Lying on a bed in Apollo Hospital in the industrial town of Bhilai, Dr Saibal Jana smiles and welcomes swarms of colleagues who come to visit him. His high spirits belie the fact that he is under arrest.
Dr Jana, chief physician of Shaheed Hospital in Dalli-Rajhara, was arrested by the Chhattisgarh police on March 18 for allegedly “absconding” in a case that was registered in 1992. He was moved to a hospital soon after the arrest when he complained of chest pain and hypertension.
“If my bail is rejected, I will go to jail,” said the 64-year-old doctor. “However, I am still unclear on what my crime is.”
On Wednesday, Jana was discharged from the hospital and went to jail. He has been charged for allegedly leading a large group of protesting workers of the Bhilai Steel Plant who had blocked the Howrah-Bombay railway line in 1992. “Dr Jana was doing no such thing,” said his lawyer Gulab Singh Patel.
The protestors from the left-wing Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha were demanding better work conditions. The police is said to have lathi-charged and used tear gas to disseminate the crowd, killing 18 people. The Shaheed Hospital ambulance was parked close to the spot and began treating the injured, according to Patel. But, since Jana supported the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha and was actively helping the protestors on that day, cases were slapped against him, said Patel.
“If a doctor was treating the injured, is it grounds for arrest?” asks Sulakshanana Nandi of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan. The police maintain that Jana was leading the protests.
Since the beginning of 2016, several activists, lawyers and journalists in conflict-ridden Chhattisgarh have complained of intimidation by the authorities.
While journalist Malini Subramanium and the lawyers of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group were forced to leave Bastar, Aam Aadmi Party leader Soni Sori was attacked with a corrosive liquid by two motorbike-borne men. Her family has been intimidated repeatedly in the past month. Researcher Bela Bhatia who continues to live in Bastar complains of constant threats from members of vigilante groups. This week, journalist Prabhat Singh was arrested for posting comments on WhatsApp.
Senior police officers of Bastar region have repeatedly spoken about ridding Bastar of Maoists, calling it their Mission 2016. “According to the police, certain intellectuals and professionals are Maoist sympathisers,” said Sudha Bharadwaj, general secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Chhattisgarh. “They are determined to quell such counter-voices.”
Jana’s arrest after nearly 25 years appears to fits that narrative – though he doesn’t seem to think so.
“I think this case merely came at the wrong time. I don’t think the government wants to intimidate me. It was perhaps an error,” said Jana optimistically, hoping to get a bail on Saturday when the court hears his case. He reasons that the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha or its sister organisations that were active in people’s movements till the early 1990s, have weakened considerably. “We are a few old men now,” he said, “who can be bothered by us?”
However, workers of CMM have questioned why Jana has not been given bail while 11 others accused in the same case have been released.
The police have said that Jana has been arrested because he disregarded the summons from the court and was “absconding”. But the doctor denied receiving any summons from the court in the past 25 years.
“Dr Jana works round the clock at Shaheed Hospital,” said his wife, Alpana Jana. “He barely takes a break. Where was he absconding?”
Lifeline for the poor
Shaheed Hospital was set up in the early 1980s by Dr Saibal Jana along with two other doctors, with the intent of providing affordable healthcare to mine workers of the Bhilai Steel Plant. The mines of Dalli-Rajahara were captive mines for the BSP, and the twin towns had become a citadel of labour movements and left-wing politics.
Working in the Bhilai-Durg region of Chhattisgarh, labour organisations like the CMM, the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh, and Chhattisgarh Gramin Shramik Sangh were successful examples of labour movements in the country. The Shaheed Hospital was set up with the help of CMM. Before his arrest in 2007 under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, Dr Binayak Sen was working with Jana at the hospital.
In an interview to this correspondent in January 2015, Sen had said, “Shaheed Hospital, under Dr Jana’s leadership, still remains the lifeline of the poor workers in the Dalli-Rajhara region.”
Today, that lifeline is under threat as the state has moved to mysteriously arrest an old doctor.