Illustration: Anand Naorem

THERE IS a dark truth about Indian democracy that very few middle-class Indians understand. There are no certitudes about liberty and opportunity here; no real comforts about the rule of law. In fact, the nature of life in India, literally, is a function of choice.

Nothing demonstrates that more than the story of Dr Binayak Sen. Four years ago, on a cold February morning outside a court in Raipur, a man with gentle eyes and a long grey beard had pressed his face through the iron grill of a jail van and spoken urgently as I stood outside on my toes, straining to hear him. Gun-toting commandos surrounded the van. It had not been easy to push past them to get face time. No one had really heard of Binayak Sen then. It was the first time someone from the national media had come listening. There were many things Sen could have pleaded through that window. He had already been in jail for nine months. He could have urged one to talk up his story in Delhi’s power circles, urged one to start a campaign for him. But, astonishingly, Sen’s urgencies had lain elsewhere.

“You have to go back and write about how we are creating two categories of human beings in this country,” he had said, as the commandos tried to nudge us out of range. “You have to write about the famine and malnutrition rampant everywhere. We are living out the Malthusian theory…”

This did not sound like a man who was a dire national security threat. But Sen had been put in jail for “waging war against the nation” and it took another year and more for him to get bail from the Supreme Court. The freedom was shortlived. On 25 December 2010, a trial court convicted him and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Sen was re-arrested. Last week, the Chhattisgarh High Court refused to suspend the sentence and denied him bail again. He may not have waged war against the nation, it said, but he stood guilty of sedition: Why had he raised his voice against the State?

Binayak Sen could have chosen not to be in jail. Jethwa could have chosen not to be dead

Sen is not an isolated symptom. Two years ago, in May 2009, another man in Chhattisgarh had fallen foul of the State. Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian from Meerut had spent 17 years working in Dantewada. He had an ashram on the outskirts of the forest where tribals from the deep interiors could come for refuge. Here they learnt how to file FIRs, petition the district collector, interact with forest officials, seek redress. But on 16 May 2009, as Indians elsewhere were celebrating a peaceful General Election — proud symbol of India’s vibrant democracy — a posse of policemen and several bulldozers rolled into Himanshu’s ashram and razed it to the ground. He sat with his wife and daughters under a tree and watched. His elder daughter cried as it rained. When the police were done, not a trace of the 17 years remained. Just a drooping crocus and, ironically, pamphlets in Gondi urging tribals to vote.

For several months more, Himanshu tried to continue his work from a makeshift ashram nearby. Then, as the intimidations piled up, one evening he shed his trademark white kurta, shaved his moustache, disguised himself in red shirt and jeans, scaled the wall of his house and came away to Delhi. He has never gone back.

Just a few months later, in July 2010, environment activist Amit Jethwa had just stepped out of the Gujarat High Court when two men on a motorbike shot him point blank and sped off. Jethwa had been fighting for two years against illegal mines in the Gir Lion Sanctuary, owned by a politician, Dinu Solanki. Solanki’s nephew was later arrested as the prime accused in the murder.

A few months earlier, in February 2010, a young lawyer called Shahid Azmi was shot dead by gunmen in his chamber in Mumbai. Azmi had been fighting unpopular cases, mostly defending poor Muslim boys accused of terrorism. The Crime Branch suspects he was killed on a supari issued by underworld gangster Bharat Nepali, who deems himself a “nationalist” and is allegedly close to some sections of the Indian intelligence establishment.

Shahid was 32 when he was killed; Jethwa was 35. Himanshu is 52. Binayak is 61. But their stories are linked by a profound thr – ead: Binayak Sen could have chosen not to be in jail. Kumar could have chosen not to be in exile. Jethwa could have chosen not to be dead. Azmi could have chosen to be alive

Secure in the cocoon of our privilege, we imagine we have nothing in common with the evil repressions of the Middle East regimes and elsewhere. But the truth is, only a thin membrane separates us from it: individual choice. If you are among those who chase the rewards of the market-place and keep your head down, India is a wondrous, silken place. If you are among those who ask questions, you fall through a chute.

EARLY THIS year, in a gruesome incident, Yashwant Sonawane, additional district collector of Malegaon was burnt to death in broad daylight by local mafia for resisting the pilferage of kerosene. There was Satyendra Dubey earlier, IIT alumni, killed for protecting India’s prestigious highway project, the Golden Quadrilateral. There was S Manjunath, IIM alumnus, killed for sealing pumps adulterating petrol. And just last year, nine RTI activists were murdered for demanding little answers.

