Around a single event
The evidence against Dr. Sen centres on a single event. He is accused of having met a jailed Naxalite, Narayan Sanyal, 33 times and carried letters from him to a Naxalite, Piyush Guha. But Dr. Sen met Sanyal in Raipur Central Jail with the permission of the Chhattisgarh police; the jail superintendent who supervised the meetings told the Raipur sessions court that no letters were exchanged. At the other end of the “crime”, Piyush Guha did not name him when he appeared before a magistrate. He is alleged to have implicated Dr. Sen while in police custody. But this is legally barred from being weighed as evidence, since all custodial confessions are presumed tainted with torture. The central allegation against him is therefore tenuous at both ends. Other attempts to link him to Naxalites are individually trivial (or downright dubious, like an unsigned letter from the CPI-Maoists allegedly found in his house, but which is not part of the official seizure memo). But taken together they have managed to convince Justice B.P. Verma of Dr. Sen’s role in aiding and abetting Naxal groups.
The second concern is the fairness of the laws used against Dr. Sen. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (Sedition) is a colonial-era law that has been previously invoked against Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Since it is a serious offence with the possibility of life in jail, in the 1962 case of Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar the Supreme Court limited the definition of sedition to the “tendency to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence.” Dr. Sen is convicted for acting as a letter courier between Naxalites; it is questionable if this “act” falls within the definition of sedition.
The other laws that Dr. Sen has been convicted under, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, make illegal a wide variety of actions that “support” unlawful activities: taking part in meetings or harbouring a Naxalite. These laws have been invoked against grain merchants and cloth traders who unwittingly sold their wares to Naxalites. Taken together, what all these laws do is to broaden the scope of what “guilt by association” means. Perhaps this is understandable in a State where Maoists are present in half of its 18 districts and requires an army of civilian supporters to sustain a war under forested cover. But fashioning a blunt legal tool to go after an elusive enemy enhances the risk of snaring innocents.
The final concern
The Congress party has declined to comment on the judgment, invoking the prerogative of an independent judiciary. It is no one’s argument that the decision was politically determined. But political abuse includes the fairness of the laws formulated by the political class for judges to impose. After all, judicial independence must also consider the quality of laws that the Raipur sessions court had to enforce, and those laws define “guilt by association” so broadly that they blur the line between innocent and guilty.
The final concern is that of punishment. Dr. Binayak Sen has been sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring to commit sedition. Sentencing ranges from three years to life in jail. Justifying the use of the maximalist sentence, Justice Verma’s Hindi judgment points to “the way that terrorists and Maoists are killing … paramilitary forces … and innocent Adivasis.” But surely there is a difference between CPI (Maoist) General Secretary Ganapati, a man with much blood on his hands, and a mere courier of letters between Naxalites? Even if Dr. Sen is guilty as charged, that charge is not of violence — something he has repeatedly spoken out against. To club varying actions together defeats the purpose of flexibility in sentencing, which is after all to permit the judge to recognise degrees of motivations and culpabilities.
The Raipur sessions court verdict is only the quarterfinal. Indian law affords Dr. Sen one automatic right to appeal, and another at the discretion of the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, given the visible disparity between the quality of allegations against him and the repercussions, the judgment is sure to provoke an outcry, if the national and international outrage over his two-year long arrest without bail is any indication (already Amnesty International has criticised the verdict).
The outcry will reverberate beyond one man. In 2009, a non-violent critic of the state was held guilty of sedition and sentenced to a lengthy spell in prison. That man’s name is Liu Xiaobo, and the international focus on him dims the mandarin equivalent of India Shining. While the specific “crimes” of the 2010 Nobel Prize winner vary from those of Dr. Binayak Sen, the life imprisonment given to the Chhattisgarh doctor will surely discredit the justifiable struggle against Naxalism much as Mr. Liu’s incarceration discounts the distance China has travelled since Tiananmen Square. Apart from the irreparable harm to the life of an individual and his family, the judgment risks tainting Indian democracy itself.