Nothing better illustrates the flaws in our legal and political system than a comparison of the treatment meted out to Binayak Sen in Chhattisgarh and that enjoyed by State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) Sub-Inspector Manohar Kadam in Mumbai.
After spending two full years as an undertrial in a Chhattisgarh prison, Sen is out on bail. A civil liberties activist, he was falsely accused of aiding Naxalites primarily because he exposed atrocities committed by the State through its ‘Salwa Judum’ campaign. The prosecution failed to turn up any evidence against him while the State steadfastly denied him bail without bothering to give reasons.
Police Sub-Inspector Manohar Kadam, on the other hand, was found guilty by the government-appointed Gundewar Commission of being directly responsible for an unjustified police firing that claimed the lives of ten Dalits protesting the desecration of B.R. Ambedkar’s statue at Ramabai Colony, Mumbai, in July 1997. Kadam remained a free man as the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance ruling Maharashtra refused to take effective action on the commission’s findings. In large measure for their anti-poor, anti-Dalit policies, these right-wing political forces were defeated in the state elections and a Congress-led alliance came to power in 1998. Despite pre-election promises, this alliance also took no action.
In 2001, as a result of two Dalit writ petitions, the Bombay High Court ordered an end to the inaction. The government filed an FIR against Kadam, but he was taken to hospital and then granted bail. Further proceedings remained stalled for many more years though the police initiated new ‘rioting’ charges against the residents of Ramabai Colony, including many who had been injured in the police firing, in a cynical attempt to intimidate eyewitnesses. Despite these efforts, finally on May 5, 2009, a sessions court found Kadam guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
Kadam was whisked off — not to jail but to a hospital. There he remained until a vacation bench of the Bombay High Court granted him bail despite the fact that he was sentenced to life imprisonment. In the last 12 years, after causing the death of 11 people, Kadam has spent less than 48 hours in prison.
Let us revert to Sen. In March 2009, at his trial in Chhattisgarh, Sen complained he was suffering from a heart ailment. An angry judge ordered he be returned to his cell. The next day, the judge relented and authorised a doctor to examine him. Despite the doctor’s report that Sen be sent to a Vellore hospital for further diagnosis and a possible angioplasty, no action was taken. The reply to a Right to Information (RTI) query reveals that the police had sought to intimidate him and get him to modify his findings.
What of our political system? After the Ramabai firing in 1997, Dalit protests in various parts of Maharashtra led to many more deaths. The poet, Vilas Ghogre, hanged himself not far from Ramabai Colony to protest the firing. As Dalits throughout the state raised the ante, the Congress and its allies saw an opportunity to defeat the ruling Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. They publicly advocated punishing the guilty police. Chhagan Bhujbal of the Nationalist Congress Party spent long hours mourning with grieving relatives at Ramabai. After the elections, he became home minister and was never seen at Ramabai again.
A few days ago, while arguing for Kadam’s bail, his advocate Raja Thackeray stated in court that if Kadam was punished, no police officer would ever obey an order to open fire for fear of legal reprisal. Would he have said this if the police had been convicted of wrongfully killing residents of Marine Drive or Malabar Hill? Most of those killed at Ramabai were sanitation workers, domestic servants, rickshaw-drivers, handcart-pullers and their relatives. Most of Binayak Sen’s patients are poor adivasis. But for the massive publicity his case received, it is clear that he, too, would have suffered the fate of the powerless. Such is the law of this land.
Anand Patwardhan is a documentary filmmaker.