of the few places of honour left in the world. Where, after all, would you like to find yourself if robbers and murderers were masquerading before the public as magistrates, judges and hangmen?

India today finds itself crouched in one such corner of shame, wherein those with permeable skin feel out of place before the television sets in their own living rooms. The air is thick with suspicion and accusation as the odour of staggering injustices hangs about us everywhere one goes.

While well-known serial killers gamely garner tickets from national parties for the parliamentary elections and mass-murderers sagely deliver their homilies from our television screens, women and men of integrity and courage must lurk and slide in the dark alleys of our cities or in the forlorn jungles of the land. It is a state of affairs which would have appalled and nauseated decent citizens a generation ago, let alone the heroes and heroines of our freedom movement. The sad truth is that as a civilisation India 's standing in the world has suffered a precipitous fall during the last several years, even as our elated elite's vainglorious aspirations to super-power-hood never miss a morning to announce themselves. Are they out of step, or the rest of us? Time will tell, though it is as much up to us to determine which way the die of destiny will roll.

If Adin Ballou is right, and the multitude is indeed sovereign (“un punishable”, in the words of Edmund Burke), the question for us in India today becomes as to which multitude is the more important one, the one which is suffering the lies and crimes of our leaders, or the numerically far lesser one which prospers on their patronage. It is for us, the citizenry of this beleaguered country, to ensure that we find the courage to determine the morally correct order of importance. Or else, posterity will curse us.

The case of Dr. Binayak Sen

After six decades of freedom from colonial rule, India is still a largely poor country. One of the most severe forms of deprivation suffered by the poor is with respect to health, particularly so in a time when the cost of drugs, tests and health care has shot up so dramatically, thanks to the “liberalization” and privatization of the health sector. In such a context, it is worth asking how many Indian paediatricians one can name who have given 30 years of their lives as a volunteer – in unstinting service to the needy poor in the countryside. At a guess, the actual number is in three figures, or perhaps even in two digits. But the name of Dr. Binayak Sen surely figures prominently among them.

Are we just going to sit and watch?

A universe of human struggle for dignity stands between rule by men and the rule of law. Some of the more glorious chapters in the history of the world since the American and the French revolutions occupy this universe.

Today in India we live – de facto – under the rule of men, rather than under the rule of law. As the moral decline of the Indian justice system keeps pace with the decay of the polity (there are over 25 million pending cases in our courts), are we going to keep sipping beer and munching chips while watching the IPL on Television every night? How long before the government admits that – election or no election – it can never assure the security of sportsmen and women again, the state Pakistan has already reached?

22 Nobel Laureates – including 9 in medicine, 9 in Chemistry, 2 in Physics and 2 in Economics – signed a petition a year ago asking for the unconditional release of Binayak Sen. They expressed “grave concern” that Dr. Sen has been held in prison for the peaceful exercise of fundamental human rights. They point out that this is in contravention of Articles 19 (freedom of opinion and expression) and 22 (freedom of association) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which India is a signatory. They also point out that Dr.Sen is charged under two internal security laws that do not conform to international human rights standards.

There was not a single Indian name in that list . Does that say something about us?

Our outrage at the perpetrators of injustice needs to be louder and more relentless. We need to subject state functionaries to the same standards that they reserve for us citizens. Our judgment of truth and falsehood, right and wrong have suffered enormous reverses since the days of globalization and 24/7 entertainment began. If you think I am exaggerating consider taking a little quiz.

What is common to the following group of people? Socrates, Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda, Kwame Nkrumah, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Binayak Sen

Irom Sharmila, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Rosa Luxemburg, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Leon Trotsky, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Pushkin.

Write your answer down.

Now consider a second group of people and try to see what they have in common: Mullah Omar, Osama Bin Laden, Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar

H.K.L Bhagat, Narendra Modi, Jyoti Basu, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjea, Bal Thackeray, George Bush, Tony Blair, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, John Howard, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Ferdinand Marcos

Idi Amin, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

Write your answer.

Now you can compare your answers with the right one. The first group of people all belong to a set who went to prison for speaking up against the injustices of their respective governments. The second group of people are mass-murderers who have been so fortunate as to never have to stand trial for their crimes. It is time to find our moral balance.

To read the rest of the article click here.
Aseem Srivastava could be contacted at

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