A few days ago, a civil liberties activist and Amnesty International ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ was released on bail by the Supreme Court of India. Dr Binayak Sen, a 61 year old paediatrician and vice president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in India was convicted of sedition and is accused of waging war against the state Government. In reality, the so-called war he fought helps the unwanted, the rural poor and tribes people in gaining access to proper health care and other basic civil rights.
Dr Sen is a simple man with a deep desire to uplift his fellow human beings. He is a doctor by profession and reminds me of the lead character from a movie I saw many years ago about a West Virginia doctor, ‘Patch Adams’. Dr Sen used his professional skills and knowledge to help create a healthcare facility staffed and funded by improvising mine workers in the local area. He has spent a lifetime educating people about good-health practices and civil liberties and in the process has helped save thousands of lives.
For over 25 years, Dr Sen has dedicated his life in particular to the tribal people that have been left behind by the so called civilised world, making good use of his reputation as alumni of a prestigious college of medicine. He has helped create awareness among the tribal people about their rights and the way they should be able to endure life with dignity. His work has been well rewarded by different organisations: in 2004 Dr Sen was given the Paul Harrison award for a lifetime of service to the rural poor; in 2007 he was honoured by the Indian Academy of Social Sciences; and, in 2008 he was awarded the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights.
Widely published in reputed medical journals, Dr Sen’s accomplishments speak volumes about what can be achieved in very poor areas of South Asia when health practitioners are also dedicated community leaders. During his incarceration, 22 Nobel Peace Laureates wrote of their support for him, whilst Amnesty International considered him a ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ and called his arrest a breach of international law. Harvard Medical School stood firm in support, as did many people the world over, protesting against his arrest and conviction. Even in the UK, Members of Parliament in the House of Commons too spoke out in support of Dr Sen. It should not be surprising then that during his most recent hearings, an eight-member delegation representing the European Union was present to observe the legal proceedings.
People like Dr Sen’s only crime is to care about their surroundings and want to help see their fellow citizens live a dignified life, free of fear and disrespect. In recent times, the status quo has been such that you can only live according to a set of norms that are controlled by the established order. If a person wants to live in accordance with their beliefs in any way outside of the norm, they are discarded, condemned and confined, no matter what benefit their lifestyle brings to society. Even today, worldwide, many similar people are locked up and forgotten – some are known of, most are not. The case of Dr Sen highlights that these people exist and continue to stand up for what they believe in, ready to pay the price for doing so. His release is a victory for the people; not just in India, but everywhere.