Chronicle of a Bail Foretold: Saroj Giri

Guest post by SAROJ GIRI

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For the Law Minister, Sen’s case is supposed to be all about a faulty law from the colonial era, an outdated sedition law from 1870.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!

9 thoughts on “Chronicle of a Bail Foretold: Saroj Giri”

  1. Apart from my agreement with all the points raised, I liked the way you linked the Binayak Sen Case to the popular endorsement of Anna Hazare , et al:

    “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?.”

    This phenomenon should indeed be understood as one with propensities double edged.
    In a sense, the people are confronted with ideologies that compete in personalizing each issue. A whole range of issues from corruption, governance, administration, means and forms of resistance etc, to that of leadership ,often do get X-rayed under ideological concoction of false binaries..for example, violence vs non violence !Even while you reject the real dialectics calling it as part of some grand narrative, you need unreal binaries to justify your so called post Marxist-Post modern theories. Binayak Sen, who himself is a committed fighter of peace , justice and non violence seems to offer proof that the question is less about your method as such than about challenging the violent ways of the state oppressing people by employing salva judum, the OGH, Section124A, and so on.


  2. This is one of the most acutely-thought, analysed and all-important-points-driven-home piece on Binayak Sen and the larger issues around him.

    Saroj’s piece thinks politically not merely on the surface of events but beneath them, constantly weaning away from the superficial meanings being attached to the issue by the government, the media and other “sober” organisations, by hitting the hidden nail on its head and exposing its sinister plot (and blot) on the walls of our precarious future. The piece also upholds the necessity to raise the worst questions at a supposedly triumphant moment, so that formal victories don’t blind us but bind us towards a demand for larger freedoms. Saroj has dared to address in this piece of writing, all the complex puzzles involved in this Rubik’s-Cube-of-an-issue, and has remarkably sorted out all the colours.

    What Saroj has specifically – and crucially – managed to highlight is what I think his piece is most importantly about: the difference between the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’ of democracy.

    Democracy, as a word, a term up for grabs, by those in power, by the populist media and others, has been hazed beyond recognition, paradoxically by the politics of overuse. To point to the overuse of the term democracy to mean just about anything is not to be cynical at all about a momentary triumph of a democratic cause or movement isn’t real. The real danger is precisely how at a ‘real’ moment of achieving a goal, the praise of democracy is immediately summoned to link up the real moment with the ‘imaginary’, and gloss over the possibilities that the ‘real’ moment opens up. We have to de-link this surreptitious linkage which constantly seeks to undermine the possibilities of the ‘real’ by turning democracy into some kind of moral toy which we can play with and celebrate by fantasising being in paradise.

    In fact, as Saroj has perfectly pointed out, it is precisely at the moment when democracy is being celebrated because of a triumphant reason, the ruling ideology of democracy has to be smashed beyond the tricky logic behind a momentary political victory. The logic has to be smashed however by extending it – to use it for what remains defeated, haunted, chased, killed. We have to ask further questions about the remaining quarries of democracy.

    We have got Binayak Sen back, at least for now. It is the perfect moment to ask what else do we want to get back to be able to break the shell of democracy and ensure everyone enjoys its yolk.


  3. Thanks for this Saroj, was it F or Z who said the back-and-forth game on the handle of critique affirms and props ideology up as much? A very powerful Hindu editorial written by Praveen Swami gets at this question too – who dares raise the ‘unthinkable’ question that underlies all intellectual angst over the Sen trials – an assumption that ultimately the Indian state must win and soft power (reprieve as you call it) must restore and shove the eyesore of violence under the carpet, so we can breathe in peace again. Swami dares raise the question – but will it? what if it doesn’t? – raising the however feeble possibility of ‘them’ winning. I love some nihilism in mass media.


