Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What the Seema Azad verdict says about us

It has been a while now since Seema Azad and her husband, Vishwa Vijay, were first sentenced to life imprisonment by a UP sessions court and then granted bail by the Allahabad High Court. The case did not get as much attention in the national media as the Binayak Sen case (2007-11), but the PUCL and other democratic organizations fought consistently through the years of their incarceration for their freedom and vindication. They are social activists in UP who have written extensively on illegal mining in the state and have worked several years to highlight instances of state oppression and injustice. At the time of her arrest, Seema was the organizing secretary of the state unit of the PUCL. They were arrested in February 2010 and charged with being members and supporters of the banned CPI (Maoist). On June 8, 2012, after they had spent two years in jail without reprieve, the Allahabad sessions court found them guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment. The verdict was based primarily on the so-called "pro-Maoist" literature recovered from their residence and a purported confession made in police custody (which is inadmissible by law). While a lot of the literature cited as incriminatory in court was essentially political in nature (it's an ironic comment on Indian "democracy" that anything remotely to do with social justice is selectively interpreted as inflammatory or "seditious", re sec. 124-A of the IPC), the judge also reportedly admitted the confession as valid and based his judgment on it. The high court, in granting her bail earlier this month, obviously took note of these anomalies; however, the appeal against the sessions court verdict, given the pace of judicial review, will now only come before the high court much later (some estimate that it may even take 30 years).

What does the verdict say about us? That we are essentially an undemocratic and repressive police state with a judicial system that often contradicts itself and undermines its own stated principles?

The Supreme Court has set several precedents (e.g. Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar, 1962) that delimit the law of sedition (eliminating any factors that do not survive the test of free speech guaranteed by the constitution) and has established, through various judgments, the fact that mere membership of a banned organization does not by itself constitute a crime. There is virtually no plausible explanation for the fact that so many people are sentenced to jail on non-existent, untenable or fabricated evidence despite a clear and unambiguous history of judicial review that impugns such judgments and unequivocally rejects the doctrine of "guilt by association" (especially if such association is patently fabricated and specious).

However, this isn't primarily about the judicial process. The police persecute social activists and the state actively sanctions their persecution, with government after government supporting the existence and continuance of draconian "anti-terror" laws. This is primarily about the suppression of dissent and the punishment of those who speak out against oppression. While almost all liberal democratic countries have done away with the crime of "sedition", Indian citizens continue to languish in jail on the basis of such obsolete and insidious colonial-era laws as the one on sedition. The Indian state thrives on the brutal suppression of dissent and of those who question or obstruct its path of expropriation, exclusion and even annihilation. There are thousands of people trapped in jails across the country on false cases and false allegations, simply because they chose to question the logic of exploitation and fight against their oppression. Moreover, the persecution of activists and human rights workers slips in and out of mainstream national discourse, and due to decreased and inconsistent media scrutiny, many instances remain unreported, hidden and ignored. We have grown accustomed to state violence and see nothing special about lives wasted in jail. What this verdict says about us is that we live under active state repression and our democracy is constantly besieged by internal, implosive forces. 

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