The Violence of Hunger

BOOK: The Curious Case of Binayak Sen

AUTHOR: Dilip D’Souza

PUBLISHER: HarperCollins Publisher India Pvt. Ltd.

PAGES: 187

PRICE: Rs 250 (Hardcover)

YEAR: 2012

The book is an important addition to the available literature on Binayak Sen, the issues of public health and the state of democracy in India and its institutions

Mahtab Alam Delhi

Ever since the paediatrician, public health and human rights activist, Dr Binayak Sen, was first arrested (leading to life imprisonment for allegedly waging war against the country with the help of Maoists) in a fabricated case in May 2007, much has been written about his life, work and the case against him—both positive and negative.

The book under review, authored by Mumbai-based writer Dilip D’Souza, is the fourth positive work, captivatingly titled The Curious Case of Binayak Sen. However, the author, in the very beginning, makes it clear that “this is really not a book about (Binayak) Sen, this one man.  It is instead about his way of thinking about the world.”

Unlike previous works, this book, notably, covers what Sen has been doing after he was released on bail by the Supreme Court in April last year. The author notes, “Since his release on bail, Sen has spoken often about another kind of connection: between malnutrition and secession” (and) “…there’s an articulation of the same concern with human rights—indeed, with the human condition—that Sen speaks about.” Sen believes and rightly so, that his case is no different from so many others trapped in relentless suffering inside and outside prisons. He says, “Whatever has happened to me is the result of the suffering of thousands of people. Any personal imprint would be ghoulish.” The author says Sen has “a broader point to make. The communities that face (this) structural violence are facing annihilation—strong word, but Sen clearly saw it as possible—because of famine and an inability
to survive”.

 The author quotes Sen: “By structural violence I refer to the fact that half our children and adults in this country suffer from malnutrition. Malnutrition casts a dark shadow over other diseases like malaria and tuberculosis.” Citing data produced by the government’s own institution, the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau, and the World Health Organisation, Sen concludes that we are living in a condition of famine. “…A third of our live births have low birth weights, this is what I mean when I talk of structural violence.” 

Elaborating on the flimsy and fabricated case against Sen, digging inside charge-sheets and the trial court judgment, which convicted him with life imprisonment, the author raises pertinent questions not only about the BJP-led Chhattisgarh government and its police, but also about the state of the judicial system in our country, especially in Chhattisgarh. The author exposes the holes in the charge-sheets, the selectivity of the prosecution and the judiciary’s mentality.

Commenting on two emails, which were produced as major ‘evidence’ against Sen, totally out of context and selectively, the author observes: “It is hard for me to believe that any reasonable prosecution would actually seek to make a case like this.” He is referring to the fact that for the prosecution, the mere mention of the ISI (ironically, meaning the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, not the Pakistani intelligence agency) and the “chimpanzee in the White House”, prove that Sen and his academic wife, Ilina, are part of an international terror network!

“It is harder still for me to believe that any reasonable judge would listen to this and take it seriously,” says D’Souza. Towards the end, he asks important questions: “The one major attempt to shut down Indian democracy happened in 1975 and was called the Emergency. Luckily, it lasted less than two years… But we can still ask: is democracy as we have known it in India really democracy? What constitutes democracy, after all? Elections? Freedoms? Rights?”   

The book is an important addition to the available literature on Binayak Sen, the issues of public health and the state of democracy in India and its institutions. It deserves to be widely read.    

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2012