Conscience and Binayak Sen

Conscience and Binayak Sen

The 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once wrote that in a civil state, the law is the public conscience, superseding an individual’s private conscience once she leaves the state of nature. For the worthies who govern India’s conscience, such a belief would be anathema.

Take, for example, the recent comments made by some members of the National Advisory Council (NAC) and other liberal torchbearers after a Chhattisgarh court sentenced doctor and activist Binayak Sen to life in prison for sedition. Reacting to the verdict, NAC member Harsh Mander told the Indian Express: “I have no doubt that the police and the judiciary are not above the influence of political objectives." Jean Dreze, another NAC member, said: “In a functioning democracy, the Chhattisgarh administration would be tried for human rights violations and Dr Sen’s work would receive due recognition. His conviction to life imprisonment after a kangaroo trial is a disgrace and a crime."

To be sure, India’s democracy enshrines the freedom that allows Mander and Dreze to voice their criticism (the fact that they can do so belies accusations of a dysfunctional democracy). But a few crucial distinctions need to be made here. First, these comments do not just criticize the judgment on Sen; they also extend, unjustly, to the judiciary itself—a crucial arm of the very democracy whose lack Dreze seems to bemoan. Second, the legal process in Sen’s case is far from over—the subsequent appeals stages can go all the way to the Supreme Court. Pronouncing judgement on the judiciary at such an early stage is immature. And even if the Unlawful Activities Act were unconstitutional, as former Delhi high court chief justice Rajender Sachar says it is, India is one of the few nations that allows judicial review of their laws. Third, both Mander and Dreze prefaced their comments with mention of their long association with Sen. But calling the judiciary names based on this personal interaction is not only a giant leap of faith, but also a presumptuous blurring of boundaries between private opinion and public conscience.

Hobbes understood the dangers of private opinion masquerading as public voice. As the government focuses anew on social equity and human rights, and NAC’s role as the conscience of the nation widens, its members would do well to imbibe some much-needed Hobbesian reason.

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