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Healing ministry sparks miners’ messiah

Rights activist Binayak Sen says he is guilty only of helping the poor

  • Rita Joseph, New Delhi
  • India
  • June 6, 2011
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Rights activist Binayak Sen says he has been heavily influenced by Christ’s healing ministry.

“The healing ministry of Christ and the activities of the Student Christian Movement were major influences in my life,” said Sen, who is on bail after being convicted for sedition and sentenced to life imprisonment last year by a Chhattisgarh court.

A gold medalist from the Christian Medical College at Vellore in Tamil Nadu, Sen says his missionary zeal was fired in college.

He has also been closely associated with the Delhi-based, Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute (ISI).

Sen said the ISI works for dalit and tribal rights and displacement issues. He too worked for similar goals for tribal people in Chhattisgarh, a central Indian state badly affected by a Maoist insurrection.

“Successive figures [heads] of ISI, like [Fathers] Walter Fernandez, Luis Baretto, Prakash Louis, have been good friends and comrades,” he said.

An ISI note pad found in his possession, which the prosecution said came from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, led to Sen being called a traitor.

The pediatrician, who has tirelessly worked for the poor in Chhattisgarh, fell foul of the government when he spoke out against vigilante groups called “Salwa Juddum” who committed serious human rights abuses.

The Supreme Court, which cleared Sen of sedition charges and granted him bail, has banned the group.

He was imprisoned twice for being a Maoist supporter before being sentenced to life.

However, the groundswell of support for his activities in India and from abroad, including from Church leaders and a score of Nobel laureates, ensured no prison could hold him for long.

“It surprised me too, but I slowly understood that the spirit of goodness is not dead in the world,” he said.

The rights activist, who chose to work amongst the marginalized in Chhattisgarh, has helped provide health services to the poor, especially mine workers.

He helped impoverished tribals start a hospital. The Shaheed Hospital in Dallirajhara has grown from a small clinic to a 60-bed hospital in four years.

Sen and his wife, Ilina, also set up Rupantar, a non-governmental organization, in the early nineties. This trains rural health workers, runs mobile clinics and campaigns against alcohol abuse and violence against women.

His efforts in public health programs, say local doctors, helped bring down the infant mortality rate in the state and deaths caused by diarrhea and dehydration.

Sen was conferred the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights for his services to poor and tribal communities and his unwavering commitment to civil liberties and human rights.

He was part of Chhattisgarh’s advisory committee on health sector reforms, and has recently been appointed to the Planning Commission’s Steering Committee on Health which will advise the body on its 12th five-year plan.

On how he faced prison life despite niggling health problems, he said: “My family – my mother, wife and daughters - stood solidly behind me and helped me face the ordeal.”

His wife, Ilina, says the fight to release her husband goes beyond the man himself.

"I realize this goes beyond Binayak and our family. We are part of a much larger fight. We are struggling for the right to dissent peacefully. Our commitment to that gives me strength."

Ilina, who works as a professor at the Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya institution in Wardha in Maharashtra, said that during his days in prison, they were wrought with anxiety. Binayak was not well and to add to his problems he was injured in a fall.

“Even now our telephones are being tapped,” she said.

Sen, who is also the vice-president of the local branch of the People's Union for Civil Liberties rights group, says the issue of health and human rights cannot be separated.

“If you are working with deprived people, the issue of health cannot be separated from their rights. I always took a holistic view of this.”

He said the sedition law is being “used to suppress” the voices of people who are protesting against forced displacement and he is working for its abolition.

On his future goals, he said “my sincere wish is that I am able to serve the communities who need me most.”

Related report
Church welcomes bail for activist
Activist’s life sentence widely condemned

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