Binayak Sen and Stan Swamy

Sen, Swamy and the ‘evidence’

Print edition : July 30, 2021

Binayak Sen, who was sentenced to life in 2010. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Father Stan Swamy . Photo: A.Muthukrishnan

Ilina Sen, Binayak Sen’s wife, speaking to mediapersons after his conviction for sedition, in New Delhi on January 3, 2011. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

The case of Binayak Sen shows the depths to which the state can descend to prolong incarceration of public-spirited activists and allow them to wither away.

In a court in Raipur on December 12, 2010, a lawyer named T.C. Pandya read out some lines from an email message. Then he commented: “This email has been written in code. It is significant because terrorists oppose the U.S. President.”

There is a small story here. Pandya was then the Public Prosecutor for the State of Chhattisgarh, conducting a case against a certain doctor. More than three years before that, the police had seized the doctor’s computer and scoured it for incriminating evidence, compiled what they found into two spiral-bound tomes, each with about 175 pages. One had this title: “TO HONORABLE (sic) SUPREME COURT, NEW DELHI. The details of the printout taken from CD/DVD, which is seized from the computer and CPU of [the doctor] ... On date 19/05/2007.”

Buried in those pages was a printout of this particular bit of email dated from eight years earlier. It was from a woman in the U.S.—call her M—and it was addressed to the doctor’s wife. M was clearly no fan of the man who had been elected President of that country in 2000, George W. Bush. For, in the email note, she wrote: “What’s new with you? Our main problem is we have a chimpanzee in the White House.”

Now it might raise your particular hackles to hear a U.S. President being referred to as a chimpanzee.

But it is no crime to do so, so prosecutor Pandya could not suggest as much. So, that second sentence, he claimed, was “code”. To him, this was proof that the husband of the message’s recipient, the doctor, was a “terrorist”.

The logic might seem strained at every level, but it served Pandya’s purpose all right. For, the doctor he was prosecuting was Binayak Sen. The Court considered this and other “evidence” presented against him and, later that month, sentenced Binayak Sen to life imprisonment. (”Prisoner of conscience”, Frontline, January 28, 2011.)

This is what I have been thinking about since Father Stan Swamy died. We have not been told what evidence there was against him. But if this bit of email—and all the other “evidence” against Binayak Sen—tells us anything, it is that there is nothing in the case against Father Stan Swamy. Apart from flinging the word “terrorist” about, like Pandya did during Binayak Sen’s trial.

Consider this: Binayak Sen was arrested in May 2007. The Chhattisgarh Police spent months and eventually years denying him bail, claiming to be “investigating” the case for which they needed him in custody, and claiming to be gathering “evidence” that would prove his guilt—much the same as has happened with Father Stan Swamy over the last 10 months. Father Stan Swamy spent those months in jail, denied bail, his health deteriorating, while the authorities were supposedly gathering “evidence” to use against him and thus needed him locked up.

Also read: Father Stan Swamy, silenced in death

Yet, those months tell the tale by themselves: if there was any real “evidence”, it would have been produced by now. Since none is forthcoming, there is only one conclusion to draw. Bear with me as I lead up to it.

“Evidence” against Binayak Sen

In Binayak Sen’s case, months waiting for trial stretched into years. So, in 2010, the Chhattisgarh High Court ordered the “fast-tracking” of evidence and directed that the trial should be completed by January 2011. The “evidence” that the State Police had collected now had to make an appearance before the Judge of the Sessions Court and, as it happens, before all of us.

Which is why we heard Pandya’s fantastic claim about the “chimpanzee in the White House”. But there were more such pieces of “evidence” in those spiral-bound tomes, plenty more. I shall list just four.

One: On the same day, during the same hearing, Pandya told the Court about another bit of email. This one was from Sen’s wife Ilina Sen (“Bread, roses and Ilina”, Frontline, September 11, 2020), addressed to ‘Walter Fernandez, ISI New Delhi’. The spiral-bound book called this “A letter of Dr Ilina Sen to Walter Fernandez, addressing him as ISI”.

Pandya told the Court: “We do not know who this Fernandez is, but ISI, as we all know, means Pakistan.” Never mind the mention of “New Delhi”; never mind that this ISI is Delhi’s well-known Indian Social Institute on Lodi Road, headed at the time by Walter Fernandes. No, Pandya wanted the judge, and all of us, to connect Binayak Sen to Pakistan’s dreaded ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence).

