Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (People's Health Movement India) statement on Binayak Sen's life imprisonment

Dr Sen has an illustrious record of over 25 years of selfless public service in areas of health and human rights. He has been an active member and former convenor of the Medico Friend Circle, a national organization of health professionals working towards an alternative health system responsive to the needs of the poor. He has been closely associated with the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, the Indian chapter of the People’s Health Movement. In recognition of his work, the Christian Medical College, Vellore conferred on him the Paul Harrison Award in 2004, which is the highest award given to an alumnus for distinguished service in rural areas. He continues to be an inspiration to successive generations of students and faculty. Many of his articles based on his work have been internationally appreciated. His indictment under the draconian and undemocratic Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2006, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 is utterly condemnable.

Not only has the farcical nature of the trial been reported in the media, the charges against Dr Sen, of engaging in anti-national activities, have been widely held as baseless. This judgment is an unacceptable attempt to intimidate and vilify those who advocate for the rights of the poor and the marginalized, and reveals the indiscriminate use of state machinery to stifle democratic dissent.

JSA believes that a great injustice has been done, not only to Dr Sen but also to the democratic fabric of this country. JSA salutes Dr Sen’s work, and demands that justice be delivered in his case.


The life imprisonment of Dr Binayak Sen

British Medical Journal \2011; 342:d262 doi: 10.1136/bmj.d262 (Published in online version 19 January 2011) Pending publication in printed issue of January 22, 2011

The life imprisonment of Dr Binayak Sen

Last month a district court of the state of Chattisgarh in central India sentenced Dr Binayak Sen, Indian paediatrician, public health practitioner, and human rights activist, to life imprisonment in a maximum security cell. He was pronounced guilty of sedition and conspiracy against the state.1 This harsh sentence is particularly paradoxical because Sen was recently recognised by the same state as a respected figure in health and social planning, and last year he was given the Jonathan Mann Award for Health and Human Rights from the Global
Health Council.

His crime according to the judgment was being a collaborator for the underground Maoist movement that is active in the newly created state of Chattisgarh, which has a large indigenous (Adivasi) population, an abundance of forests and natural resources, but economic and health deprivation.
Sen, a community physician, and his wife Ilina are known for their work in primary healthcare among mine workers and indigenous communities. Sen’s commitment to tackling the deeper social determinants of health has now brought him into conflict with the state. Moving beyond the biomedical and clinical model of healthcare,2 Sen began to deal with deprived living conditions, poor education in children, and alcoholism, and he found it impossible to disassociate these from the need for community empowerment, political accountability, and ownership of natural resources. He documented the levels of starvation in the state,3 and as an active member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties he participated in fact finding missions on violations of rights by state forces and systems, including a state sponsored armed people’s militia. He provided medical and legal assistance to people who were undergoing trial, including alleged militants, always under
supervision of the state authorities. This made him a ready target for accusation of conspiracy by the state, which recently armed itself with an antiterrorist law that goes far beyond the national act. Sen, who has been a critic of both Maoist and state violence now finds himself convicted under a section of the penal code that was used by the British in colonial times to convict Gandhi.4
The recent judgment has received worldwide condemnation. Global voices have included statements by Nobel laureates Noam Chomsky and Amartya Sen,5 Amnesty International,6 the Global Health Council,7 Human Rights Watch, and Physicians for Human Rights, and other commentators.4 8 At a national level, an upsurge of solidarity has included meetings and vigils in all the major cities of India and statements by eminent jurists, professionals, and activists.

Although the state has attempted to portray him as dangerous, Sen is following in the footsteps of generations of social physicians. Like Virchow in an earlier century, others in more recent years, and charters of health movements,9 he focuses on the social, economic, and political roots of ill health. Recent prescriptions from the World Health Organization on primary healthcare and the social determinants of health have strengthened action towards equity, rights, and social determinants of health, just the areas that Sen focused on.10 11
This misconceived and vindictive application of state power requires international action. Professional societies in India have an opportunity to reflect on the larger social and political role of doctors and to express their support for Sen. Supporters in other countries could urge their government to apply diplomatic pressure towards justice for Sen and call for a review of Indian laws on sedition, which have lent themselves to such abuse.

In today’s economically driven society, commerce drives international relations. Foreign direct investment in India is often in mining industries in states such as Chattisgarh, which have rich natural resources. Ultimately, such investment comes from shareholders. Better awareness of how shareholders’ money may drive state policies to the detriment of the disadvantaged could redirect investment towards more ethical and equitable projects, especially where funds belong to charitable or philanthropic institutions.

Finally the implications for those who are tackling the social determinants of health must be considered, and we need to enhance our collective voice against all instances where doctors and health workers are targeted by ruling elites and vested interests.

It is ironic that one of Sen’s last public appearances before his incarceration was at the release of a book that was a critique of current medical practice and new paradigms of action.12 Notably, in an expeditious response, the joint Committee on Human Rights of the US National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine has expressed its reservations about the conviction of Sen and its hope for his “full exoneration” (personal communication from the chairperson of the committee, 2011).

P Zachariah, Retired professor of physiology,
Ravi Narayan, Community health adviser, ([email protected])
Rakhal Gaitonde, National co-convenor,
Sara Bhattacharji, Professor,
Anand Zachariah, Professor of medicine,
Thelma Narayan, Coordinator