I wont discuss the intricacies of the arrest of Dr. Binayak Sen, a noted paediatrician and human rights activist in Chhattisgarh. Much has already been written about it. The SaveBinayak site is an excellent starting point. The internet activist can sign petitions here and here.
What is troubling for someone not involved in the local intrigues of the case is the strong statement that the Chhattisgarh State Government makes with such an action. By going after a man who strongly sided with non-violent, democratic means of countering State excesses and negligence the government is slamming shut the door to democratic activism and dissent. Taking up the line of George Bush, people can now choose to be either 'with us or against us'. The Chhattisgarh Special Public Securities Act, under which Dr. Sen is charged has sweeping powers and contains wording that can be interpreted in such a manner that a number of seemingly innocent acts can be construed as 'waging war against the State'. The Act seems to be targeted more towards so called 'Naxal sympathisers' than any armed revolutionary. Here is where the danger lies. Since the Naxal movement claims to represent and fight for the most oppressed sections of Indian society, the landless farmers and tribals, any person seen as sympathising with these people is now seen as a potential Naxal.
I grew up in the heart of the democratic movement that hoped to represent the poor and the oppressed in India. Never have I heard anyone openly admire Naxalite violence or any other sort of violence for that matter. People on the ground do sometimes however, acknowledge the frustration and hopelessness that occasionally drives people to take up arms. For the first time I am witness to a new fear within the community. People are now acutely aware of the value of political correctness in an atmosphere where a single careless sentence or act can be misconstrued as supporting violence aganist the state. Overnight the community has woken up to the fact that the political support from the middle class which viewed activists as people who have taken a much respected but less beaten path has evaporated. Any sort of activism is now seen as a bunch of idealists creating a nuisance at best and at worst activism is seen as terrorism. The line between democratic and non democratic dissent is fast eroding.
An environment in which you can get away with anything provided that you can create enough spin to make people believe that your enemies/victims are 'terrorists' is deeply disturbing. The vulnerableness of groups with no access to mass media and other channels where they can sufficiently and honestly portray there version of the truth is great. Skillful control of most Indian media by a nexus of businessmen, politicians and corporates contributes to this environment in which all protest has become theatre whether the script involves violence or not.
Any free and just society needs to provide space where citizens can confront the government and other powerful institutions. It is imperative for concerned people to fight to maintain and expand this space for democratic, constitutional ways of disagreeing with the Powers That Be. While there is still time and space.