April 20, 2011
Till very recently it was not possible to discuss Binayak Sen without referring to the corporate land grab and state repression in Chhattisgarh. Somehow Salwa Judum, the displacement of thousands of adivasis and the Maoist movement would come in the picture. Above all, what would come out is Sen’s work in the specific context of the suffering of the adivasis. Indeed soon after the bail order was granted, it came so naturally for Sen’s beaming wife to state that he will of course go back to resume his work in Chhattisgarh.
Upon his release from Raipur Central Jail on April 18 2011, Sen immediately called for a dialogue between the Maoists and the government and reminded us of so many other political prisoners languishing in the country’s jails. In the video showing Sen being greeted by his supporters after his release he enthusiastically joins in giving slogans saying, ‘Shankar Guha Niyogi Zindabad’. But the supporters soon after break into ‘Binayak Sen Zindabad’. You could immediately see this embarrassed look on his face, totally disapproving this iconisation.
Indeed, Sen seems very far off from celebrating his release as a major victory for democracy or a boost forIndia’s image as a modern democracy and so on. He seems really far off from the dominant discourse which seeks to cleanse the ‘Binayak Sen issue’ of the harsh realities of India’s dirty war, the inequality and the injustice towards the adivasis and their suffering. So what was the Sen’s arrest and denial of bail all about?
For the Law Minister, Sen’s case is supposed to be all about a faulty law from the colonial era, an outdated sedition law from 1870. Of course it does not dawn on him that there are so many such ‘faulty’ laws that are routinely passed and enforced in the country, and one of Sen’s ‘real crimes’ was his campaign against one specific ‘faulty’ law, the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005. Sen himself has been arrested under this law and yet not a word on it.
Others tell us it is all about fundamental rights, right to freedom of speech and expression. But more importantly we are told it is about India’s image as a modern country. The Times of India editorial of May 22, 2008: “Sen’s trial has now started after a year spent in prison. Scores of similar undertrials languishing in Indian jails fare worse. It just doesn’t do any good toIndia’s brand image as a country that protects civil rights. Democracy enhances India’s soft power potential on the world stage”.
Those more on the left tell us it is about the right to dissent.
Good Samaritan NGOs tell us it is about being allowed to be a good doctor in the country – it is about authoritarian tendencies in our country. Yet others tell us it is about an arrogant state machinery. Some will say it is about power as such – and so on.
While the Sen case does involve some of the above, these terms of the discourse seem to displace the issue of corporate land grab and war in Chattisgarh till it fades from view. Thus Sen’s arrest could not be allowed to be seen as a consequence of or even remotely related to a war let loose in order to displace thousands of adivasis. It had to appear as the result of a minor glitch in the democratic framework, the result of an unfortunate remnant from the colonial era legal framework.
The first round in the construction of this discourse was to concoct false evidence to implicate him as was done in the lower courts. The patent falsity of this attempt was there for everyone to see. The second round by more confident Delhi notables was not as much false in that literal sense but deeply manipulative and actually sinister. Sen is given bail but his arrest is now retrospectively reconstructed as actually the problem of some democratic disconnect as it were, something to do with an outdated law of sedition. His release now and the urgency shown to repeal the faulty law, becomes an affirmation of our commitment to democracy and the individual’s right to dissent – clearing residual vestiges of an earlier undemocratic period!
Indeed, the bail order suddenly seemed all so imminent to have happened, a chronicle foretold, making the earlier decisions of the lower courts appear so much like a gross exception, as really not representative of our democracy. How could it even have happened? But in any case, it was as though we all knew it was only a matter of time for the bail order to come through. The media was already agonizing that denying bail to Sen would bode ill for India’s brand image as a soft power. I read somewhere: “India’s soft power, which began with spirituality, movies and the broader impact of Indian culture, is diminished by blemishes like human rights violations in Kashmirand Chhattisgarh, by our treatment of Binayak Sen and Irom Sharmila, by corruption and scams, and by burning or banning books” (The Economic Times, April 5, 2011). So it was all about democracy, rights and soft power, even spirituality perhaps – everything except the conflict and struggle in Chattisgarh.
When it is, for example, the US invasion of Iraq, it is all too easily seen that it is not really about human rights and democracy but about oil, about geopolitics and imperialism, about capital’s willingness to go to war. But here it looks slightly difficult to see how the Sen case is not really about some abstract rights and dissent and yet it is upheld as such since it allows Indiato continue its dirty wars without attracting attention, without losing its democratic legitimacy. Once democracy is treated as an independent realm, an autonomous sphere of rights and dissent with nothing really to do with political struggle, it can be celebrated big time without creating problems in continuing your hidden dirty wars. So it is imminently possible to welcome Sen’s right to dissent and innocently turn a blind eye to the dirty war.
This democracy here is no longer opposed to repression or say state violence – indeed it might be foolish to think of opposing the latter from the standpoint of ‘democracy’. This is the insight which correctly informs the Maoist movement for example. For democracy here is an idiom of rule, precisely that through which repression and violence is refracted – democracy in the service of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, democracy as a form of dictatorship, as Lenin used to say. Hence the best way to reinforce this dictatorship, facilitate corporate land grab is to ‘promote democracy’ or ‘strengthen our democratic traditions’. If the effect of releasing Binayak Sen and defending democracy is to increase India’s ‘soft power’ and tighten its brand packaging then surely one needs to think if democracy here is not at the service of bourgeois dictatorship.
