He was the recipient in 2004 of the Paul Harrison award for a lifetime of service to the rural poor. This award is given annually by the Christian Medical College, Vellore to its alumni.
He was awarded the R.R. Keithan Gold Medal by The Indian Academy of Social Sciences (ISSA) on 31 December 2007. The citation describes him as “one of the most eminent scientists” of India
He was selected for the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights in 2008. The Global Health Council issued a public statement, “This 58-year-old pediatrician was selected by an international jury of public health professionals for this prestigious award because of his years of service to poor and tribal communities in India, his effective leadership in establishing self-sustaining health care services where none existed, and his unwavering commitment to civil liberties and human rights.
He and his wife, are the founders of Rupantar, a community-based non governmental organization that has trained, deployed and monitored the work of community health workers spread throughout 20 villages. Rupantar’s activities include initiatives to counter alcohol abuse and violence against women, and to promote food security.
He is an advisor to Jan Swasthya Sahyog, a health care organization committed to developing a low-cost, effective, community health programme in the tribal and rural areas of Chhattisgarh.
He was also a member of the state Government’s advisory committee set up to pilot the community based health worker programme across Chhattisgarh, later known as the Mitanin programme.
Finally he was awarded by the Chhattisgarh Government by a non-bailable arrest warrant and was arrested on 14th May 2007.
His arrest came after week-long accusations by the police about Dr. Sen absconding; and of passing letters from Narayan Sanyal, a detained ‘Naxalite’ leader who he had been treating medically in the Raipur jail, to Pijush Guha an alleged Naxalite under detention since 1 May. Dr. Sen, following his arrest, told the media that this charge had no basis since his meetings with prisoners were undertaken openly, with the permission of the Deputy Superintendent of Police and under the close supervision of jail authorities.
Dr. Sen was detained under provisions of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2006 (CSPSA), and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967), which was amended in 2004 to include key aspects of the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA), 2002. The POTA was repealed in 2004 following widespread criticism of abuse and human rights violations. The CSPSA and UAPA allow for arbitrary detention without any right of appeal.
Why was he arrested?
Dr. Sen being the Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties,Chhattisgarh Unit had helped draw attention to the unlawful killing – on 31 March 2007 – of several tribals in Santoshpur, Chhattisgarh. Upon orders from the State Human Rights Commission, bodies of the victims were exhumed from a mass grave in the week immediately preceding Dr. Sen’s arrest. The post-mortem examination proved that the killings were brutal murder of innocent villagers by the police in fake encounters. This was severe loss of face for the State Government. Dr Sen was arrested because he had helped focus attention on these and other unlawful killings by Police and Salwa Judum.
According to the government of Chhattisgarh, Salwa Judum began as a legitimate people’s movement, uprising on the part of the villagers who had been abused by the Naxalites or forced to submit to their rule, especially on the areas of Bhairamgarh, Geedam and Bijapur.
But the truth is Salwa Judum movement meaning ironically in Gondi language “peace march” is a state sponsored violent counter-insurgency program. The politicians who lead this dark organization have conceived a system which uses the temporary relief camps, constructed to shelter the displace communities from Naxalites affected areas, as centers for military and training and anti-Naxalite indoctrination education.The police and Central Reserve Police Force officers have been providing training in fire-arms and other counter-insurgency operations to the Special Police Officers (SPOs), recruited from the camp inmates. Adivasi boys and girls have been recruited as SPOs in the Chhattisgarh district of Dantewada with a monthly payment of Rs 1,500. The ultimate goal is to provoke the Maoists into fratricidal violence and reinforce the fissures in the tribal communities, decimating the social base of the movement.
The southern Chhattisgarh district of Bastar is the area more affected by the conflict. Many of its inhabitants have abandoned their fields and villages fearing retaliation either by the Naxalites for opposing them or by the Salwa Judum forces. Consecutively they are being slaughtered by both sides, murdered thoughtlessly. For instance, Naxalites followed a policy of forcibly recruiting one cadre from each family: in numerous cases, members of the same family have been pitted against each other.More than one lakh adivasis have been displaced by the Salwa Judum.
World wide condemnation of Dr.Binayak Sen’s arrest
There were immediate condemnation of the arrest from all parts of India and rest of the World. On 16 May 2007, Amnesty International issued a call to the Government of Chhattisgarh to “immediately release Dr. Sen unless he is charged with a recognizable criminal offence and take urgent steps to end the harassment of the other human rights defenders in the state.”
Noam Chomsky and several other prominent figures issued a Press Statement dated 16 June 2007 alleging that “The fake encounters, rapes, burning of villages and displacement of adivasis [indigenous tribals] in tens of thousands and consequent loss of livelihoods have been extensively chronicled by several independent investigations. Dr Sen’s arrest is clearly an attempt to intimidate PUCL and other democratic voices that have been speaking out against human rights violations in the state.”
On 21 April 2008, the Global Health Council announced that Dr. Binayak Sen was selected for the highest international honour in Global Health and Human Rights, the Jonathan Mann Award 2008. The Mann Award is presented annually at the Global Health Councils international conference to “a practitioner who makes significant contributions toward practical work in the field and in difficult circumstances; highlights the linkage of health with human rights; works predominantly in developing countries and with marginalized people; and demonstrates serious and long-term commitment.”
There was a world wide campaign to free Dr Sen so that he could receive the award in person.
22 Nobel Prize winners expressed “grave concern” that Dr. Sen appears to be incarcerated solely for peacefully exercising his fundamental human rights,and appealed to India to free him on humanitarian grounds to enable him to receive the Jonathan Mann Award in Washington on May 29.
