At the outset, I would like to thank the New York Academy of Sciences for conferring on me the prestigious Heinz R. Pagels Award for Human Rights. I wish it were possible for me to be with you in person on this occasion. Besides my gratitude for this great honour, I also have a personal reason to celebrate a connection with the Academy. My father was a pharmacologist whose research was on melanocyte stimulating hormone. He worked in the Medical Corps of the Indian Army and taught for some time at the Armed Forces Medical College in Pune, India. He was offered membership in the Academy, but had to decline because, as an officer of the Indian Army, he was not permitted to accept membership in a foreign organization. So this Award is, in some ways, a celebration of an older connection.
Of course, I never had the privilege of crossing paths with Professor Pagels. I am not a physicist, but if you will pardon me the audacity of seeking parallels between his work and mine, I might focus on his dedication to increase popular understanding of the importance and complexity of physics and of science in general. As a paediatrician and public health physician, I have tried to enhance the public’s understanding of the ways in which poverty and injustice undermine efforts to promote health and peace, which we ourselves take for granted as our own fundamental human rights.
Another parallel between us might be that we both married well. My own work would not have been possible without the patience and support of my wife Professor Ilina Sen, an eminent feminist scholar and peace activist in her own right, who herself is an admirer of Professor Elaine Pagels’ work on the perception of women in society.
The support of my professional colleagues, and of the academic community across the world, has been invaluable in securing my freedom. The Committee on Human Rights of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, which serves also as the Secretariat for the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, arranged to pay me a visit while I was still in jail. Professor Robert Curl (Nobel Laureate in Chemistry), Professor Arjuna Aluwihare (President of the Sri Lankan Academy of Sciences), and Ms. Carol Corillon, actually travelled to India and visited me in jail. This was a cherished occasion, although only Professor Curl was allowed to actually speak to me. The letters and postcards my scientist colleagues wrote to me while I was in jail are also treasured memories. I know also that 48 Nobel Laureates across the world appealed for my release, including Professor Torsten Wiesel whom I have to especially thank for nominating me for today’s Award. Then as now, I was personally dumbfounded and humbled by this groundswell of support, which I can only attribute to shared recognition of our common cause of human rights.
One of the many intellectuals who graciously spoke out on my behalf is our exemplar, Professor Noam Chomsky. Chomsky tells us that intellectuals have an obligation to speak truth to power. Throughout history, members of the community of scholars have attempted to publicly speak the truth, and faced state action as a result. The example of Galileo springs most readily to mind, and the poet Osip Mandelstam with his indictment of ‘the Kremlin mountain man,’ is also part of our collective consciousness. Likewise, it is appropriate to mention the examples of Andrei Sakharov and of Liu Xiaobo, who even today continues to languish in jail.
My fellow awardee today, Professor Jack Minker, has a distinguished record of working for the rights of fellow scientists in difficult situations. Professor Minker, my congratulations to you on this well*deserved recognition of your own contributions to human rights.
I have lived and worked for three decades in the region of India called Chhattisgarh. The Chhattisgarh chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), of which I was the General Secretary in 2005, organized and led an investigation into the phenomenon known as the Salwa Judum. Our state government insistently described it as a spontaneous peoples’ uprising in response to Maoist violence in their communities. To the contrary, we discovered that the Salwa Judum was a state-sponsored and state funded vigilante force that had forcibly displaced the Adivasis, or indigenous residents, of more than 600 villages, and herded them into refugee camps by the roadside. Thousands of people had fled these excesses and crossed the state borders into the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh, where they struggled to survive and eke out a livelihood.
Our report was entitled ‘When the State Makes War on its Own People’. Professor Nandini Sundar, a member of our original investigating group, and others went on to challenge the entire process of Salwa Judum in the Supreme Court of India. In a landmark judgment of the Supreme Court, delivered on July 5 of this year, the Salwa Judum and its operations were held to be unconstitutional. The Court ordered the immediate disarming and disbandment of the so-called Special Police Officers, and subjected the state government to severe strictures. But meanwhile, in the course of these events, about 500 extra*judicial murders have taken place, many women have been raped, and uncounted cases of arson have been inflicted on some of the poorest people in India.
India is home to a sixth of mankind. At a time when the advanced nations of the world are caught in an economic freeze, India has an annual GDP growth of over 8%. But we also have the largest concentration of chronically undernourished people in the world. As a paediatrician, I must draw your attention to some alarming statistics. Around 23% of our newborns are born with low birth weight, 47% of our children below the age of five are undernourished by weight*for*age criteria, and 37 % of our adults have a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5, signifying chronic undernutrition. These data indicate a state of stable famine, in which major subsets of the population are actually living under famine conditions. These sections of the population have thus far been able to survive because of their access to common property resources, such as the public forest lands on which the indigenous Adivasi people have lived for generations. Unfortunately for the Adivasis of Chhattisgarh, the earth below their fertile and biodiverse ancestral forests is also rich in minerals. Therefore, today, these sections of the populations are, as a matter of state policy, seeing their rights and access to common property resources expropriated and handed over to corporate interests for industrial mining and manufacturing.
Resistance to this process is crucial to the survival of these communities. Sadly, instead of seeking long*term solutions to issues of entitlements and community rights, the state’s response has been to interpret dissent and criticism as “Sedition,” as defined by a jurisprudence that harks back to the days when India was a British colony. I myself, and thousands of others whose voices remain unheard, have been victims of this phenomenon. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties, which I still have the honour to represent, is now engaged in an all*India, nationwide campaign to repeal the Sedition clauses from our law books, and is in the process of collecting a million signatures to be presented to the Indian Parliament during its upcoming winter session.
Why do I share here the experiences of faraway Chhattisgarh and the indigenous people of my country? Because international solidarity, in the recognition of rights and entitlements, is invaluable and crucial. The inequality and polarization of the kind I have just described represent a worldwide phenomenon which we must oppose collectively on a worldwide platform. I believe that democracy, justice, and equity are fundamental rights of every citizen of the world. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
And as Heinz Pagels himself said, in a different context, “you never learn anything unless you are willing to take a risk and tolerate a little randomness in your life.”