So there you go… frame the Sen case in terms of pure democracy, rights and individual dissent and severe any connection with things like corporate land grab, with class warfare – so Sen will now appear imminently releasable, the chronicle of a bail foretold. For that way India earns solid points as a democracy, as a soft power, a huge democratic surplus (to beat the political scientist’s ‘democratic deficit’) much needed to rev up the muscles of an emerging global power! With so much cumulated democratic surplus, the charge of a dirty war simply does not really stick on the ruling elite – the upper middle classes can now totally support Sen’s release, his right to dissent and still think that what is happening in Chhattisgarh is a law and order problem, a security issue. It is possible to defend Sen’s right to dissent and still agree with Chidambaram on other issues – on the need to wipe out the Maoists, or the need to support Salwa Judum. Common someone like Sen is a good doctor, a good person but there are surely the bad guys out there so you got to have something like Operation Green Hunt. And if India was really engaged in a dirty war then surely Anna Hazare would have talked about and opposed it, no?
In any case, the democratic surplus accruing from Binayak Sen’s release already has very smiling, confident ministers doling out home truths – meaning that this surplus can be ploughed back to fields of war, meaning that this war will not erode the democratic legitimacy of the government. To start with, they have been able to present what is the result of capital and state’s war of profit and aggression (Sen’s ‘illegal’ arrest) into one of anomalies in the law, or to attribute it to the remnants of a colonial era sedition law. Ah, India is doing well, everything is fine here, its all soft soft, there is no power and domination – but some things from the past remain, or there is corruption. But we will rectify it – like we did with the issue of homosexuality and we will now do it with corruption. Homophobia has nothing to do with our society, the ‘global Indian’ will say. It was only about an outmoded law from the colonial era.
This then is the plot: first chase a man out for taking the ‘wrong side’ in your class war, then when you release him collect laurels for being so democratic and ultimately defending the right to dissent. But more than that, just as Sen’s arrest is presented as part of a legal anomaly, even the war in Chattisgarh, Salwa Judum and all the loot and plunder there can now appear as an anomaly and not as something foretold by the saga of Indian democracy. It is incidental – all the bad news you hear – violations of minimum wages, scams, corruption, Radia tape revelations, massacre of Sikhs in 1984, repressive laws and so on. Those are aberrations, deviations from the rule, the norm – wasn’t the Bhopal gas leak ‘accidental’?
The point, we are told, even lectured, is to defend India’s democracy from the bad guys! Indeed by the time you hit the wide roads and palatial bungalows in Lutyens Delhi, where the Supreme Court majestically stands, the bad news, a dirty war somewhere else do seem aberrations, sad happenstances, the intractable messiness of vernacular India who can never learn to be really democratic and civilized! And there is a sense in which you can feel that let me not write off Indian democracy, let us work within it, or from within it. Ah, the Maoists have got it wrong – maybe they haven’t taken a view of things from Lutyen’s Delhi! Come here and you will start believing in peace and democracy – didn’t the Supreme Court bail affirm it? But if you come here and still go back not seeing the point about ‘peace and democracy’ then you know the consequence: hadn’t Prabhakaran of the LTTE come here and went back to war only to be finished off?
Our Law Minister announced that the government would ask the Law Commission to review Section 124A IPC in order to recast or scrap it altogether. More democratic surplus there. But we want to ask: why does the Law Minister only want to repeal the anomaly in the sedition law? Why does he not go further and perhaps punish those involved in conspiring against the good doctor, conspiring to permanently incarcerate him? No punishment of those involved in conspiring against the good doctor? And this is where you see that Lutyen’s democracy and its soft power generosity is well synchronized with all the repression and undemocratic activities taking place elsewhere in say the lower courts and local administration in the states and districts. It is a kind of an outsourcing to the lower orders.
That way, the denial of bail to Sen by the lower courts fabricating all kinds of patently false evidence was true to the situation. They carried out the dirty war given them only so that Lutyens Delhi can remain clean, green and democracy-laden. In the lower orders, at the district or ‘local’ level, rights and democratic niceties are not to be taken seriously since there are real interests at stake there. In fact, these are the stakes of big capital and the state – so that, with or without evidence, you will be framed. It is left to Lutyens Delhi to then play the democratic game. It is difficult to decide which one is more sinister – this democratic game or those at the lower levels openly repressive and undemocratic. Everybody saw Chidambaram’s smiling face apparently happy that Sen got bail. But the guys lower down who did the dirty job of falsely framing Sen in Chattisgarh must have been disappointed – not a similing face but a sad face. I was really curious how someone like DGP Vishwaranjan must have reacted.
This tacit division of labour between the benevolent higher courts and the not so benevolent lower courts, the smiling central minister hailing the victory of democracy and the local DGP possibly gnawing his teeth in anger and frustration, the democracy-laden precincts of Lutyens Delhi and the hidden sites of India’s dirty wars – this pattern closely parallels one of swanky MNCs and their hidden away sweatshops, the low wage Third World labour and post-modern ‘immaterial’ first-world labour and so on. Such is also the relationship between democracy and repression, the granting of bail and the denial of bail, Hazare’s fight against corruption and the reality of corruption.
But isn’t the bail for Sen a victory for the democratic movement in the country? Yes it is, but it is one where the very culprits, those like Chidambaram, will also share in it – not least since the Sen case has now become one of a mere right to dissent and not about the issues that would most embarrass the ruling elites. Chidambaram is smiling since he has accumulated some lost democratic soft power capital to unleash his undemocratic war again – the Lutyens showroom can now display its wares from the sweatshop in Chhattisgarh.
Will the government not think twice now before picking up anyone, even in a conflict situation? Yes it will, but it also knows if it were to do that, it can again be explained as an aberration which the ‘higher courts’ will set it right. It is all provided – the shock repressive treatment as well as the soft democratic reprieve, the roller coaster between the denial of bail and the granting of bail