by Antara Dev Sen | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Mahatma Gandhi, accused of sedition by the British Raj, had told the court: “Section 124-A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code, designed to suppress the liberty of the citizens.”
Last week, at his sentencing, Dr Binayak Sen asked, “What is Section 124-A?” The judge replied: “Rajdroh.”
The human rights activist, head of the state PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties) and a doctor dedicated to the neglected poor in tribal areas, has been sentenced to life imprisonment for sedition. The judgement was based primarily on fabricated evidence, fake witnesses and contradictory statements by the police.
How can ‘rajdroh’ or rebelling against the monarch be a crime in a democracy? Accusing conscientious dissenters even of ‘deshdroh’ violates India’s democratic principles. Sadly, the British law now scrapped in Britain thrives in today’s India. And protesting the State’s human rights abuses, or helping undertrials get medical attention – as Sen had done – could get you jailed for life for rajdroh.
The trial of Sen and his co-accused Narayan Sanyal and Pijush Guha is so furiously flawed that the verdict is unlikely to be accepted by higher courts. It has outraged civil society; legal luminaries have slammed it as ridiculous. “There can’t be a greater nonsensical judgement than this,” said Rajinder Sachar, former chief justice of Delhi High Court and ex-president of PUCL. “I am ashamed, belonging to the judiciary, that such a ridiculous judgement was delivered.”
But this “ridiculous judgement” has given us a great opportunity to examine our justice system, rectify its dangerous flaws and review the arbitrary use of laws relating to terror and sedition to silence dissenting voices. Hundreds of citizens are imprisoned and tortured on false charges particularly in ‘disturbed’ areas, ordinary citizens whom we don’t know and can’t vouch for, people who don’t have the support of powerful well-wishers as Sen, a celebrated human rights worker, has. I am sure the higher courts will rectify the huge miscarriage of justice towards Sen. I only hope that it doesn’t take too long. And that they rectify the system in a way that lesser mortals too do not suffer this fate anymore.
The ease with which the State can accuse you of the gravest offence, then solemnly offer illogical, wrong and deliberately misleading information in court to smother your democratic freedoms is terrifying. Alarmingly, a pliant Chhattisgarh court happily accepted such absurdities, and sentenced Sen for life for knowing and supporting Maoists, which the court believes is sedition. Never mind that the Supreme Court has held that it would only be sedition if one had directly incited people to violence. And Sen condemns both State and Maoist violence.
Millions of us, due to our educational, professional or personal backgrounds, know Maoists and Maoist sympathisers. Doesn’t make us enemies of the State. If the judgment is to be accepted, all of us must be jailed. Even our Union Railway Minister was vocally supportive of the Maoists till recently – would the courts sentence her to life imprisonment?
Muzzling protest encourages further disaffection for a ruthless State. A middle ground is crucial to dealing with extremism. As is respect for democratic freedoms, correct legal procedure and dissent. We must not erase the possibility of negotiation and mediation. Only a mindlessly intolerant State would use sedition as the weapon of choice.