Dr. Binayak Sen: "Punishment by Trial"

-- Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer

(This is the text of a letter written by the eminent Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, former Supreme Court Judge, to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, dated April 17, 2009. Ed/-)

I would like to bring to your attention a case of grave injustice which is a cause of much shame to Indian democracy: that of Dr. Binayak Sen, the well known paediatrician and defender of human rights.

This good doctor has been incarcerated in a Raipur jail for nearly two years now under the Chhattisgarh State Public Security Act, 2005. Among the charges against Dr. Sen, who is renowned worldwide for his public health work among the rural poor, are "treason and waging war against the state."

Chhattisgarh State prosecutors claim that Binayak, as part of an unproven conspiracy, passed on a set of letters from Narayan Sanyal, a senior Maoist leader who is in the Raipur jail, to Piyush Guha, a local businessman with allegedly close links to the left-wing extremists. He was supposed to have done this while visiting Sanyal in prison both in his capacity as a human rights activist and as a doctor treating him for various medical ailments.

The trial of Dr. Sen, which began in a Raipur Sessions Court late April 2008, has, however, not thrown up even a shred of evidence to justify any of these charges against him. By March 2009, of the 83 witnesses listed for deposition by the prosecution as part of the original charge-sheet, 16 were dropped by the prosecutors themselves and six declared ‘hostile’, while 61 others have deposed without corroborating any of the accusations against Dr. Sen. Irrespective of the merits of the case against Dr. Sen, there are very disturbing aspects to the way the trial process has been carried out so far.

As if all this were not enough, Dr. Sen has also been repeatedly denied bail by the Bilaspur High Court (in September 2007 and December 2008). And the Supreme Court of India rejected his special leave petition to have the bail application heard before it (in December 2007).

Given the paucity of evidence in the trial of Dr. Sen so far, in all fairness the Raipur court should have dismissed the case against him altogether by now. Certainly the weakness of the prosecution’s position should entitle him to at least grant of bail. Dr. Sen is a person of international standing and reputation, with a record of impeccable behaviour throughout his distinguished career. In May 2008, in an unprecedented move 22 Nobel Prize winners even signed a public statement calling him a ‘professional colleague’ and asking for his release.

Normally bail is refused only in cases where courts believe an accused can tamper with evidence, prejudice witnesses or run away. In Dr. Sen’s case none of these apply, as shown by the simple fact that at the time of his arrest he chose to come to the Chhattisgarh police voluntarily and made no attempt to abscond despite knowing about his possible detention.

Today Dr. Sen, a diabetic who is also hypertensive, is himself in urgent need of medical treatment for his deteriorating heart condition. In recent weeks his health has worsened and a doctor appointed by the court to examine him recommended that he be transferred to Vellore for an angiography and perhaps, if needed, an angioplasty or coronary artery bypass graft without further delay.

Instead of recognising their social contributions, the Indian state, by wrongly branding Dr. Sen and many other human rights defenders like him as ‘terrorists’, is making a complete mockery of not just democratic norms and fair governance but its entire anti-terrorist strategy and operations.

The repeated denial of bail which results in ‘punishment by trial’ constitutes an even graver threat to Indian society. The sheer injustice involved will only breed cynicism among ordinary citizens about the credibility and efficacy of Indian democracy itself.

Hum Dekhenge

We shall witness
Certainly we, too, shall witness that day
that has been promised to us

When these high mountains
Of tyranny and oppression turn to fluff and evaporate

And we oppressed –
Beneath our feet will this earth shiver, shake and beat
And heads of rulers will be struck
With crackling lightening and thunder roars.

When from this God's earth
All false images will be removed.
Then we of clean hearts — condemned by Zealots, those keepers of Faith,
We, will be invited to that altar to sit and govern.
When crowns will be thrown off — and thrones will be overturned.

We shall witness
Certainly we, too, shall witness that day that has been promised to us...

Only the name of Allah will remain
Who is both absent and present
Who is both the observer and the view itself
When the anthem of truth will be raised
Which I am and you are as well
And the people of God will reign
Who I am and you are as well

We shall witness
Certainly we, too, shall witness that day that has been promised to us...

-- Faiz Ahmed Faiz,
(Translation based on the version by Maniza Naqvi that appeared in Times of India, 20 August 2008)

Adieu Iqbal Bano!

You will live on as the sub-continent’s voice of defiance against tyranny

Iqbal Bano, the sub-continent’s beloved ghazal singer, born in India and trained in the Dilli Gharana by the legendary Ustad Chand Khan, passed away on April 21 2009 in Lahore at the age of 74.
In the hearts of all who knew and loved her music is the memory of that day: when, in protest against the jailing of the subcontinent’s foremost Left poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz by General Zia-ul Haq, she sang Faiz’s immortal song ‘Hum Dekhenge’ (We shall witness) at a Lahore stadium full of 50, 000 people, wearing a black sari in defiance of Zia’s ban on the sari. As her liquid voice reached the crescendo – declaring ‘Certainly we, too, shall witness that day ... When these high mountains/Of tyranny and oppression turn to fluff and evaporate/And we oppressed/ Beneath our feet will this earth shiver, shake and beat/
And heads of rulers will be struck/With crackling lightening and thunder roars/When crowns will be flung in the air — and thrones will be overturned....,” people joined with slogans of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ (Long Live Revolution!). In future years, Faiz would be requested, “Please recite that song of Iqbal Bano’s” – because she had made it her own. Smug Indian commentators like to contrast the supposedly superior democratic culture of India’s people with the supposed passivity of Pakistan’s people – but it is Pakistan that gave us that immortal moment of democratic culture – where thousands of people sang in defence of a jailed atheist and communist poet – who had drawn upon progressive traditions within Islam to confront the zealot Zia.
Iqbal Bano – As the people of the sub-continent confront the tyrannies of their governments, of imperialism and of jingoistic hate-mongering, yours will be the voice that will reflect their unity, their defiance, their confidence that one day, tyranny will be defeated and the people will triumph....