Outrages against liberty by various arms of the Indian state are neither rare nor mild, yet, even by those standards, the sentencing of Binayak sen is a shocking event. When a good doctor and an internationally acclaimed humanitarian is convicted by a court in a democratic(!) country and sentenced to life imprisonment: for violating arcane laws which should probably not be there, and which he anyway appears not to have violated, it is time for grief and rage.
I am not an expert on the various aspects of this case, but this much seems clear to me: Binayak Sen was not responsible for an act of violence. It doesn’t matter to me whether he is a Maoist sympathizer or not — if he is, that’s an exercise of his right to thought. It doesn’t matter to me if he spoke in favour of the Maoist movement — if he did, that was an exercise of his right to speech. It doesn’t matter if he possessed banned books — as far as I am concerned, possession of a book, whatever it is, should never be a crime. It doesn’t matter if he gave significant medical aid to an injured Maoist leader — if he did, he was doing exactly what every good doctor would have done in his situation. It doesn’t matter that he visited said Maoist leader in the jail or elsewhere — even disregarding the fact that such contact would have been normal in view of the doctor-patient relationship, noone, should ever, in any circumstance, be penalized merely for being in contact with another human being.
If Binayak Sen actively played a role in planning or executing violent deadly attacks, he should serve the time. But as far as I can tell, there is no evidence whatsoever he did so. Whatever evidence there is, point in a very different direction. The notion — non actionable, even if true — that he was some sort of a believer in a Maoist ideology seems to be supremely wrong-headed. By all accounts — and I am relying here on accounts of those who know him — Sen’s beliefs were of a far more mild variety: he believed in inclusive growth, aid to underprivileged communities, an opposition to a system that created “two kinds of people” (the haves and have-nots), and so on. He is on record saying he abhors violence, including the Maoist variety. The evidence also points to him selflessly serving these underprivileged communities through his work as doctor. From the linked Tehelka article:
Drive 150 kilometres away from Raipur into the unforgiving dustiness of the forest around Bagrumala and Sahelberia in district Dhamtari, where Binayak ran his Tuesday clinic, and the heroic dimension of his work overwhelms you. There is nothing that could have brought a retired colonel’s elite, accomplished son here but extraordinary compassion. Scratchy little hamlets, some no more than 25-houses strong. Peopled by Kamars and other tribals, the most neglected of the Indian human chain, destituted further by the Gangrail dam on the Mahanadi river. No schools. No drinking water. No electricity. No access to public health. And increasingly, no access to traditional forest resources. Here, stories of Binayak Sen proliferate. How he saved young Lagni lying bleeding after a miscarriage, how he rescued the villagers of Piprahi Bharhi jailed en masse for encroaching on the forest, how he helped Jaheli Bai and Dev Singh, how he helped create grain banks. “Do something. Save the doctor,” says an old man in Kamar basti. “We have no one to go to now.”
In short, the evidence points to him being a man who above all believed in doing good. As a doctor, and a humanitarian with certain beliefs, he did good to everyone, from the powerless poor to some who the state considers its enemy. He spoke out against things he considered unjust and criticized the state whenever he felt it did wrong. Some of his acts made him, in the eyes of the powerful, a dangerous man who needed to be put down.
This ruling is certain to be challenged, but it still means that the forces of evil have won this round. For India and for liberty, this day is a black one.
When I last wrote about Sen, a reader (Chetan) asked some interesting questions.
If this issue were to be discussed on the basis of principle alone, I would like to know your views about how you would view an arrest of a person who is actively involved in aiding and abetting a violent political movement.
For instance, were it to be proved that a person provided not just intellectual but also material and tactical support to a violent movement, do you think the State has no right to imprison him? (The implicit assumption here is that the person didn’t involve himself with the violence. Let’s just say he provided funding and helped perpetrators of violence hide from the cops knowing what they had done)
While I cannot cover every scenario here, a few things I believe are:
Helping a violent movement in a way that is directly linked to the execution of violent criminal acts (giving them money knowing it would be used to buy guns, helping them plan an operation, carrying letters detailing this plan from one person to another) should be a crime.
“Helping” a violent movement in any other way (moral or intellectual support, giving legal advice or medical help, carrying a letter that merely contains seditious propaganda) should not be a crime. Nor should giving money be a crime if it is the case that this money will only be used for legitimate purposes and not for violent acts (or, by mens rea, even if the financier believes incorrectly such to be the case).
From the libertarian viewpoint, the most important issue when pondering the legality of a certain sort of indirect support is whether its nature is intrinsically rights-violating (NAP violating). A good rule of thumb to resolve this is to ask the following question: would it, in your mind, be legal to offer the same sort of support to another group that had till then not committed any crime? If the answer to this question is yes, then the support should probably be legal even when offered to a violent lawless group.
Granted, a few cases are somewhat on the line, but in Sen’s case, it doesn’t even seem close.