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The life sentence imposed on globally acclaimed human rights activist Binayak Sen on the charge of sedition is easily the most scandalous abuse of a colonial remnant in independent India. Judging by the intensity of civil society’s outrage, the verdict by a trial court from Chhattisgarh might provide impetus for a fresh review of the arbitrary manner in which this provision continues to be invoked to gag dissenting voices.

This is the latest in a series of cases in which either the prosecution or the court appears to have missed the strict condition on which Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code has survived the test of free speech guaranteed by the Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that no sedition charge can be made unless the disaffection against the state spread by the accused was found to be a direct incitement to violence or armed rebellion. This meant that even if the prosecution’s version were accepted that he had couriered letters from a jailed Maoist leader to his associates, the trial court would have had to establish that Sen’s words or deeds were a direct incitement to violence or jeopardised public order. Without showing how any intent of violence could be attributed to a human rights activist with a lifetime service in rural healthcare, the trial court held him guilty of criminal conspiracy to commit sedition in the teeth of the law laid down by the Supreme Court.

Such a cavalier approach reinforces the impression that the judiciary is allowing itself to be overrun by security arguments. Blaming the sins of the Maoists on Sen, the trial court awarded him the highest possible penalty of life sentence. Clearly, India could do without the shame of jailing a humanist for sedition while the hate-mongers responsible for the cataclysmic events of 1984 ( Delhi massacre), 1992 (Ayodhya demolition) and 2002 (Gujarat riots) strut around as patriots.

Quite apart from the question whether Sen qualifies to be called a seditionist, the December 24 verdict deserves to be overturned for overlooking serious gaps in evidence. That the three incriminating letters allegedly carried by Sen had been recovered from co-accused Piyush Guha was by no means proved beyond doubt. The recovery story hinges entirely on the testimony of a cloth merchant who admitted to have been called by the police as a seizure witness when Guha was already in their custody. The trial court also overlooked discrepancies in the prosecution’s version of where Guha had been arrested. This miscarriage of justice cannot be ignored, especially due to its larger ramifications.



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