Two: There was a printout of a specific file from Binayak Sen’s computer. It contained a list of names of his family members. Remember that Binayak Sen is Bengali, and all Bengalis have nicknames (‘dak naam’). This list had the respective Bengali nickname attached to each regular name: Binayak (Rana), Suroti (Suro), Pranhita (Lali), Ilina (Rimi), and so on. But in the tome, the police referred to this list as “code names of Ilina Sen, Binayak Sen and others”. When you want to paint an accused as a terrorist, why not throw in “code names” as well, with all the connotations of conspiracy and underhand dealings?

Three: Another printout set out the details of a programme called “Mahila Kosh”. Among other things it said that this Mahila Kosh would have an “initial corpus of Rs.1 crore”, which phrase some police functionary had helpfully underlined by hand. You, and the judge, were meant to wonder: how did Sen, a mere paediatrician in rural Chhattisgarh, get Rs.1 crore?

Except that he did not. I typed ‘Mahila Kosh’and that phrase into Google and the first result was the identical page—on the Chhattisgarh government’s official website. Let that sink in: This was Chhattisgarh’s own scheme, its own Rs.1 crore, being used by that same State as “evidence” against Binayak Sen.

Four: On the letterhead of the Chhattisgarh Lok Swatantrya Sangathan (the State unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties or PUCL), Binayak Sen wrote and signed a public appeal, meant to appear in newspapers. This was a call for the “unconditional release” of Prakash Soni, a Sub-Inspector of Police, who had been abducted by the People’s War Group (PWG), a Maoist group in the State.

Again, from Google, I found out what had happened to Soni. After holding him for 16 days, the PWG released him, unharmed, in October 2004. It did so because the State government conceded four of its demands. This was no unconditional release as Binayak Sen and the PUCL had demanded in that appeal. Instead, the State government capitulated to Maoist demands and that is why Soni was freed.

Yet, the prosecution twisted Binayak Sen’s explicit call to the PWG—to set Soni free unconditionally—to damn him. In his judgment, Sessions Judge B.P. Verma has this sole observation about Binayak Sen’s appeal regarding Soni: “People’s War Group (PWG) dwara Sub-Inspector Prakash Soni ke apharan ke baat kahi gayi hai’ (‘the kidnapping of Sub-Inspector Prakash Soni by PWG is mentioned’). He did not note that Soni’s kidnapping was “mentioned” only because Binayak Sen called for Soni’s unconditional release.

Truly, those tomes are filled with—let us be honest—garbage like this, which was offered as “evidence” against Binayak Sen. Had there been anything else, any evidence more substantial or serious against Binayak Sen, do you doubt that it would have been presented to the Court? The tragedy is, with this particular Sessions Judge, the garbage worked like a charm. He sentenced Binayak Sen to life in prison—just the kind of ridiculously harsh judgment the Chhattisgarh authorities wanted, so that they could trumpet to the world that they had given a “terrorist” the punishment he deserved.

Also read: Terror and the UAPA law

Only a few months later, the Supreme Court granted Binayak Sen bail, pending appeals. And that is where the case has been stuck for a decade now. The State government has shown no interest in either overturning the bail order or pursuing its own appeals in higher courts.

And that is why you come to that conclusion I alluded to above: that their real intent was hardly to ensure that Binayak Sen stays in prison until he dies. Instead, it was to destroy his life.

In that, they succeeded spectacularly. Binayak Sen’s years in custody and his conviction mean that his life is, effectively, ruined. He remains a convict and he cannot practise his chosen profession, offering medical treatment in rural Chhattisgarh to some of India’s most forgotten people.

All of that, to say that this is exactly what we should have expected with Father Stan Swamy. Over the last several months, we saw the same charade as we did with Binayak Sen: “evidence” is being “gathered” so he must remain in custody, but meanwhile let’s fling about words like “terrorist sympathiser” and even just “terrorist”.

But had there actually been any evidence against Father Stan Swamy, do you doubt that the authorities would have presented it? Instead, as in the case of Binayak Sen, they had no particular interest in, nor presenting the evidence for a more speedy prosecution of a case against him. Their intent was to destroy Father Stan Swamy’s life.

In that, they succeeded spectacularly.

Dilip D’Souza is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist.

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