Cast an eye over other news items strewn across the years and a landscape of horror opens up. This is the country at the other end of the chute. Government officials humiliated for doing their duty. Police officers cut to size for not toeing the line. Activists maligned and blacklisted. Upright citizens harassed. Over just the last year, TEHELKA has done several stories detailing such cases. Whistle and Be Damned, the story of whistleblowers in India. Dead Right, the story of RTI activists in India. Sanjiv Chaturvedi, forest official in Haryana, hounded like an animal for doing his job. Kuldeep Sharma, police officer in Gujarat, hounded for speaking the truth.

All these stories point to a black fact we must confront: there are no dividends for doing the right thing in India. There is only danger. India’s public culture, in fact, has designed itself into an ugly gene: fear, docility, compliance. And a kind of automated blindness. There is absolutely nothing to pierce this dehumanising membrane except the random and inexplicable ideas of self that pin some individuals to a higher ideal.

Binayak Sen did not need to speak up when the atrocities of the Salwa Judum began in 2005. He had spent 30 years serving the poor in Chhattisgarh, the State had never been angry with him. He could have let 600 villages be evacuated. He could have let three lakh tribals be dispossessed. He could have let corporates swallow the forest whole. If he had stayed silent, he would not have been accused of sedition. He had a choice. He chose.

Himanshu Kumar too could have closed his eyes the day the first raped and maimed tribal girl limped into his ashram. He knew filing hundreds of cases against the police would rouse the beast. He knew he was putting his family in jeopardy. But he chose.

What prevented Amit Jethwa from retreating into a comfortable life like the rest of us and leaving the fate of Gir Sanctuary to the avarice of politicians and the corruption of forest officials? Shahid Azmi was 12 when a Hindu mob accosted him; 16, when he crossed over to Pakistan to train for revenge. Later, disillusioned with militancy, he spent eight years in rigorous imprisonment in Mumbai, and studied for his law exam. When he walked free, he could have slipped through the line into a life of ease. What impelled him to return to the sewer, fighting for people the system had abandoned, trying to staunch the hatred and fear around him?

TEHELKA’s cover story this week, The Danger of Being Good, is a tribute to the precious, quixotic and inspirational idea of the world and self that drives some Indian citizens to still stand up for a moral vision. Duty. Justice. Accountability. Honesty. Democracy. Fairness. Dignity. Empathy. There is nothing in the world around us that suggests these human values are worth defending. There is nothing to pin one to their pursuit except the face in the mirror and the interior dialogue: what sort of human being do I want to be?

If you keep your head down, India is a shining place. Ask questions, and you fall through a chute

The battles in this cover package range from the quotidian to the gigantic. There are dozens we have had to leave out. But meditate on them for a moment, and just this small handful of stories will make you balk at the depraved society they reveal. Corruption in every pore: in excise, in income tax, in ports, in highways, in check dams, in the PDS, in ration cards, in land encroachments, in pollutions of earth and water and sky. Nothing is safe. Greed is the only propeller. We are not a society really: we are a termite nest, eating at ourselves.

As a people then, out of self-preservation if not high ethic, we should be gearing ourselves to protect those who fight this. But both as a people and a State, India has set itself on a contrary path. Every righteous action in this country brings on the wrath of the “system”: its deadly dance of intimidation and seduction; its crushing arsenal of transfers, suspensions, false cases, arrests, sudden deaths and financial squeeze. No one is immune.

This TEHELKA cover then is an alarming reminder that what should have been the norm has become the exception. Doing one’s duty is no longer an imperative in India. Nothing governs us as a society now except the miracle of individual choice. We are secured by the fact that some people choose to be good, no matter what. But there are myriad dangers in that. There is not just the might of the State to confront. There is also the temptation at every turn to just give up, part the skin and slip over into the silken side where one half of India is living a charmed life. If you don’t fight the ugliness of the State, it will behave in benign ways with you. That is one of the hardest lessons being good in India teaches you.


In Palamu, Asking questions can kill you

The honest soldier

No Sanctuary for good men

The truth that took three lives

Lies, Dam lies

Forging development

Vote hero

The boy who would save villages

The uniform code

The lion in sheep’s clothing

The dead will not seek power

Forest crusader

How to blow a whistle and stay alive

Caught in the quicksand

Seeker of truth

The vigilante

‘To work for humanitarian reasons is the will of allah’

The man who would not bribe