Even if we ignore the raw emotion in the 80-year-old Anasuya Sen’s appeal for justice for her jailed son, Binayak Sen, a social activist working in Chhattisgarh, there are several rational concerns triggered by this case. We refer to her appeal published at Sanhati.com, references and excerpts of which appeared in Business Standard on Tuesday, as well as in several blogs. And to the serious threats to civil liberties from the misuse of laws ostensibly in place to curb threats to national security, such as the growing Naxalite violence.
Dr Binayak, vice-president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), was arrested last May under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). There has been a campaign by several credible individuals and groups highlighting Sen’s development work for the marginalized tribals of the state. The charges against him include alleged links with a jailed Maoist, being addressed as a “comrade” in a letter by a suspected Naxalite in jail, owning literature of various political parties, letters from people in jail, etc., and a press release issued by him on the plight of prisoners and undertrials.
While we wait for the state to produce the hard evidence of its allegations against Dr Binayak, the moot issue is whether or not his democratic rights are being suppressed.
Dr Binayak, a medical doctor, has been specially commended for his work in health care, education and empowerment in tribal Chhattisgarh by his alma mater—CMC Vellore—among others. He has been increasingly critical of the state government’s approach to exploiting the state’s abundant mineral resources at the cost of growing marginalization of local communities as well as the way it has dealt with the menace of Naxalite violence through the state-supported Salwa Judum, a powerful movement that’s grossly, indeed, criminally violating all human rights. PUCL Chhattisgarh, incidentally, has been relentlessly drawing attention to the excesses by the state government through Salwa Judum.
There have been many instances of indefinite detentions under a range of repressive laws. These include the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (Tada), Prevention of Terrorism Act, apart from the two under which Dr Binayak was arrested. Not only have these dented Indian democracy from within, we also have extra-constitutional acts such as encounter killings. Iftikhar Geelani of Kashmir Times was detained for eight months in 2002 under the Official Secrets Act, but later it was found the documents he had were all in the public domain. And when lawyer K.D. Rao and others were arrested last year in Maharashtra by the anti-terrorism squad, the rule of law was hardly followed—such as an official record of incriminating evidence found—and there were police threats for anyone who might support those arrested.
Draconian laws such as the CSPSA only strengthen the inherent tendency of such abuse of power. Dr Binayak’s estimate in the course of a PUCL fact-finding mission was that just 1% of undertrial prisoners had anything to do with the Maoists. A noted commentator has drawn a parallel, citing gross abuse of the law given the less than 2% rate of conviction under the notorious Tada. And though Naxal groups are already banned and declared unlawful under UAPA, the CSPCA broadens the scope of what can be termed “unlawful” by making its definition imprecise.
In addition to the concerns on civil liberties, the state’s approach of dealing with the Maoists’ violence is also self-defeating. The flouting of the rule of law by those assigned to uphold it even as the scope for their abuse of power is unchecked only perpetuates the anti-state “logic” of the Maoists. It also worsens the plight of the tribal communities already in misery thanks to the chronic failure of governance.
Are laws dealing with Naxalites a threat to civil liberties? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org