Why even those who oppose Naxalism should support Binayak Sen

Binayak Sen has just received a life-term jail sentence for sedition or waging war against the state. The specific crime, according to the judgement, was that he conveyed three letters written by a Maoist leader to a Calcutta-based trader. This was supported by a broader claim that Binayak Sen and his wife Ilina have known Maoists, and that Binayak even had Maoist literature at his home!

Callous evidence

The evidence presented for the critical claims of the case have been disputed. He met Narayan Sanyal several times in jail, under the supervision of jailors and was searched before and after the visit that it would not have been easy to get these letters in the first place. There was no concrete proof that Binayak conveyed these letters. Binayank had never met the trader to whom he allegedly conveyed the letters, and no evidence was presented on that account.

Among the evidence to show that Binayak not only knew the Maoists but also acted for them, was a typewritten letter he had allegedly received from a Maoist leader. The letter asked him to send a fact-finding team to Surguja district to probe police atrocities. This letter was allegedly seized when the police raided Binayak’s home. According to the law, seized materials were listed and signed by the police and by the accused during seizure. No such letter was listed during the raid. This letter was subsequently added to this list by the police, with a convenient explanation that it was stuck between some papers. It did not carry his signature that was done on all the other seized materials. Not surprisingly, this letter purportedly written two years ago was a still crisp piece of paper. Other evidence presented of Binayak’s Maoist link included a police testimony that he overheard someone discussing in his village that the Maoist leader Binayak had come to their village.

What if he did convey the letters?

The quality of evidence produced has been callous, to say the least, and we have every reason to believe that these letters are cooked up. As a thought experiment, let us assume for a moment that Binayak did convey these letters.  Is the content of these letters seditious? According to well-established precedents, sedition requires a call to arms and for the violent overthrow of the state. These letters to not do so and there is no evidence ever that Binayak Sen has ever called for violence, leave alone the violent overthrow of the state.

The crime then?

Binayak Sen’s real crime is not an attempt to overthrow the state, but an attempt to change the state of things. As an office bearer of one of India’s finest civil rights organisations, the PUCL, he has consistently questioned state excesses. He has questioned why so many people should go hungry in such a resource rich state. He has questioned extra-legal encounters and other excesses by the police. He has questioned the creation of private armed militia that has ravaged many a village. In all this, he has been a persistent pain in the neck of the state – a great crime indeed.

Victims we can agree on

You, my reader, may be against Naxalism and may support the effort to rout it. I am no sympathiser of Naxal violence either and I agree that the state has to respond to it. But there is the question of how it is to be done. We as a nation may disagree on many issues over this complex thing called Naxalism – but I believe that we will mostly agree on the idea that innocent people and those who have not indulged in violence themselves should not be victimised.

There are tens of thousands of victims today. Thousands of tribal people have been arrested and are languishing in jail without trial, many among those who would have committed no crime. Tens of thousands have been summarily evicted from their villages – for no crime they committed. Paramilitary forces have started accumulating in these regions and even sympathisers have argued that they have to operate with little ‘intelligence’ i.e. they have little or no information on who they are fighting with. Under these circumstances, many many more will be victimised.

I believe that security personnel are as humane as the rest of the society. Among thousands who are engaged in this war, I expect that most of them will exercise restraint, on occasions at the risk of their lives. It is sadly a story that is little said. A good friend of mine was almost killed on two occasions when he was merely on probation as a police officer, for no crime that he had committed. I will never fully understand what he went through, but I can understand his anger or the anger of the police force against Naxals whose targets they have become. There are indeed many victims in this sordid game.

Why we need Binayaks

The war today is happening under this climate of fear and animosity. While many among them are humane, many are human as well. The police and the paramilitary men whose lives are in danger are unlikely to be discerning in all situations. Many among the armed personnel will inevitably carry with them the established prejudices and disregard for tribal people, just as many in our society do. This is combined with a war-like situation and the absolute ignorance of who is who (called “intelligence failure” in more fancy terms). When adherence to law and due process are thrown to the winds, this concoction will inevitably lead to widespread injustice to absolutely harmless people.

Such are the circumstances, and very few of us will disagree that many are victimised unjustly by the state. Most of us will also agree that such injustice should be mitigated, and the victims compensated. Human rights activists are the most potent force working for such justice today, and it would be hard to quarrel against their mission. We cannot quarrel either with their methods of careful documentation, research, writing and the use of petitions and law suits. After all, it is not too much of a crime to demand that the law be implemented.

All this will of course put restraints on the government, and restraints will make it difficult for it to pursue its goals. But then what is a government without constraints? Even the constitution is a constraint, after all! Civil rights activists like Binayak Sen strive peacefully, and work using the law as their tool. Incarcerating him and other such people has made such work impossible in Chhattisgarh, at a time when such work is needed most. It is our task now to ensure that he is back in action, and that activists like him become a powerful force in these troubled times.

In case you wish to contribute to the movement, you could start by signing a petition supporting Binayak here.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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