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Contempt of Justice – EPW Editorial

The Economic and Political Weekly, January 1, 2011


Contempt of Justice

The shocking judgment against Binayak Sen and others should lead to a reform of our anachronistic laws.

The conviction of Binayak Sen, Piyush Guha and Narayan Sanyal for treason, sedition and helping a banned organisation has shocked almost all observers, whether in the country or outside. Apart from the severity, awarding life in prison for the actual charges of couriering letters between functionaries of a banned organisation and for holding literature of that body, the entire process of arresting, accusing and trial has been marred by gross flaws. In all, the trial and the sentencing are an outrage on India’s legal process and need a quick and thorough remedy.

Of the three accused, Narayan Sanyal, who has been termed a “Maoist ideologue”, may have clear links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). There are reports that he is a member of their politburo, but the specific charges against him are so clearly fabricated and entwined in contradictions that they cannot stand up to any scrutiny, far less a thorough judicial one. Reading sessions court judge B P Verma’s judgment, it appears that all the failings of the evidence were trumped by the fact that Sanyal is a leader of the Maoists. This itself is bad under the law and is clearly a misuse of the judicial system to fight political battles. The other accused Piyush Guha’s case stands on even flimsier ground. All he can be accused of is couriering three letters from Sanyal to unknown people. The letters themselves contain nothing incriminatory. However, the police have tied themselves up in knots about when and where they arrested him and between their submission to the trial court and to the Supreme Court in 2009, the Chhattisgarh police have either committed perjury or wilfully given wrong evidence to the court. Either way, this fake evidence, even if accepted, does not support the charges, far less the sentence pronounced.

Binayak Sen has been the most well known of the three. Not only has he been an internationally acclaimed and government- recognised public health worker bringing his medical skills to the poor and tribal communities of Chhattisgarh, he has also been a member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the pioneer human rights body started by Jayaprakash Narayan during the infamous Emergency (the PUCL was then the People’s Union for Civil Liberties & Democratic Rights). Sen is supposed to have passed on the letters from Sanyal to Guha, was alleged to have sheltered one Maoist, helped them open bank accounts and attended some Maoist meetings. The prosecution alleged that he was a sympathiser and supporter of the Maoists. In each of these charges the evidence produced has ranged from the ridiculous to the fabricated.

If the judgment of B P Verma has been so shocking, it is hardly surprising for those who have followed this case. Sen was kept imprisoned on these very charges for over two years while the trial was on and repeatedly refused bail by the courts in Chhattisgarh. It was only the Supreme Court which, having turned down his bail application once, ordered his release on bail when it was made once again later on. The police of Chhattisgarh, ably backed by the state government, have time and again threatened Sen with dire consequences for his work with the PUCL exposing the human rights abuses by the police and state machinery in their battle against the Maoists. It was the PUCL expose of the Salwa Judum, an armed vigilante group formed and funded by the state government, in 2006 which appears to have been the act which got the state government to level these charges against him. It was only after the PUCL report on Salwa Judum clearly established the state government’s complicity in arming and condoning the gross human rights abuses committed by them that Sen was implicated in this, clearly concocted case of sedition and treason.

This judgment fails on three counts. One, it is based on evidence which is either false or contradictory, and often both. Two, it is in contravention of the Supreme Court guidelines with regard to the law on sedition. Third, and most importantly, in its excessive character it exposes the real motive of the law and order machinery of Chhattisgarh in bringing about such a charge against Sen and his co-accused. It is well to remember that the colonial state had sentenced Bal Gangadhar Tilak, in 1897, and M K Gandhi, in 1922, to only six years in prison for sedition. Binayak Sen gets life.

Binayak Sen’s comrade, Shankar Guha Niyogi, paid with his life when he was murdered in broad daylight for organising the workers to demand their rights in Chhattisgarh. The same police and courts proved incapable of punishing his killers who apparently had the protection of the rich and powerful. Given such abysmal conditions where the mighty have bent the rule of law and the judicial process to serve their interests, Sen may have got away lightly with merely a life sentence.

This episode also highlights the disarray in our legal and judicial systems. It is unacceptable that sedition remains a crime in our criminal procedure code, when even Great Britain, which gave us this law in the first place, has struck it off its statutes. It is the fundamental right of every citizen in a democracy to think, express and organise “disaffection” against the government. Far from be- ing a crime, this is a virtue in any democratic polity. Violence and bloodshed are an entirely different matter and there are sufficient laws (which often remain a dead letter) to prevent and punish these crimes. The widespread outrage which this flawed judgment has evoked is a good opportunity for all to come together to demand the eradication of such anachronistic laws like sedition. It could also be an opportune moment to begin an overhaul of our criminal and civil laws which come from colonial times. This then could be an opportunity for a progressive closure to what is clearly contempt of justice by our law and justice machinery.