The life sentence given to Binayak Sen, a known activist for Leftist causes, by a District Sessions Court in Chhattisgarh has provoked a curious sense of outrage from certain sections in the media. Even more curious has been the reaction from leading members of Ms Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council. The three-year saga over the legal case against Binayak Sen stands out for the intense scrutiny it has received from national and international activists of the Leftist persuasion. No judge presiding over any criminal case in post-Independence India perhaps has been pressured to this degree.
The certitude with which Leftist activists and the media had pronounced a verdict in this trial well before the judge got down to the issue, one in the court speaks of the extraordinary stress the process and institutions of justice were put to in this case.
There has been a litany of signature campaigns, inspired media events and even Internet sites dedicated to the single cause of getting Binayak Sen released even before the courts are done with him. To further this cause in support of Binayak Sen, a narrative has been floated in the media highlighting the humanitarian work done by Binayak Sen while at the same time throwing little light on the kind of politics he has been associated with all his life.
An example of this carefully crafted narrative in the media is a piece in Tehelka magazine titled, “The doctor, the state and a sinister case” published on February 23, 2008. It is remarkable that in this piece, Binayak Sen’s association with the PUCL is underplayed with just one reference buried deep inside the piece. A more significant omission in that piece is the fact that Binayak Sen had issued a Press release in December 2005 on Narayan Sanyal’s disappearance — a week before the actual arrest of Narayan Sanyal took place in January 2006.
It would be a grave mistake to assume that the media campaign in support of Binayak Sen is a reflection of universal public outrage over his conviction. The merits of Binayak Sen’s conviction notwithstanding, it must be said that the people of India, by and large, have faith in the judiciary. They believe that justice will ultimately be done, as it was in the case of the December 13, 2001 attack on Parliament House, even if it sometimes is delayed by decades on account of systemic backlogs.
It would also be a grave mistake to assume that this is somehow about dealing with the myriad systemic problems that justice delivery in India suffers from on account of archaic processes and outdated laws. If this were really about judicial reforms, we would not just be seeing episodic outrage over Binayak Sen’s life sentence. Had it actually been about judicial reforms, we would have seen sustained national campaigns of the variety the Left has been running on issues like RTI, Right to Food and Right to Work.
This episodic outrage is far from being about judicial reforms. These very same Leftist-activists are complicit in judicial activism that goes far beyond the constitutional division of powers between the judiciary, the executive and the legislature. An example of such activism is the continuance of Mr Harsh Mander and Mr NC Saxena as Special Commissioners of the Supreme Court to monitor implementation of court orders on food security even as they play a political role as advisers to the UPA Government through Ms Gandhi-led NAC.
The manufactured outrage we are witnessing in the op-ed columns of the English language media and in the 24x7 TV studios is neither a reflection of public sentiment nor an enlightened quest for judicial reforms. The concerted media campaign in support of Binayak Sen needs to be seen in a different light.
There is a small but committed network of individuals and groups that goes by the label of ‘civil society’ that has worked actively to monopolise opinion-making and by extension policy-making in New Delhi. This vocal minority has over the years come to coordinate its efforts at various levels with a commitment towards a shared goal. That shared goal, described in their own word,s is “interlinking for effective action of various groups that are opposed to neo-liberalism and domination of the world by capital”. This vocal minority coordinated its efforts under the banner of the World Social Forum during its fourth convention in Mumbai held in January 2004.
All the three leading lights of Ms Gandhi-led NAC — Mr Harsh Mander, Ms Aruna Roy and Mr Jean Dreze, who have been most vocal on the Binayak Sen verdict, have been closely associated with these ‘interlinking’ efforts. It is an established fact that the three flagship items on the UPA’s social agenda — RTI, NREGA and food security — were the result of coordinated national campaigns by the various Leftist groups that came together during the WSF’s 2004 Mumbai convention.
It must be noted that Binayak Sen and his wife Ilina were an integral part of this committed network of groups and their associated national campaigns. Binayak Sen and Ilina Sen are acknowledged as key contributors along with other NAC members in a handbook on NREGA brought out by the Right to Food Campaign network of groups. The ridiculous and extraneous reference to ISI during the Binayak Sen trial notwithstanding, it must be noted that the Jesuit-managed Indian Social Institute was also an active participant in the ‘interlinking’ efforts at WSF. It must also be noted that the ISI’s sister Jesuit organisation, JESA, was behind a number of activist interventions under the banner of the Indian People’s Tribunal. These IPT-organised people’s courts have seen active participation from members of Ms Gandhi-led NAC on a number of occasions.
The outrage from this vocal minority that comprises NAC members and Leftist-Jesuit activists is understandable for one of its key members has now been caught in that grey zone where activism blurred into sympathies for Maoist terrorism. A fact under-reported by the Indian media is that the Maoist official mouthpiece, the Maoist Information Bulletin, had sympathetic references to Binayak Sen in almost every issue over the last 24 months. This outrage is aimed at deflecting attention from that uncomfortable and embarrassing question on where exactly the line blurs between Leftist activism and Maoist terrorism.
It would be a shame if the executive and the judiciary were to buckle under pressure from this vocal minority to overturn the lower court’s verdict. Binayak Sen’s fate must be decided in the higher courts on the merits of the case against him. To borrow a commentator’s quote — we must not allow the “grammar of blackmail” from a vocal minority to replace the “grammar of justice”. This vocal minority does not speak for the silent majority.