A public statement of support from several leading health organizations including the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School declares:
“We, the undersigned organizations, wish to convey to the relevant authorities in the government of India and state of Chhattisgarh our sincere pleasure in announcing that a citizen of India, Dr. Binayak Sen, has been selected to receive the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for Health and Human Rights for 2008… We would also like to convey our concern and dismay that Dr. Sen remains imprisoned, after nearly one year without trial, on allegations that he passed notes from a rebel leader whom he treated in jail to a person outside the prison. Dr. Sen has denied all wrong doing and nothing in his character or history, as a dedicated community leader who has urged a peaceful settlement to this conflict for years, would support the accusations made against him. These allegations have not been substantiated or proven and have prevented Dr. Sen from providing his much-needed health services to the poor in his area, as well as his community leadership activities as an officer of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. We kindly request that the relevant government authorities at the state and national levels address this case fairly and swiftly and consider fully the tremendous contributions that Dr. Sen has brought not only to communities in Chhattisgarh, but to all of India and to the world.
“We request that means be found to release Dr. Sen to attend the 35th Annual International Conference on Global Health in Washington, D.C., where he has been invited to receive the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights in person on May 29, 2008… Dr. Sen’s attendance at the awards’ ceremony on May 29 will not, in our opinion, jeopardize the judicial process in India, a country that prides itself as the world’s largest democracy where human rights and the rule of law are respected and practiced, and we urge you to make this possible.”
The Government did not allow Dr Sen to receive the award in person.
In a report published today titled “Binayak Sen and the cost of dissent in India” the prestigious medical jounal Lancet said
Despite worldwide calls for his release, this May, Indian paediatrician and human rights activist, Binayak Sen, will be spending his second year inside a jail in Raipur, Chattisgarh.
Worryingly, the health of 59-year-old Sen, winner of the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights in 2008, is now deteriorating. But he has been denied bail and has not yet got permission to seek medical treatment at a hospital of his choice, Ilina Sen, his wife, told The Lancet in mid April.
Sen’s continued incarceration is also hampering the health work he started in Chattisgarh. Indian doctors typically dodge rural postings. But Sen, a graduate from Vellore’s prestigious Christian Medical College, opted to work in the neglected hinterland, where most Indians still live. Rupantar, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) founded by Sen and his wife, set up a weekly clinic in 1997 in a village in central India (now part of Chattisgarh state) plagued by malaria and malnutrition. Local tribal youths were trained to become community health workers. Ever since, the clinic has been providing low-cost medical care to those living within a 50 km radius and who cannot access health services easily. Today, however, the health clinic is denied the services of its creator—the doctor, who once advised the state government on health sector reforms, is now branded an enemy of the state.
Sen’s troubles can be traced to his criticism of the Salwa Judum, an anti-Naxalite movement, allegedly initiated by the people of Chattisgarh in 2005, to oppose Maoist violence in the state. “He had highlighted unlawful killings of adivasis (indigenous people) by the police, and by Salwa Judum, a private militia widely held to be sponsored by the state authorities to fight the guerrillas of the CPI (Maoist)”, says Amnesty International. “Dr Binayak Sen questioned those policies of the Chattisgarh State, which has led to large scale displacements of tribal people, their growing impoverishment and starvation deaths”, notes Indian Doctor in Jail, The Story of Binayak Sen—a booklet brought out by Doctors in Defense of Dr Binayak Sen—a group of men and women who personally know Sen and his work. Sen was troubled by the effect of these displacements on the health of tribal people, the report notes.
In a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, former Supreme Court Judge, said
“The trial of Dr. Sen, which began in a Raipur Sessions Court late April 2008, has, however, not thrown up even a shred of evidence to justify any of these charges against him………..
Given the paucity of evidence in the trial of Dr. Sen so far, in all fairness the Raipur court should have dismissed the case against him altogether by now. Certainly the weakness of the prosecution’s position should entitle him to at least grant of bail. Dr. Sen is a person of international standing and reputation, with a record of impeccable behaviour throughout his distinguished career………
Instead of recognising their social contributions, the Indian state, by wrongly branding Dr. Sen and many other human rights defenders like him as ‘terrorists’, is making a complete mockery of not just democratic norms and fair governance but its entire anti-terrorist strategy and operations.
On March 25 2009, Dr Sen was examined by a doctor of his choice in the presence of his wife Ilina Sen. The doctor diagnosed him with Coronary Artery Disease and referred him to Vellore for an angiography to be followed by angioplasty or bypass surgery. A copy of the prescription was handed over to Ms. Sen but no action has been taken because the Jail Superintendent procured another note from the doctor in which he said angiography facilities were available in Raipur and that Vellore was mentioned only because Binayak wanted to go there. On the basis of this note, the authorities are insisting Binayak be treated in Raipur, something he is rightfully refusing since he has begun to fear the worst about the police’s intentions.
The Hindu’s Siddharth Varadarajan in a recent article titled “Set Binayak Sen free now” said
“Every criminal case is unique but there is something truly peculiar about the fate of Dr. Binayak Sen. While politicians, film stars, gangsters and businessmen accused or convicted of heinous offences like manslaughter, rioting and possession of firearms seem to have no trouble getting bail, the gentle doctor is considered such a dangerous criminal that he has been held in jail for two years on a far less serious charge.
It should come as no surprise that violence and intolerance go hand in hand. Salwa Judum is the most dangerous aspect of the ‘Chhatisgarh model’ but the persecution of Dr. Binayak Sen, the intimidation of the local media and the refusal to tolerate the opposition of adivasis to the land grabbing agenda of corporate giants are also part of this ‘model’. When the executive is bent on subverting rights guaranteed by the Constitution, the judiciary has an obligation to act. Putting a stop to Salwa Judum and releasing Binayak are two remedies that are urgently required.