Fixing Maoists on flimsy grounds

The award of life sentence to G N Saibaba, a Delhi University professor, and four others by a sessions court in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the IPC is wrong and unjust. The main charge against them is that they were members of the banned CPI (Maoist), and aided and abetted its activities. The fact that Saibaba is a wheelchair-bound person with 90% physical disability adds to the issue a human dimension, which, however, may not be relevant in law. But the conviction and imprisonment are bad and untenable in law too and in the light of past court judgments. Saibaba has been convicted for his membership and association with a banned organisation. There is no evidence of his participation in any of the organisation’s actions or of encouragement or incitement of illegal activities. The only evidence against him is the Maoist literature, in paper and electronic form, recovered from him.

The Supreme Court has held that membership of a terrorist organisation does not make a person guilty of terrorism unless that person ‘resorts to violence or incites people to violence  or does an act intended to create public disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence’. None of these is applicable in the case of Saibaba. The prosecution’s argument that membership of the CPI (Maoist) amounted to conspiracy and the court’s acceptance of it do not stand scrutiny. The rights of a citizen, including the right to free speech, are involved in the possession of any kind of literature and in the membership of organisations. Those rights cannot be denied on the basis of cavalier arguments. The Supreme Court has dismissed lower courts’ conviction of persons like Dr Binayak Sen on similar grounds. The state has often harassed and hounded people who are critical of it and hold different ideologies, and violated their human and constitutional rights. Unfortunately, lower courts have sometimes been lax in upholding such rights of citizens. Saibaba’s case is clearly one such.

In clear contrast with this is the release, by another court, of Swami Aseemanand in the 2007 Ajmer bomb blast case. The swami had himself accepted the charges against him before a magistrate. But the prosecution lost its vigour after the NDA came to power, and many witnesses turned hostile. An accused in another terrorism-related case, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, was acquitted last month. These acquittals should be seen in the light of charges that the prosecution is soft in the handling of ‘Hindu terror’ cases. They call into question the rule of law and the dispensation of justice.

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