Devil's Advocate: Dr Binayak Sen on State vs Maoists
Karan Thapar: Dr Sen, the Prime Minister has often referred to the Maoists or the Naxalites as the single greatest threat facing the Indian state. In fact, he has gone on record to say that it's an even greater threat than the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Clearly, yours must be a very different view. So let me begin by asking you how do you view the Maoist trouble?
Dr Binayak Sen: Firstly, as human rights workers, we decry all forms of violence, whether it is the violence of the state or those opposing the state.
Karan Thapar: In this instance, which in your mind is the first violence? Which is the greater?
Dr Binayak Sen: I would explain that with reference to the context of the situation in the country today. Firstly, there is a chronic famine abroad in the land and this famine envelops, according to the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau, which is a government organization, 33 percent of the people in this country who have a clinically demonstrable chronic under-nutrition. And that includes 50 percent of the Scheduled Tribes and 60 percent of the Scheduled Castes.
Karan Thapar: So is the Maoist struggle in your view in response to the chronic malnutrition?
Dr Binayak Sen: It’s a response to chronic poverty of which malnutrition is only a part. These communities, which are suffering from this chronic famine that is abroad in this land, have thus far survived because of a fragile and tenuous equilibrium that they have established with their ecosystem and which they are able to maintain because of their access to common property resources like land, water and forests.
Karan Thapar: So, when land is acquired from them and they are dispossessed, their fragile existence itself is threatened. Is that the point that you are making?
Dr Binayak Sen: Yes, their fragile existence is threatened to the point where conditions are being created which would fall well within the ambit of the United Nations definitions of genocide.
Karan Thapar: In other words, you are saying that the Maoists are fighting on behalf of the people to get them justice--to fight against dispossession which you interpret as a form of genocide?
Dr Binayak Sen: Their resistance to this dispossession is the only possible response that would enable these communities which are suffering from this famine to survive.
Karan Thapar: You are saying, aren't you, and I am repeating this because it's important to clarify and understand that the “Maoist struggle is a struggle for justice. It’s a resistance against unfair and wrong dispossession". Am I right?
Dr Binayak Sen: It is a struggle against the conditions which would lead to genocide.
Karan Thapar: You mean genocide?
Dr Binayak Sen: I mean genocide
Karan Thapar: You are not using that word irresponsibly?
Binayak Sen: I am not using the word irresponsibly. Everybody thinks that the word ‘genocide’ has to do with direct killing but the United Nations Convention’s definitions on genocide include the creation of conditions--mental and physical conditions--which would render the survival of these communities under question, and we already have a situation of chronic famine as I have already told you and which is getting worse over time. It is not getting better, it is getting worse.
Karan Thapar: You interpreted for me how you view the Maoist struggle; you said it’s a resistance against dispossession--
Dr Binayak Sen: I am not talking on behalf of the Maoists. I am talking from the point of view of a human rights worker
Karan Thapar: You have interpreted the Maoist struggle as a resistance against dispossession, as a fight for justice, as an attempt to resist genocide. The problem is that that is not the only thing the Maoists are seeking to do. The Maoists are also seeking to overthrow the Indian political system. Do you endorse that position as well?
Dr Binayak Sen: As a human rights worker, I am committed to the Constitution of India and at the same time, as I said right in the beginning, I decry all forms of violence.
Karan Thapar: But this is not (just about) violence. Forgive me I am interrupting you but this is not violence, this is something else. Let me quote what Kishenji said to Tehelka on 21st of November. He said, "The first goal...the first goal is to gain political power in order to establish a new democracy" and then he adds, "…to create a new democratic state one has to destroy the old one."
Now, as a human rights activist, do you endorse that demand and belief.
Dr Binayak Sen: We condemn this kind of killings under all circumstances.
