Monday, December 27, 2010

Contempt of Court

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.


Unknown said...

Hi Girish,

I stumbled upon your blog today while searching for some cartoons and caricatures of financial and political scamsters in india. Your blog is really impressive and interesting. Please carry on with the good work.

Geeta Charusivam

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks a lot, Geeta!

Anonymous said...

Great write up. Can't help but wonder what are we exactly ? We definitely are not a free country, democracy is a token name than what it is actually in practice, it is frustrating to know that the judiciary is so inept for such a large country. Srikanth

Girish Shahane said...

True, Srikanth, the laws we have in place in the North-east, in Jammu and Kashmir and in many of the states where left-wing militants are active, are as harsh as those in repressive dictatorships. We all have experience of the way policemen function; to allow confessions to the police to count as evidence in court is a recipe for even more torture and even less proper investigation.

Anonymous said...

very true! moreover, theres not enough outrage about the judgment. I am not sure, we, as a people, understand what this means in terms of our judiciary, establishment and democracy.

Girish Shahane said...

Yes, Sumanya, it's sad that the public appears to favour ever harsher laws. Great point about politicising and depoliticising on your blog, btw.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Girish.

Bhushan Y. Nigale said...

Dear Girish,
An excellent post, as always! I hope more and more people get the courage to condemn the judgments of our courts when they are obviously wrong and crooked: in effect, a return to the pre-emergency days, after Mrs. Gandhi sabotaged the Supreme court, when prominent personalities routinely condemned the actions and motives of the courts.

Some thoughts from me, in addition: Dr. Sen's conviction confirms the 'being-good penalty': the worth of a society can be judged not by how it treats those who violates its laws, but by the penalty it imposes on those who follow them. Dr. Sen is a tireless practitioner in the area of pubic health, and his commitment to the poor of India is indisputable. The Indian state machinery therefore chooses to reward him by convicting him for sedition.

Keep up the good work!

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks a lot, Bhushan!

suraj said...

have you gone through the judgment? plz. let us know where do you found the copy?

Girish Shahane said...

I'm sure you can find it yourself.