  4. Dipankar Bhattacarya, General Secretary of the CPI(ML) had commented on the Binayak Sen Case related issues, of which here is the full text:

    Dr. Binayak Sen has finally got bail following a favourable directive from the Supreme Court. In granting him bail, the apex court has also questioned the flimsy basis on which the Chhattisgarh government has charged him with sedition. The judges, Justice Harjit Singh Bedi and Justice Chandramauli Kumar Prasad, are reported to have said that Binayak may well be a Maoist sympathizer but that does not automatically attract charges of sedition. They have also said that just as mere possession of Gandhi’s autobiography does not make one Gandhian, the same also holds good for the works of Marx, Lenin or Mao. It should however be noted that the comments made on the issue of sedition, though made in open court and reported widely in the media, are not part of the court’s order. In fact, the judges did not give any reason “lest they prejudice any party” in the case!

    It is nevertheless refreshing to hear such words of sanity from the apex court at a time when the state has identified ‘Maoism’ as the biggest threat to internal security and cutting across ideological divides, central and state governments are joining hands to wage a veritable war on democracy in the name of combating the Maoists. Indeed such sanity is quite rare and on plenty of occasions the apex court has just upheld lower court verdicts without giving any relief to victims of state repression and lower court injustice. To remind our readers of just one such case, Comrade Shah Chand and thirteen others from Jahanabad district in Bihar who had been sentenced for life by a TADA court in Bihar in 2003 got no justice from the Supreme Court. No arms were recovered from these comrades; the inventory of articles found with them included copies of the Communist Manifesto, Mao’s articles and manuals of Bihar Pradesh Kisan Sabha and studies on Bihar’s agrarian economy. The TADA court had dubbed this literature ‘terrorist’ and the Supreme Court merely upheld this fiat of the TADA court!

    Let us not forget that even in Dr. Binayak Sen’s case, he has just got bail and acquittal is still a long way off. It took nearly two years and a sustained campaign across the country and an international outcry by human rights campaigners to secure the first bail after Sen had been arrested in May 2007 on charges of ‘sedition’. Yet we know the Raipur trial court went on to convict him and once again the High Court rejected the bail plea. And let us also remember that while Dr. Sen has been granted bail there are many languishing in Chhattisgarh jails on sedition charges including tribal activists Kopa Kunjam and Kartam Joga and businessman Piyush Guha and hundreds of tribal people from entire Chhattisgarh villages designated as hotbeds of sedition! In spite of periodic interventions by the Supreme Court and repeated directives to the Chhattisgarh government to disband the unconstitutional Salwa Judum campaign, Chhattisgarh remains a veritable graveyard of human rights.

    In the second week of March, Chhattisgarh police claimed to have fought an encounter battle with Maoists in the jungles of Dantewada. A fact-finding team visiting Chintalnar, Morapally, Timmapuram and Tadmetla villages in that area found the police claim to be nothing but a hoax. They said what had happened in reality was a full-scale rampage by state-sponsored Koya commandos and the “CoBRA” unit of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) from March 11 to 16 in the course of which at least three tribals were killed, three women were raped and over 300 houses/huts, granaries and other properties were set on fire. A few days later when Swami Agnivesh took a relief team to the villages, he was attacked forcing the NHRC to take notice and the Supreme Court to call for yet another hearing on the Salwa Judum case which is going on for four years now. And the latest SC hearing once again brought out the real truth that Chhattisgarh is experiencing a systematic war on human rights and that the war is being jointly sponsored by the state and central governments.

    While welcoming the bail granted to Dr. Binayak Sen and the remarks made by the judges, the human rights movement cannot lose sight of this larger ongoing war. In fact, the time is now absolutely ripe for a powerful countrywide people’s movement for democratic rights. The draconian laws – some of them archaic, and some are of recent origin – must go. The sedition law (Section 124A of IPC), the AFSPA, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005, the sweeping and draconian provisions of the UAPA – these are all utterly incompatible with the notion of a functional democracy. The awakened public opinion which has forced on the government the agenda of drafting an anti-corruption legislation must also call for repealing all these terrible laws which make a complete mockery of our constitutional liberties and rights. Let anti-corruption campaigners and human rights activists march together and unfurl the common banner of a democratic India free of corruption and repression.


  5. Populist political pieces get so much attention. Analytical pieces don’t. Or maybe people are not adept at responding to such pieces. Whichever way it is – sad indeed.

    But it should also tell the writers about what not to be very disappointed by, as much as what not to be overwhelmed by. Such is the Indian marketplace of ideas.