Karan Thapar: The problem is that you may condemn it under all circumstances but the fact is that Maoists believe that such killing is not just acceptable and justified, they believe that it is a part of their system. I am going to quote to you again Kishenji speaking--
Dr Binayak Sen: --I am not going to defend or decry what Kishenji said--I am not. I am here to answer for myself. Please don't pin me down to talking about the Maoists. I am talking about famine in this country. These are the huge issues that we are addressing.
Karan Thapar: I am asking you the question which many in the audience would interpret as difficult and awkward for you to answer. Rather than let me finish the question, you are interrupting it, deflecting it.
Let me finish and then you answer because I think it is important as a human rights activist that your position on the policy of annihilation should be heard. The annihilation policy has been defended by Kishenji in Tehelka in the following words: “we say annihilation”--
Dr Binayak Sen: --I decry annihilation. I do not agree with annihilation. State is also practicing annihilation. I decry the violence of the state. Mahatma Gandhi said that when the state resorts to violence, the legitimacy of the state is destroyed--
Karan Thapar: I will come to the state. I promise you and I will handle the state later but first I want to hear you clearly say that annihilation which is an acceptable and justified policy of the Maoists is one that you completely, totally condemn.
Dr Binayak Sen: We decry all forms of violence--
Karan Thapar: --but name the Maoists.
Dr Binayak Sen: No, I am not going to name any party. What I am saying is that the Maoists violence is a consequence and not the cause. The cause is the violence of the state. The violence of not only the bullets but (also) the violence of genocide, which I am evoking as a responsible human rights worker.
Karan Thapar: I am going to stop you at this point because you have made a very important statement. You said that in fact Maoists violence is the consequence; it’s not the cause. In other words, it is something that happens as a result of the state violence; it is provoked by state violence.
That is the confusion that many people say the human rights activists make which leads them to be sympathetic to the Maoists and perhaps blind to the human rights atrocities inflicted by the Maoists on security personnel.
You are saying that in fact, Maoist violence is a consequence, its not a cause. In other words, it’s provoked by state violence. I put it to you by that explanation, to many people, you are in danger of either justifying or exonerating Maoist violence.
Dr Binayak Sen: I am not interested in justifying any violence. As a human rights worker, I decry all forms of violence; the violence of the state as well as those opposing the state. Now, let me finish. We have large issues to address here. We have the issue of famine in this country.
Karan Thapar: Dr Sen, don't deflect me again. You did it so often in part one (of the interview). I don't want you to do it again. The audience want to hear a human rights activist explain why he equates Maoist violence with state violence but seems to exonerate Maoist violence because you see it as a consequence of state violence.
Let me push this further. Let me take your own example. No doubt you were wrongly charged; no doubt you were wrongly held in jail for perhaps as long as two years but at the end of the day it was the courts that released you. There was a due process that went through-you did get bail.
Look at Francis Induwar, and this week Sanjoy Ghosh. There was no due process, they were killed and beheaded in cold blood. There the Maoists were judge; jury, executioner and hangman in one go. How can you equate the two?
Dr Binayak Sen: Despite the decline in the integrity of the institutions of state power, I believe that it is for human rights activists as well as for civil society as a whole to hold the state to its commitment to the institutions of democratic governance. This is absolutely clear.
Karan Thapar: I would applaud that but say "not only should you hold the state to its democratic and constitutional commitment, should you not similarly hold the Maoists to commitment of humanity."
Let me pause, you rightly, justifiably criticised the state where the human rights of the Maoists and the dispossessed are trampled upon. You call it genocide, maybe you are right. Why are you silent when the human rights of the security personnel are trampled upon by the Maoists.
Dr Binayak Sen: We are not silent. We have said it again and again that we decry this activity. You talked about Francis Induwar's case, we condemned that.
Karan Thapar: But, why have you not condemned Sanjoy Ghosh. It was repeated on Tuesday.
Dr Binayak Sen: The news has just come in the paper today.
Karan Thapar: How long are you going to wait?
Dr Binayak Sen: It is corollary that if I am condemning Francis Induwar's case, then I also condemn the beheading of Sanjoy Ghosh.
