If you pit Karan Thapar and Binayak Sen against each other what do you get? Precious little and why am I not surprised. To call it a dialogue of the deaf would be somewhat unfair to Sen, since it was Thapar who steadfastly refused to stop asking questions to which answers had been given. The deafness was on the part of the anchor.
Why would Karan Thapar want to bring Binayak Sen on his show? For roughly the same reason, it transpired, that an Arnab Goswami would want to bring a Gautam Navlakha on his. To try and get some kick out of the you-human-rights-types-are-defending-Naxal-murderers argument. Nothing further, sadly. Though he opened the show with the Prime Minister's quote on Maosim being the single biggest threat to the country, pinning down Sen became such a singular aim of the Devil's Advocate Show last Sunday that Thapar lost the opportunity to let a man who has worked for years in Chattisgarh, explain why things have come to such a pass.
So every question Thapar asked was designed to pin the doctor down on whether he condoned Maoist tactics, and their violence. It began and ended with that mission and Sen tried in vain to underscore how completely on the edge a large part of the country's population was subsisting. The terms he used to describe the condition of scheduled tribes displaced from access to land did not help. Extreme malnutrition to him was famine, and the pushing of populations off the land equal to creating conditions for genocide. Its not the sort of language an Socio Economic Category A and B, English speaking TV audience warms to at prime time. And chronic poverty is less a crowd puller than the alleged crime of softheaded exoneration of Maoist violence by human rights activists.
So Thapar stalked his prey thus:
Karan Thapar: Dr Sen, the Prime Minister has often referred to the Maoists or the Naxalites as the single greatest threat facing the Indian state. In fact, he has gone on record to say that it's an even greater threat than the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Clearly, yours must be a very different view. So let me begin by asking you how do you view the Maoist trouble?
Dr Binayak Sen: Firstly, as human rights workers, we decry all forms of violence, whether it is the violence of the state or those opposing the state.
Karan Thapar: In this instance, which in your mind is the first violence? Which is the greater?
Dr Binayak Sen: I would explain that with reference to the context of the situation in the country today. Firstly, there is a chronic famine abroad in the land and this famine envelops, according to the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau, which is a government organization, 33 percent of the people in this country who have a clinically demonstrable chronic under-nutrition. And that includes 50 percent of the Scheduled Tribes and 60 percent of the Scheduled Castes.
Karan Thapar: So is the Maoist struggle in your view in response to the chronic malnutrition?
Sen stolidly refused to be pinned down to a position of exonerating violence, or at least he tried. But the Thapar inquisition usually thrives on being single minded. Since he had someone who could be painted as a Maoist sympathizer on his show he was going to milk it for his upper middle class audience for all it was worth. And not just any small time Maoist sympathizer but a man who could be conveniently labeled the country's 'foremost human rights activist', a description Thapar would repeat every now and then with relish. If you succeeded in tarring him you achieved what has been an English TV anchor obsession since 'the Naxal Menace' became prime time fodder. You succeeded in tarring the tribe. Sen's assertion that 'we' (referring to human rights workers) did not condone either the violence of the Maoists of the state, only brought more demands for an even clearer assertion.
Dr Binayak Sen: --I am not going to defend or decry what Kishenji said--I am not. I am here to answer for myself. Please don't pin me down to talking about the Maoists. I am talking about famine in this country. These are the huge issues that we are addressing.
Karan Thapar: I am asking you the question which many in the audience would interpret as difficult and awkward for you to answer. Rather than let me finish the question, you are interrupting it, deflecting it.
Let me finish and then you answer because I think it is important as a human rights activist that your position on the policy of annihilation should be heard. The annihilation policy has been defended by Kishenji in Tehelka in the following words: 'we say annihilation'--
Dr Binayak Sen: --I decry annihilation. I do not agree with annihilation. State is also practicing annihilation. I decry the violence of the state. Mahatma Gandhi said that when the state resorts to violence, the legitimacy of the state is destroyed--
Karan Thapar: I will come to the state. I promise you and I will handle the state later but first I want to hear you clearly say that annihilation which is an acceptable and justified policy of the Maoists is one that you completely, totally condemn.
Dr Binayak Sen: We decry all forms of violence--
Karan Thapar: --but name the Maoists.
The 'huge issues' that Sen hoped the interview was going to address were not even of secondary interest to the anchor. Thapar was out to corner. When the man you have in front of you is not what you want to show him up to be, you end up wasting both energy and opportunity.