Trials of a campaigner for civil liberties

The New Indian Express

THERE was nothing to distinguish the tiny nondescript courtroom of Additional Sessions Judge B S Saluja in Raipur from any of the myriad other courts in this country. A sudden bustle from the police personnel outside the court alerted us to the arrival of a blue police van.

Dr Binayak Sen, in a characteristic light blue kurta entered the courtroom followed by the two other accused persons in this trial — Piyush Guha, and Narayan Sanyal. Almost a year after the Chhattisgarh government arrested Dr Sen, his trial had begun.

Dr Sen has been arrested under provisions of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA), the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), and the provisions relating to “sedition” in the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

The Chhattisgarh government claims that he was carrying letters for Narayan Sanyal, an alleged leader of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

The charges against him are serious — conspiracy against the government, attempt at waging war, treason. The list is long. The evidence against him, however, is flimsy.

Dr Sen has been open about the fact that he met Sanyal in jail, just as he had met many other prisoners, in his capacity as a doctor, and as the vice-president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties- Chhattisgarh (PUCL-C).

There was nothing secretive about his visits, which needed permission from the Raipur jail authorities. The prosecution is relying on a statement that was made by Piyush Guha, who retracted his statement later, saying that it was given under duress. Guha is being detained as the police say they found “Maoist literature” on him.

The real reason that the Chhattisgarh government has targeted Dr Sen and the PUCL-C is that they dared to criticise the state government-sponsored vigilante campaign against the Naxals, the so-called Salwa Judum.

Dr Sen and the PUCL-C are not the only ones to oppose the Salwa Judum. The growing list of those who have spoken out against the Chhattisgarh government’s Salwa Judum policy include the Second Administrative Reforms Commission headed by Veerappa Moily in February 2008, a two-judge Bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan in April 2008, and an expert group of the Planning Commission in May 2008.

The Chhattisgarh government’s Salwa Judum policy has led to the forced displacement of more than 40,000 tribals from Chhattisgarh, many of whom have been forced to move across the border to Andhra Pradesh and continue to be harassed and forcibly evicted by the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department.

Instead of changing tack, the Raman Singh government seems to be hardening its position. A few days after the first phase of Dr Sen’s trial ended, the Chhattisgarh police arrested photojournalist and filmmaker Ajay TG who is a member of the executive board of the PUCLC. He has also been arrested under the CSPSA and the sedition section of the IPC. Ajay was one of the few PUCL members who had the courage to attend Dr Sen’s trial.

His arrest is widely seen as a ploy by the Chhattisgarh police to intimidate those supporting Dr Sen. Ajay was arrested a few days after a minor incident in the court premises when the police found a Swiss knife in his bag.

The incident ended when the Swiss knife was confiscated and Ajay apologised to the judge. However, the Raipur media had large photographs of the Swiss knife, with imaginative stories on how the knife would be used to help Sanyal escape from jail.

One of the newspapers even falsely reported that the police had arrested Ajay in court. The Raipur media’s partisan and shocking coverage emboldened the police to arrest the film-maker on the basis of a letter that he had written to the Maoists relating to a camera that they had confiscated from him in 2004.

Dr Sen and Ajay TG are not the only persons accused of aiding the Maoists who have been arrested by the Chhattisgarh government under the CSPSA.

According to the PUCL (C), there are 43 persons who have been arrested under the CSPSA since the law was enacted in 2005. The wording of this draconian law, makes any association with the Maoists a crime.

Among those detained under this Act are students, electricians, doctors, journalists, and even tailors. The PUCL (C) has challenged the constitutional validity of the CSPSA before the Supreme Court on 14 May 2008, exactly a year after Dr Sen’s arrest.

What is shocking in this entire episode is not that the Chhattisgarh government decided to target Dr Sen and the PUCL-C but that the Bilaspur High Court and the Supreme Court refused to release him on bail.

While deciding bail applications courts have begun to look at a variety of factors including the nature and gravity of the charge, the danger of the accused absconding if released on bail, the character and standing of the accused, and apprehension of evidence being tampered with.

Dr Sen is a doctor whose work has been recognised all over the world. He is a gold medallist from the prestigious Christian Medical College, Vellore. He gave up his job at the Jawaharlal Nehru Univeristy and moved to Chhattisgarh in 1978 to work with the legendary leader of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) Shankar Guha Nyogi.

He set up health clinics in parts of rural Chhattisgarh, where few doctors would dare to venture. He helped set up a worker’s hospital in Dalli-Rajhara, and advised the state government on its public health policy. None of this seems to have carried any weight.

Dr Sen’s trial has already been contentious. The lawyers for Dr Sen had to move the Bilaspur High Court to make sure that the trial was open to the public after Judge Saluja had initially said that he feared that outsiders would disturb the proceedings.

The first phase of the trial, which lasted four days, saw a total of six witnesses being examined. There are more than 80 witnesses to go. Since the trial is being heard in a phased manner, it could take at least two more years for a decision in this case.

The courts’ refusal to grant Dr Sen bail has meant that his only hope is that the ongoing trial results in a quick acquittal, or that the Chhattisgarh government withdraws its prosecution. The latter seems a remote possibility.

So far, the Chhattisgarh government has turned a deaf ear to pleas from concerned citizens in India and abroad for the release of Dr Sen. He may not be the only one targeted and punished by the Chhattisgarh government for his dissenting views, but his trial will be symbolic of the future of democratic rights in the state.

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