Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chattisgarh's heart of darkness

C P Bhambhri

Binayak Sen is a non-conformist, who consciously decided to dedicate his life-work in the service of the deprived and exploited people in the tribal belt of Bastar, Raipur and around the Bhilai steel plant. He decided that his medical training from the Christian Medical College at Vellore would be devoted to providing rural health services for poorest of the poor in India. It is not as though Sen sees himself as a martyr to the cause, however. As Minnie Vaid points out, Sen believed that every individual should have the right to make his own choices and his was to bring medical facilities to people who had been denied this basic right by the democratic state of India.
Nobody who works in rural or tribal communities in India can be immune to the multi-faceted societal problems there। So, it is not surprising that Sen’s narrow commitment eventually widened to social activism that brought up squarely against the power of the state. His initial work in providing rural health services ended up highlighting the issues of tribal displacement that became endemic once this natural resource-rich area started attracting industrial projects. This book, the product of seven months of intensive field work, traces Sen’s evolution from grassroots worker to community activist and organiser of the civil liberties movement in ten clearly-focused chapters. Given the outrageous manner of his arrest and incarceration, the book may not present anything strikingly new, but it works as a grim reminder of the lengths of delinquency even in democratic states.

Sen’s work was not just courageous, it was inspirational too। His Shahid Hospital acted as a model for others and Sen set up the Jan Swasthya Sahyog in 1989 as a “people-centric community-based model of heathcare” in rural Bailaspur as “the voluntary, non-profit” registered society of health professionals running a low-cost health programme for the tribal and rural poor through a community health programme and a hospital. Given the absence of state-sponsored social infrastructure in the area, it was no surprise that Sen came to be considered a messiah for the the marginalised.

This in itself was sufficient cause for friction with local politicians as almost any community worker will attest. But it was the Salwa Judum, the Chhattisgarh government-sponsored 2005 anti-Naxal vigilante force (or state-promoted private militias, depending on how you looked at it) of 4,000 that proved the turning point. It was the tribals who were caught in the brutal violence between the Naxals and the state’s militia. As a result of this orgy of violence, 300,000 to 400,000 tribals were compelled to seek refuge in “camps” and become displaced people.
It was their plight that Sen highlighted. “In Bastar, when Salwa Judum started, Binayak went after it and brought it into the limelight and termed the Salwa Judum a major threat to peace, source of oppression…”. More to the point, his reports starkly highlighted the lack of governance in the predominantly tribal belt of Dantewada, which had 37 police stations but just 26 primary health centres and 26 higher secondary schools.
Naturally, the exposure of this dark side of Indian democracy is unlikely to have pleased the state government, not least when the criticism was focused on its own pet project. There is no less pique now that his arrest and punishment on charge of “sedition” against the state have attracted worldwide attention and sympathy. His predicament suggests a brutish lack of understanding on the part of state authorities of Sen’s message. He was, for instance, among the few who spoke up against the Dantewada massacre of state security personnel by gun-wielding Naxalites, his argument being that violence cannot be justified, either in the name of Mao’s revolution or the state.
Vaid’s book also raises the issue of the inherent limitations of individual voluntarism in improving the lives of people. Sen worked like a missionary, overcoming the tribal superstitions against modern medical techniques such as injections and so on. His work benefited many, no doubt, and brought him satisfaction. But the impact of interventions such as his is co-terminus with the area he covers. Only the institutions of state have the critical mass to deliver health and education on a larger scale that can make a difference to the lives of a significant number of people. Sen’s work was reminder that the state had basically abdicated its responsibility here.
Vaid’s contribution is in the direction of narrating a story of the human tragedy of an individual who decided to be “different” from the mainstream professional classes of India. Her story also exposes the myth perpetuated by the managers of the Indian state that gun-wielding terrorists can be silenced by the power of the gun of the state. The Indian state has failed to provide primary and basic services to the poor. The state has established police stations and failed to see the struggles of tribals who have to walk a whole day to access even rudimentary first-aid. Sen is the central character of Vaid’s book but an equally important revelation is the brute reality of neglect by the state of its own citizens simply because they are helpless and have no option except to turn to Sen.

Minnie vaid
Rajpal and Sons
242 pages;
Rs 250

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