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The Sens and sensibility

The story of Dr Binayak Sen makes ironic reading at a time when we want to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai strike to 'Indian justice', writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jan 10, 2009 22:04 IST

The story of Dr Binayak Sen makes ironic reading at a time when we want to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai strike to ‘Indian justice’. It questions the phrase I have deliberately placed in inverted commas. Is Sen receiving justice or has he become the victim of a travesty?

I can’t offer a definitive answer because I don’t know enough. But after spending an hour with his wife, Ilina, I feel the details she has to relate deserve to be better known. They challenge the concepts of fairplay and honesty without which justice is impossible. If what Ilina Sen says is untrue, incomplete or selective — and therefore misleading — let the state of Chhattisgarh rebut her.

But until then, the cry of a wife whose husband has been in jail for 19 months, facing a trial that could drag on for years, despite appeals for his release from 26 Nobel laureates and most of the civil liberty associations in India, needs to be heard. We would be heartless and wicked if we are deaf to such cries.

Binayak Sen was arrested in May 2007. His wife tells me he is accused of “treason, waging war against the state and abetting activities of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist)”. More specifically, it is claimed that he passed on letters from Narayan Sanyal, a Maoist prisoner in Raipur jail, to a certain Piyush Guha, a local businessman said to be close to left-wing extremists. These letters, its alleged, were obtained during 33 visits to Sanyal made under false pretences.

Now for the facts as reported by Ilina.

Binayak Sen does not deny meeting Sanyal. As general secretary of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, visiting prisoners in jail is one of his duties. More importantly, he did so with permission from the authorities. But to prove he ‘conspired’, the prosecution has to establish Sen also meet Guha. Otherwise how could he pass on the letters? But this they’ve failed to do.

When the trial commenced in April 2008, 83 witnesses were listed for deposition. By November, 16 were dropped by the prosecutors themselves, six declared hostile and 30 others deposed without corroborating the accusations. That left just 31.

Meanwhile, Ilina tells me, the desperate prosecution tried to rig the evidence. She says a sealed envelope with 10 documents seized at the time of Sen’s arrest — each of them countersigned by Sen and the arresting officer — was opened in court and found to have 11 documents. The 11th did not bear Sen’s signature but did carry that of the arresting officer.

Sensing that the case was collapsing, the defence appealed for bail. It was

not the first time they had done so. But now, in the changed circumstances, they felt they had good grounds to try again. Ilina says bail is normally only refused if the court believes the accused will tamper with the evidence, prejudice witnesses or run away. That hardly applies to Sen. He chose to voluntarily go to the Chhattisgarh police when he learnt he was under suspicion. Yet, his bail

application was dismissed without being entertained.

However, the very next day, the police filed a supplementary chargesheet adding another 47 witnesses to the original list of 83. At the rate at which the case is being heard, Ilina concludes, it could drag on for several more years.

While in prison, Binayak Sen has won the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. He is the only Indian to be so honoured. The citation reads: “He has spent his lifetime educating people about health practices and civil liberties… his good works need to be recognized as a major contribution to India and to global health; they are certainly not a threat to state security.”

Among those who have appealed for his release are Amartya Sen, Noam Chomsky, retired Indian chief justices, Magsaysay and Booker Prize winners, and eminent Indian and international academics, scientists and filmmakers. Their pleas have been ignored.

Ilina left me with three questions. How long can a man be kept in prison by refusing to grant him bail? Is this case being dragged on by an obdurate prosecution unwilling to accept it made a mistake and, therefore, unable to face up to embarrassment? And finally, is the prestige of the State more important than the liberties of an individual citizen?

First Published: Jan 10, 2009 22:02 IST