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Understanding Civil Society Action in the Binayak Sen case

Ilina Sen

The case of Binayak Sen (by this I mean the legal case as well as the whole body of civil society reaction across national and social boundaries) is in many ways a landmark in Indian jurisprudence. Apart from the personal pain and agony that I have gone through, in being witness to Binayak’s uncalled for incarceration and unjust conviction, the case has also intellectually challenged me along with many other citizens of my country and forced so many of us to look critically at the laws and statutes that govern our lives.

It has brought into the limelight the outdated provisions of the sedition law in India, and today our Law minister has gone on record as saying that this law needs urgent revision if not scrapping, in keeping with the spirit of the times. Many of us who are not legal professionals have looked into our statute books and discovered horror chambers in sections penalizing thought / action against ‘any Asiatic Power’ in alliance with the government of India. This particular statute obviously dates from the time when the British crown and the crown in Moscow were locked into the ‘great game’ over the control of Afghanistan, and reminds us that the Afghan people have been pawned in many games but that no game player has historically succeeded in selling them down the river.

We have also been forced to look at the way our lower courts function – at the way the police and the prosecution work in tandem, at the way in which the established law of evidence is disregared, at bizarre new interpretations of established legal interpretations and positions. One’s mind begins to form a sneaking question whether the mandate of the court at this level is to support the police in keeping anyone labeled as guilty in custody for some years, and leave the finer points of the law of the land to higher courts of appeal.

One has seen countless cases of miscarriage of justice as well as the horrendous conditions in Indian jails at first hand.

However, Binayak’s case also stands as an example where the people of the world have stood up and said to governments ( their own as well those of their neighbours) that the state cannot get away with heavy handed authoritarianism and have the people accept that lying down. Ordinary citizens are never lawless people and appreciate the fact systems and legal structures keep us safe, yet when these same laws become instruments of injustice rather than justice , we all feel it is time for us to stand up and make our concern felt. Civilized democratic societies and established political structures are all products of a social contract between the people and the structures of governance, with the ultimate power resting in the will of the people. Here we have seen how in city after city – In India, Asia, Europe, Australia and America- people have stood up and said that is unacceptable for governments to exercise the power we give them in this way. I see this as a step in the re negotiation of the social and political contacts of governance, of which there are many other manifestations in our times. For me this has been the most important learning, the most important outcome of the case.

Binayak joins me in greeting all of you, many friends whom we have met, and many others whom we have not, yet who are together with us in a spirit of common good.

Sent for presentation at the UK Seminar on “‘Dr Binayak Sen and the use of ‘Sedition’ Laws to Persecute Human Rights Activists in India” on May 14, 2011.