New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday granted bail to rights activist Binayak Sen in a sedition case that’s being tried in Chhattisgarh and questioned the basis of the charges. Sen has been sentenced to life by a trial court.

The ruling was applauded by his supporters, including 22 Nobel laureates who have accused the Chhattisgarh government of persecuting an innocent man. The law minister said the sedition laws were outdated and needed to be reviewed.

“No case of sedition is made out," a bench comprising justices H.S. Bedi and C.K. Prasad observed while granting bail to 61-year-old Sen, who was sentenced to life imprisonment after being held guilty of sedition by a Raipur court in December. The court had sentenced Sen as well as Naxal ideologue Narayan Sanyal and Kolkata-based businessman Piyush Guha for helping Maoist rebels in their fight against the state of Chhattisgarh.

“The worst can be said that he was found in possession of general documents (relating to Naxal activities), but how can it be said that such possession would attract the charge of sedition. How can you lay the charge of sedition?" the Supreme Court asked, adding: “Is it like that if someone has got the autobiography of (Mahatma) Gandhi at his home, he will be called a Gandhian. Is that your logic that having documents and pamphlets on Maoists and Naxalites at his (Sen’s) house (puts him in breach of the law)?"

The Chhattisgarh government, which had accused Sen of sedition, said it respects the apex court’s ruling, but added that it would proceed with the legal process against Sen in the lower court.

“The chief minister (of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh) said that the government always respected every decision of all courts. We respect the Supreme Court’s order also. Today’s order was on the bail petition submitted by Sen. The rest of the legal matters will be continued in the lower court," said N. Baijendra Kumar, principal secretary (public relations), Chhattisgarh.

The apex court order sparked off a debate on the statutes governing sedition. Union law minister M. Veerappa Moily said the laws were “outdated" and needed revision. “I will consult the home minister (P. Chidambaram), and after that the Law Commission could be asked to revisit laws relating to sedition," Moily said. Constitutional expert K.K. Venugopal also pointed out that the law was drafted during colonial times and in a democratic constitution, one has to take a “relook" at the sedition law.

Chidambaram, who had criticized activists sympathetic to the Maoist rebels, told reporters in the Capital on Friday: “I am happy to know that Binayak Sen has got bail from the Supreme Court. I have always believed that if one is not satisfied with a lower court order, one can get reprieve by approaching a higher court."

Venugopal, also a senior Supreme Court advocate, added: “So far as the Chhattisgarh government is concerned, it has overreacted to the ground situation and was wholly unjustified in detaining him."

Civil rights activists hailed the order. “This is a fantastic verdict and a huge relief from the injustice that was meted out. It is, in fact, a relief for democracy. But again, it is just a relief since he’s only out on bail... This tells us there is a need to debate sedition laws in this country. It also sends out a strong message to the Chhattisgarh government," said Nikhil Dey, an activist and a founder member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.

Sen, an activist with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, was arrested in May 2007 from Bilaspur. His conviction attracted worldwide attention, with a group of 22 Nobel laureates sending a letter in 2008 to President Pratibha Patil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, expressing concern about the case against Sen and appealing for his release.

Sen approached the high court, which upheld his conviction. He was arrested in 2009 and has already served time in prison as an undertrial, before being released on bail by the Supreme Court on that occasion as well.

The Chhattisgarh government, in its affidavit, had said Sen should not be granted any relief as he has “deep links" with hardcore Naxalites and was providing active support and coordination in spreading the base of Maoists in India.

“Apart from providing logistic support, he exchanges information and material directly and indirectly with the Naxalites in the areas of Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa, and propagates Naxal ideology," the affidavit had said.

On 22 July 2009, the Indian government had banned the Communist Party of India (Maoist), branding it a terrorist organization.

Both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress maintained that the apex court’s decision was part of the legal process.

Mint’s Anuja and PTI contributed to this story.