  6. The author while highlighting the land grab, which must be highlighted, will like us all to forget that the CPI(Maoist) is engaged in a “people’s war” or full scale guerrilla warfare against the Indian state in order to overrun it. That’s its declared aim, and no less. It has even deprecated the Maoists in Nepal for giving up guerrilla war to join electoral democratic politics in order achieve their broader aims.
    The Indian state’s armed and unarmed responses are not exclusively shaped by its urge for land grab but also by the armed war launched against it.

    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.

    Evidently Giri would have had been on a much stronger wicket to establish “democracy” is “dictatorship”, albeit “bourgeois dictatorship”, had the Supreme Court rejected Binayak’s bail plea.
    The whole piece appears to have been triggered by his profound uneasiness with the Supreme Court order.
    He is too comfortable with “democracy” as “dictatorship”. Anything to the contrary is too unsettling from his point of view.

    (Long live naked (one-party) dictatorships marked by show trials, gulags and firing squads!
    Down with (multi-party) democracy as this is dictatorship!)

    With the release of Binayak the cause of other prisoners kept in jail on flimsy grounds must now be raised with all the vigours that it deserves.
    India must not be allowed to turn into a hellish gulag, criminalising dissent, for a significant number of its citizens.


  7. Thanks for your post, Saroj. I like to read your stuff, as always.

    I understand your skepticism about the meaning of the Binayak Sen verdict as far as your critique of the rhetoric from the mainstream media is concerned. For them, any deliberation or policy or decision by a government body that produces a truly just result–as in the SC’s decision to grant bail to Binayak–is turned into proof that Indian democracy works. Anything that reveals the current system for what it is, that disrupts the narrative is conveniently ignored. And thus they can be “for” Binayak Sen and “for” Operation Green Hunt at one and the same time.

    As you and many others have pointed out, these are the pitfalls of capitalist democracy. Free speech, freedom of association, and all similar rights are ultimately upheld only to the extent that they do not interfere with the workings of systemic exploitation of the many by the few. In such a scenario, the discussion we’re having now is possible, even as, while we speak, basic rights are being withheld from activists and fighters in “sensitive” zones.

    But what I have difficulty with–and this also applies to certain dismissive attitudes towards the anti-corruption movement–is that the just critique of the contradictions of capitalist democracy turns into a simplification of democracy as such. We need to be able to explain why capitalist democracy is still a form of democracy, and what possibilities and limitations are part of this form.

    Democracy is not inherently opposed to capitalist society but historically emerged alongside it. As many have said (was it Brecht?), democracy is the form of government that capitalism actually thrives in–with its ideologies of individualism, its constant revolutionizing of the economy and society–and it turns to fascism, dictatorship, etc. either selectively (in poor areas, in counter-insurgencies) or as a last resort. This doesn’t mean we don’t point out the severe contradictions (“all men are created equal” was written by a slave-holder) but also recognize how democracy is both the product of radical demands and opens up a space for further radicalization.

    There’s an example I always keep in mind about democracy. When the great abolitionist and radical William Lloyd Garrison (a white man) publicly burned the US Constitution for its hypocrisies and called it a pro-slavery document, the ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass protested, saying that the flawed document could nevertheless be the basis on which emancipation could develop.

    To go from the abstract to the concrete: Binayak Sen’s release was not only about the whim of the SC, but was the product of struggle and organization. It shows how thousands of organized and dedicated people can come together and actually win some important victories, even in the here and now. The rallies, the cultural events, the stir that was created was invigorating to see — they brought people together, they made sure that Binayak was not forgotten, let many others know about him, and actually produced a result like this!

    Besides the ongoing campaign for Binayak himself, now the question is whether we can put the government’s feet to the fire and demand the release of others languishing in jail on political trials like this–and take to task the real criminals who are engaged in land grabs and terrible repression. (Along the way, we might also get rid of those colonial-era laws that prevent people from speaking out freely–and to demand this is not to fall into the mythologies about democracy.) And so I agree with Sukla’s last line in his comment, though I don’t think the sarcastic tone is productive.


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