(First published in The Pioneer dated Decembeer 31, 2010)
The life sentence handed down by a trial court in Chhattisgarh to doctor-activist Binayak Sen, convicting him for sedition, criminal conspiracy and collusion with Maoists, has attracted a furious response from so-called civil society groups and individuals. They have condemned the verdict as biased and influenced by political considerations. Not just that, these vocal critics — who find copious space in the print and electronic media to voice their concerns — have even questioned the judicial process that arrived at the damning conclusion.
Binayak Sen has every right to feel aggrieved by the judgement, and so do his family and friends. They have already decided to approach the High Court against the verdict. Like any other convicted person who believes he has been wronged by a court of the land, Binayak Sen can employ the best legal brains he can access to fight his case higher up the legal ladder. What will happen thereafter, we do not know, and this is no occasion to second guess the outcome. But, right now it is naïve to hail him as an innocent victim of state repression or slam the verdict as a manufactured one. He is guilty until proved innocent.
Before we get to the specifics, a small comparison will be in order. While Binayak Sen, convicted and sentenced for serious crimes against the nation, is being hailed by human rights activists as an icon of humanity, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, with not a single charge against him in a court, let alone prosecution or conviction, has been pronounced guilty of communal crimes by these very activists. Binayak Sen’s friends have a funny sense of justice.
One of the strongest criticisms against the ruling has been that due process of law was not followed. Organisations like Amnesty International, always fishing for adversial human rights references — particularly in developing countries — were quick to claim that the trial was conducted in an opaque manner. This charge, at least, ought to have been rubbished even by Binayak Sen’s Indian friends, because they know only too well that our legal process is transparent to a point where it gets frustrating. The best example of that is the Ajmal Kasab case, where the terror accused has succeeded in waging a long winded, and for now unending, legal battle to prove his innocence even though all of India watched him on television killing people on Mumbai streets two years ago.
There was nothing secretive about the Binayak Sen trial nor did the court engage in shortcuts. The accused had at every stage of the trial opportunities to defend his position. The case went on for more than two years before Binayak Sen was convicted. He was formally charge-sheeted in August 2007 and sentenced only in December 2010. In the course of this period, the Indian legal system, which has now become a subject of scorn for the convict’s friends, afforded him relief when he merited the benefit. Thus, although in December 2007 the Supreme Court rejected his bail plea, it did give him bail later in May 2009 on the ground of his failing health. It is, therefore, churlish for his supporters to point accusing fingers at the Indian legal system now that he stands convicted.
If one goes by Additional Sessions Judge BP Varma’s verdict, Binayak Sen had produced a dozen witnesses in his support. He also had the occasion to cross examine the 97 witnesses that the prosecution presented to fortify its case against the doctor. Besides, Binayak Sen knew fully well the provisions of the various laws that he was being charged, whether it be the Indian Penal Code, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. As an educated and well-informed individual, he was fully equipped to deal with the accusation against him. In what sense, thus, can somebody allege that he was not given a fair trial?
As for the charge that the judge was “persuaded” to rule against Binayak Sen, it is a serious one and ought not to have been made without sound basis. Just a sweeping remark that verdicts of the lower judiciary can be rather easily manipulated and that judges are prone to succumb to political pressure, like they have in the Sen case, is easily said than substantiated. While no one denies that actions of certain sections of the judiciary, especially at lower levels across the country, have indeed been questionable, it does not automatically lead to the conclusion that Mr Sen became a victim of that malaise. Not securing a favourable ruling is not reason enough to rant against the judges. Remember that even the recent Allahabad High Court judges who recently ruled on the Ayodhya title suit were criticised by some leading activists as being “un-secular” because their verdict was seen to have “favoured” the Hindus.
It would be more prudent for Binayak Sen’s friends to prepare a sound case for his defence in the High Court rather than waste time besmirching the reputation of the judiciary. After all, the convicted doctor has not denied that he had carried letters from and to individuals involved in Maoist activities. Given his education and intellect, he cannot take the plea that he did not know the letters he was ferrying across were written by and meant for Naxals involved in seditious activities, nor did he realise that his action, even strictly as a messenger, was questionable. And the other argument that he was unaware of Section 124 (A) of the IPC that deals with sedition, is fit to trashed, because being uninformed about the law is no justification for breaking it. But then, reportedly, Binayak Sen went even beyond the seemingly innocent activity of delivering letters; he helped people having Naxal connections with accommodation and opening of bank accounts. What business did a medical doctor, who is working among tribals to improve health facilities, have to become a conduit for Naxal activities and assist in their nefarious functioning?