Bokrakachhar, home to 36 families of Baiga tribals, used
to be deep inside the Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary. In 2009 Achanakmar
was declared part of Project Tiger – the nearly 40-year-old government
of India initiative “to ensure a viable population of tiger in India for
scientific, economic, aesthetic, cultural and ecological values”, as
their website puts it. That meant Bokrakachhar and a few other villages
had to move out of the “core zone” of the sanctuary.
Hence the creation of “new”, or resettled, Bokrakachhar
comprising 36 government-built, concrete-block homes and zero trees. It
is actually one of three new villages that exist side by side, a
treeless total of about 100 concrete-block structures. This development
has been held up as a model in fact and other Baiga are brought here to
see what they will get when they agree to move.
I moved slowly through Bokrakachhar, suffering from the
heat. People sat under their parapets, the only shade available. In
every house, I noticed electric wires running neatly along the walls,
with smart white switchboards and even the occasional fan. Why were
these people not sitting inside, under their fans?
Standing outside his home, Dhanga Singh (name changed)
cleared that up tersely: “No electricity,” he said.
“Oh, you have regular power cuts?” I asked. “When will
the electricity be back?”
“No,” said Dhanga. “You don’t understand. There is no
electricity. One year we’ve been here but we’ve never had electricity.”
State authorities move these Baiga, build houses for
them and wire the houses but there’s no electricity. Also: no school, no
health care, no water supply apart from two handpumps. And, maybe I
mentioned, no shade. This is the charade that passes for resettlement.
What is the connection to Binayak Sen? This much: when
you’re a doctor practising in rural India, as Sen was, you come to
understand that health does not stand by itself. It is intimately linked
to poverty, justice, hunger, governance and charades. In treating your
patients, you run up against these themes all the time. How could you
not? To reach the nearest doctor, for example, Dhanga Singh would have
to pick a Tuesday, walk 1.5 km from Bokrakachhar to a tarred road, wait
there for a bus, then ride an hour to a village named Bamhni. Why
Tuesday? That’s when a team from the Jan Swasthya Sahyog (JSS), a rural
hospital in Ganiyari, 60 km away, comes to Bamhni to run an outreach
Six decades after India became free, it’s not hard to
find Indians whose only access to health care is at a once-a-week clinic
over 90 minutes away on foot and then by bus. Try selling that kind of
access to the average urban Indian. What decibel levels will his
Imagine you’re that doctor in rural India. Over years
that stretch into decades you see and absorb things around you.
Eventually, you cannot help speaking about the way that the people who
are your patients live. Eventually, you begin to understand why some
might choose to support a movement that speaks of a phantasmagoric
I happen to believe that there was no evidence to
convict Binayak Sen: I am aware of considerable inconsistencies in the
case against him, each of which seems to me like grounds to have
dismissed it. I also believe, for that matter, that there’s no place in
our democracy for an antiquated law on sedition.
These issues have already attracted considerable comment
in the four years since Sen’s initial arrest and especially in the
months since he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison last
December. But there is a deeper lesson in the Sen case, that is, if
we’re willing to see it. It lies in the chance to understand why
ordinary Indians would support what so many think of as an abomination:
a movement whose avowed intention is to overthrow the Indian state.
Let me be clear: this is not to say Sen argues for such
overthrow, nor that I do. Nor that the families of Bokrakachhar do – I
really have no idea. But when we ask a village to make great sacrifices
in the name of development or wildlife and, in return, we deposit them
in the soulless wasteland that is new Bokrakachhar – when this
transaction is not an aberration or something that’s never happened
before – well, blow me away, but it’s not hard to see why people might
get disillusioned with their country.
The questions posed by Sen’s trial, in other words, are
questions that we’ve known all along – questions that many among us
prefer to avoid asking. Here are a few more:
What is it about the way we have chosen to develop that
has left so many Indians dissatisfied?
Why is it acceptable that large numbers in this country
are so poor that authorities run programmes for them to buy grain at Rs
three per kg; and plenty so poor that they cannot afford even that price
so authorities sell them grain at Rs one per kg (Dhanga Singh being
What are the health implications of poverty this acute
When we resettle a village, why is it so hard to assure
its residents even a minimal improvement in the way they live? How can a
newly constructed village, built by the government and wired for
electricity, not have power coursing through those new wires from day
There are many more such questions but you get the idea.
The decision to grant Sen bail – thus deferring concerns like evidence
and charges – offers the opportunity to think through such questions.
Consider that if we didn’t have to ask the questions – if large numbers
of Indians did not live such lives – it’s plausible that the Maoist
insurgents would not have the support they clearly do. Not that the
insurgency would not exist but that it would not have support. (There’s
a difference.) If we didn’t have to ask them, Sen would not have raised
issues that attracted attention from Chhattisgarh authorities and became
part of the case against him. (It says something, that on his release on
bail, he spoke about malnutrition in the country.) If we didn’t have to
ask them, insurgencies in this country would be starved of the lifeblood
of popular support.
This is no airy-fairy “hearts and minds” argument that
glosses over Maoist crimes. Fight Maoists, certainly. But let’s
acknowledge that hardship and injustice fill too many Indian lives.
Tackling that is a bigger headache than any threat Maoists might pose
but remains nevertheless the most effective way to defeat them.
The problem, though, is that on the evidence of the last
60 years – the evidence in a ghastly place called Bokrakachhar – we are
not interested in effective ways.