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Shutting him up

india Updated: May 30, 2011 10:08 IST
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The Raipur sessions court judgment against civil liberties defender and health activist Binayak Sen has provoked outrage. His two-year long detention had drawn protests from the world over. The only substantial charge against Sen is that he passed on three letters from Narayan Sanyal, an undertrial, suspected -- but not yet proved -- to be a Maoist, to the Maoist leadership.

It takes several leaps of imagination, or nasty prejudice, to pronounce that carrying three pieces of paper containing trivialities such as congratulating the CPI (Maoist) on completing its party congress, amounts to sedition. Sedition means spreading disaffection against the state. It was introduced into the Indian Penal Code by the colonial State to repress the freedom struggle and muzzle the freedom of expression.

Since 1962, the Supreme Court has repeatedly mandated a corrective interpretation of the sedition provision, in consonance with the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. Sedition must involve actual incitement to violence or threat to public order. In 1995, the court even overturned the one-year imprisonment awarded to two Punjab government officers who had shouted pro-Khalistan, anti-India slogans.

As it happens, even the charge that Sen carried Sanyal's letters to visiting businessman Piyush Guha -- who in turn would pass them on the CPI (Maoist) leadership -- fails the test of good evidence. True, Sen met Sanyal in jail 33 times over 18 months. But he did so in his capacity as a doctor and an office-bearer of the People's Union of Civil Liberties. But jailors have testified that these meetings were authorised and strictly supervised. It’s hard to believe that Sen could have smuggled any letters out of the chamber.

Sen's conviction entirely hinged on the testimony of a single individual, cloth merchant Anil Kumar Singh, who claimed he had witnessed the seizure from Guha of Sanyal's letters by the police after they arrested him in May 2007. Singh also claimed that he overheard a conversation between Guha and the police, in which Guha said that the letters were passed on to him by Sen. But a statement made in police custody doesn’t count as evidence. A mere passerby, Singh couldn’t even have known if the letters had been planted on Guha before his arrest.

The judge wrongly accepted mere hearsay as clinching evidence. Worse, he ignored, indeed forcibly reconciled, contradictory police statements about two different places of Guha’s arrest -- conveniently passed off as a "typological error". But he ignored Guha’s May 7, 2007 statement to a magistrate in which he said he had been apprehended by the police six days earlier and illegally kept blindfolded in their custody before the arrest was officially recorded.

The sheer perversity of Verma's verdict can only be understood in the context of Chhattisgarh’s social-political climate. This has been vitiated by the excesses of the State-sponsored Salwa Judum militia, which terrorises adivasis at will. To do this, they must outlaw and discredit all dissent and obliterate the vital distinctions between hardcore Maoists, their sympathisers, members of the parliamentary communist parties, Gandhians, civil liberties activists, progressive intellectuals, and even health workers. Periodically, hundreds of CPI members are illegally detained in Chhattisgarh. Trade unionists are harassed while corrupt industrialists, who had the great activist Shankar Guha Niyogi killed, strut about as kingmakers.

The police wanted to make an example of Sen and show that they accept no legal limits on how low they will stoop in tyrannising the public. Verma went along with them and made a mockery of the law. Sen has already served two years in prison and could serve more time unless the higher judiciary acts quickly to deliver genuine justice to him with compensation. Its failure to do so will only attract international and national ridicule.

Praful Bidwai is a Delhi-based writer and activist.

The views expressed by the author are personal.