It’s a saddening experience to read Dr Binayak Sen’s letter to the Gandhi Peace Foundation refusing the Gandhi International Peace Award for 2011.
The furore the nomination caused was more becuase of a technicality in the wording of the award announcement than the fact that it was being bequeathed to a man who has proved his dedication to India’s rural poor beyond any measure of doubt; to the rural poor including the adhivasi community. The Gandhi Peace Foundation, critisized for adding in the award announcement that Dr Sen was being celebrated as a “representative of the adhivasi” community, later changed the wording to tailor the award specifically to Dr Sen and Bulu Imam, a joint winner for the prize. This only made matters worse, with certain adhivasi activists reacting angrily to the fact that the award wasn’t awarded to lesser known but equally deserving adhivasi activists and leaders.
The pressure was enough for Dr Sen to pen a letter of refusal to the Gandhi Peace Foundaion, a typically gracious response …
“The level of debate is now such that the paramount issues outlined above threaten to be replaced by a palimpsest of ethnic fundamentalism. Under the circumstances, the really important task of delineating and combating the tragedy being enacted before our eyes gets pushed to the background.
Accordingly, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that at the present juncture it will not be appropriate for me to receive this award….”
There is certainly a point to be made for adhivasi people often being represented by “outsider” spokesmen. They are right in claiming that they should be recognized for their own efforts at self development and creating a more just and democratic society. However, I do believe that the quarreling about the wording of the award, and the insistent pressure on Dr Sen to refuse it, was mean spirited, and in the end, self defeating for the adhivasi community.
A friend of mine in Mumbai said the whole “adhivasi issue” - which encompasses a range of ills from the exploitation of the region’s resources, the Central Government’s neglect of its people, the abuses perpetrated on ordinary people by the special forces and para military groups and the general voicelessness of all of India’s 100,000 tribals - is so far off the urban agenda, as to be virtually invisible to the Indian middle class.
So as far as I can see, any attention brought to the region is a good thing. Whether its a Dr Binayak Sen, or an Arundhati Roy who chooses to speak out about abuses in this hidden corner of the globe, we should be honouring them for their committment to what remains an unfashionable and all but invisible cause. This award would have brought the international gaze on India’s adhivasi community, and who knows what kind of pressure that would have translated into on the Indian government to do something about the abysmal human rights record in the region. Maybe it could even have provided some sense to the all powerful mining co-orporations that the world was watching over their shoulder and forced them to improve their treatment of the indiginous communities living in the lands they were so busy tearing apart.
Dr Sen and his family have paid a heavy price for their belief that ethnic indiginous people are also the sons and daughters of India. He’s spent two years in jail, with a sentence of life imprisonment hanging over his head. He could have given his family all the considerable comforts of an urban life, but they chose to go and live in a deprived community and work to bring development to a region that had precious little. His award nomination was strongly supported by several parts of the fractured ethnic community itself, who know more than most what he has done for them.
The Jharkand Indiginous People’s Forum, Gladstone Dungdung et al who formed the pressure group and claim to be speaking for all the adhivasis of India have not done their community a service by this gesture. You can read their response to Dr Sen’s official refusal here.