A Doctor To Defend

Posted: April 14, 2011

Minnie Vaid’s ‘A Doctor To Defend’ is an exploration of Dr. Binayak Sen that aims to go beyond the hero worship.

By Anjana Basu

Binayak Sen’s case has become a cause celebre amongst India’s intellectual fraternity. In December 2010, a court in Raipur sentenced the award winning doctor to life imprisonment on charges of sedition – he had first been arrested in 2007 for apparently carrying messages between Piyush Guha, a businessman, and Maoist ideologue Narayan Sanyal, and the case had rolled on with Sen coming in and out of jail as he and his family fielded case after case. Word of the Raipur verdict spread like wildfire round the world attracting the attention of the UN and Amnesty International. 22 Nobel Prize winners put their signature to a letter addressed to President Pratibha Patil asking that Dr. Sen be at least allowed to travel to Washington to collect the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights that he was awarded by the Global Health Council. All this testifies to the fact that Dr. Sen has become an icon, a symbol of dissent against the social injustice meted out to the poor and marginalized.




Minnie Vaid sets the tone of her book, A Doctor to Defend, from her first chapter, A Reluctant Hero, where she meets Binayak Sen in his home and does her best to get him to acknowledge his heroic qualities. The Doctor on the other hand points out that he is merely an ordinary man who happened to be caught up in extraordinary circumstances. ‘Individuals,’ he is quoted as saying, ‘do not make history.’ Vaid thereupon proceeds to tell the story of a man who lived his life ‘according to certain principles’ and who took decisions ‘based on those principles.’ When his house was searched, ‘no material related to a doctor’s clinic was found, there were no medicines,’ said the official charge sheet. Yet, two hours away from Chhattisgarh’s capital was a clinic to which patients flocked from 248 villages for treatment. It was this stranger than fiction occurrence that inspired Vaid to embark on her book – in fact she abandoned her corporate job to do it.

As Vaid is a documentary film maker, she applies documentary principles to her task – putting together a series of word pictures and interviews to tell Sen’s story. She travels the length and breadth of the country, going to Dalli Rajhara in Chhattisgarh where Sen worked with trade unionist Shankar Guha Niyogi to set up a hospital for mine workers, visiting the Salwa Judum camps set up in Chhattisgarh, talking to Sen’s teachers at Vellore about his leftist leanings as a student and to his daughters Aparajita and Pranhita. Much of this is ground that journalists previously covering the case had not covered and sadly, it is organized in far too straitjacketed a fashion.

Vaid’s style is straight and uncomplicated making the book an easy read, despite sentences like “a sari-clad Ilina Sen enters, smiling, warm – she is someone I have met before’, and the organization of facts makes it easy for those unfamiliar with the case to get straight to the details.

At the core of the book, however, is not the case but her quest for a hero – an exploration of Binayak Sen the man behind the hero worship. We get to learn that he was a bad cook, that he acted as a woman in his student days at Vellore, padded hips and all, that he beat his eldest daughter for being bad at maths. We also realize that despite all this information, he is not an easy man to get to know because the essential Binayak Sen seems to remain tantalizingly out of reach.

The reader is also left with certain niggling questions. For example, why is the other side of the story not presented in depth? The Salwa Judum is condemned for its brutality with respect to the tribals, but not much is said about the Maoists and their kangaroo courts. A little background would have certainly strengthened her presentation which is occasionally simplistic.

Glitches aside, Vaid’s is the first record of the Doctor’s side of the story and what she has managed to compile is worth reading both for Binayak Sen’s admirers as well as for those unfamiliar with the exact details.

Publisher: Rajpal and Sons
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