Error and trial

In a judgment that reverberated across the country, a Chhattisgarh trial court has found the doctor and social worker, Binayak Sen, guilty of aiding the Maoist attack on the state, and sentenced him to life imprisonment. He has been charged under Sections 124 (sedition), 120 B (conspiracy) of the Indian Penal code and other sections of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The Binayak Sen case has been an ideologically polarising one, ever since he was first arrested in May 2007, on the charge that he carried communications back and forth for imprisoned Naxalite leader Narayan Sanyal, during prison visits. Sen stayed in jail for two years, until he was granted bail by the Supreme Court in 2009. There are those who cast him as a do-gooder doctor victimised by the state on scant evidence, and others who see him a treacherous figure who abetted the Maoist cause. But the real question is how watertight the legal case against him is. And we await details of the ways in which the legal process will now be taken forward. For, even if there's compelling proof that he worked to "excite disaffection towards the government", the harsh quantum of punishment should give pause. A life term carries a staggering finality.The Sen case should also spark off a larger debate. There's no question that the Naxal threat is one this country cannot afford to go soft on. But it's also the case that the state has often tended to finesse the differences between those who actively wage war against what they consider an illegitimate state, those who aid their operations, and other unarmed outsiders who might be broadly sympathetic. The definition of guilt could become unmanageably loose, if these crucial distinctions are not maintained. For this, the state, civil society and our politics need to react with maturity. In taking on any extremist movement, it's important to enlarge the middle ground, by engaging constructively those unarmed "sympathisers" who also have a connect with violent cadres. Instead of a scorched earth approach that tars anyone, however tenuously connected with the networks that are also exploited by Naxalites, as potential collaborators, we need to be mindful of India's experience in dealing with and ending insurgencies in the past. The vigilance is understandable, given the gravity of the Naxalite threat (which the prime minister has foregrounded often), but it's also counter-productive to choke off all mediating voices.

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