If there's one good thing to come out of the absurd verdict in the trial of Binayak Sen, it is the overthrow of the idea that decisions of courts are beyond criticism. In the past, the threat of being hauled up for contempt restricted public contestation of judgements. This self-censorship has been relaxed in recent years, and appears to have disappeared entirely after the Binayak Sen verdict, which has been called 'shocking' in an editorial of the Hindu, and a 'kangaroo trial' and 'a farce' by members of the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi. Today's Times of India carries two articles critical of the way the case proceeded and highlights the flimsiness of evidence.
Essentially, one of India's most distinguished public health practitioners and human rights activists was held without bail for months and has now been sentenced to life in jail because he supposedly served as a conduit between an imprisoned Left wing extremist leader and other militants. The proof of this were letters recovered, not from Dr.Sen himself, but from a businessman who first said he was given the material by Dr.Sen and then retracted the statement. The place where the letters were recovered was mentioned as 'Station Road' in the police report. This was later changed to a completely different location, namely 'Mahindra Hotel'. The court accepted that a typing error led to the police putting down 'Station Road' instead of 'Mahindra Hotel'.
The police, after going through Binayak Sen's home and computer, came up with proof of his sympathy with terrorists in the form of pamphlets and books about Naxalism. Well, if that's evidence, then they could lock me up as a Maoist militant, since I have similar material lying about in my house. There was also an email sent by Dr.Sen's wife to somebody in the ISI; that was the Indian Social Institute, not Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence, but the police were satisfied the ISI label meant the Sens were colluding with Pakistan.
The case sheds light on the working of the whole judicial system in India. If a trial in the world's spotlight, during which two dozen Nobel laureates as well as human rights organisations like Amnesty International have spoken out on the defendant's behalf, becomes such a grotesque travesty of justice, imagine what it's like for the poor of Chattisgarh and other regions. What chance do they have against a combination of harsh laws, merciless police and pliant judges? None. And what happens when large sections of the population feel they have no recourse within the legal framework? They decide to work outside it.
I'm certain the verdict will be overturned in a higher court and Binayak Sen will eventually be acquitted. But he will have spent years in custody by then, and it will be wrong to suggest, the day he is set free, that justice has finally been done.
UPDATE, December 28: Rajinder Sachar, the former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, has called the Binayak Sen judgement "nonsensical", and said he was ashamed to belong to a judicial system that delivered such a '"ridiculous judgement". I cannot recall any previous Indian verdict being described in such scathing terms by a former judge.