Karan Thapar: But it is a silent corollary. You are not making the point. You are assuming that others will take it for granted whereas you don't assume that when you criticise the security force. You are upfront, forthright and unequivocal when criticizing the government. You are silent when it comes to the Maoists.
Dr Binayak Sen: When Shodhi Sambhu is shot in the thigh, when the Dantewada people are witness to executions carried out by the security forces, we do not hear any word from the powers that be in the state; from the ministers who are in charge.
Karan Thapar: So, is your judgment and the criticism conditioned by what the government says on the other side.
Dr Binayak Sen: I am not saying that. Do we conclude that these activities have the endorsement of the government? Of the ministers involved? We do not conclude that.
Karan Thapar: Are the standards of a human rights activists set by the government that he criticises. Because, that’s how you are justifying your behaviour.
Dr Binayak Sen: My standards are clear. I have already condemned that.
Karan Thapar: But, this is the point. The reason I am questioning you closely on this is because many people turn around and say that human rights activists take one view of atrocities committed against the Maoists and a completely different view of the atrocities committed against security personnel. They say, it is double standards
Dr Binayak Sen: There is no double standards. We decry violence of all kinds. But, now, let me come to the point of famine and genocide. There is a famine abroad in this land. Thirty three percent of our adult population, according to the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau, has clinically demonstrable chronic under-nutrition; a body mass index below 18.5 and the conditions that are being created as a result of widespread massive state acquisition of their land.
Displacement from their access to the ecosystem is creating a condition for genocide that will come well within the ambit of UN Convention on genocide.
Karan Thapar: The issue I want to ask you is simple one. Do you think that this famine--do you think that even government policies that in your eyes justify and create the famine justify in turn armed liberation struggle, virtually a civil war against not just the state but the people of India? Does one justify the other?
Dr Binayak Sen: Violence is not a legitimate way of inducting a social change.
Karan Thapar: In this case, why don't you turn to the Maoists, with whom you have an influence, with whom you have a certain measure of understanding and sympathy and say to them: 'look you have a just cause and hundreds and millions of Indians would agree with that, but don't ruin it by trying to tackle it by violence. Give up the violence. ' The government says they are prepared to have the widest ranging talks, all that they are asking is abjure violence in return.
Dr Binayak Sen: We can only speak for ourselves. We do not speak for anyone else. We are a part of the Citizen's Initiative for Peace. We are taking all efforts to talk to whoever will listen in a bid to bring about peace. But the peace cannot be in acquiescence of a gentler, kindler genocide--that cannot be peace. The peace has to be a peace with justice that will enable these communities to access the guarantee of equity in the Constitution.
Karan Thapar: Peace with justice can only happen when talks begin and the government has committed itself to the widest ranging talks on one condition--abjure violence. Do you know the response from the Maoists? That this is an absurd and irrational condition and it is a betrayal of the people--
Dr Binayak Sen: --I am not here to talk for the Maoists.
Karan Thapar: Then, will you criticise them for not abjuring violence so that talks can start. Will you criticise them for that?
Dr Binayak Sen: We are talking to all parties whoever will listen because we want to bring about peace--
Karan Thapar: You are sidestepping my question, do you criticise the Maoists for not giving up violence?
Dr Binayak Sen: Nobody is giving up violence. Neither the state nor the Maoists are giving up violence. I am interested in furthering my cause, which is the cause of peace with justice.
Karan Thapar: Do you see peace happening at all because both sides are locked in a standoff? Do you see the situation changing?
Dr Binayak Sen: The duty of a social activist is to be optimistic. I am optimistic about peace; I hope for peace; I believe in peace; I believe that we all have to work and struggle. Not just human rights activists, the whole of society has to work for peace, has to set up a cry for peace. Peace with justice.
Karan Thapar: On that note, we both agree. It's a pleasure talking to you even if at times it seemed I was quarreling with you