Last week, the Supreme Court granted bail to Binayak Sen, the doctor and civil rights activist who had been sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in Raipur on the charge of sedition. Dr. Sen was charged with being a Naxalite sympathizer, and of acting as a courier for the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The verdict of the lower court had been widely condemned. The proceedings were farcical; with no concrete evidence to press their charge, the Government of Chattisgarh argued by insinuation and innuendo, at one stage claiming that since the police had found no stethoscope in the house Dr Sen was not a doctor but a Maoist. Even if the evidence had been rock-solid, the sentence was outrageous. In China, professedly a totaliarian country, the writer Liu Xiabao had been sentenced to ten years in prison for speaking out against the state. A court in democratic India had awarded a life sentence for the same transgression.

In granting bail to Dr. Sen, the Supreme Court also commented adversely on the process by which he had been sentenced. The two judges hearing the appeal, Harjit Singh Bedi and Chandramauli Prasad, said that to have Maoist literature in one’s possession did not make one a Maoist. As they pointedly added, mere ownership of a copy of ‘My Experiments with Truth’ did not make one a Gandhian.

Reading the judgement, I was reminded of a visit I had made several years ago to a jail in Chattisgarh. In May 2006, I was part of a team of independent citizens studying the fall-out of the civil war between Maoists and state-sponsored vigilantes known as Salwa Judum. Pulling out my notes of the trip, I find that it was on the 21st of May, 2006 that I visited the Jagdalpur jail. Built in 1919, the prison had large, tiled, airy and well-lit rooms. The rooms were built around a courtyard; each room housed about fifty prisoners.

Indian jails are known to be small, crowded, dark and filthy. This was an exception. So, perhaps, was the Superintendent of the Prison, who was a tall, thoughtful, compassionate man named Akhilesh Tomar. Mr. Tomar organized a weekly dance and music show for and by the prisoners. There were other diversions; as we walked around the jail, we saw men playing carrom.

The Jagdalpur jail had, at this time, 1,337 prisoners in all. On a board in the Superintendent’s office these were classified under different heads. 184 men and one woman were classed as being ‘Naxal Vaadi Baandhi’, i.e. as being incarcerated in connection with the Naxalite or Maoist rebellion. Mr. Tomar hastened to add that the classification was very approximate. Those prisoners who came from Dantewada—the district that was at the epicentre of the civil war—were usually classified as ‘Naxalites’. The Superintendent remarked that this did not mean that they were all Naxalites.

After a tour of the prison, our group was allowed to talk, one-on-one, to some of the inmates. I had a conversation with a prisoner named Dabba Boomaiah. He was a soft-spoken Muria in his twenties, from a village named Bamanpur near Bhopalpatnam. He told me the story of how he now found himself in Jagdalpur jail. He had, he said, a job as a labourer on a lift irrigation project. One day, at work, he was passed by a road-building crew, who asked him the way to Bhopalpatnam police station. He escorted them there, but was then detained by the police. They began quizzing him about the presence of Naxalites in his village. Then they asked him to join the Salwa Judum. He said he couldn’t become a vigilante, since he had a wife, two small kids and a widowed mother to support. Thereupon they arrested him.

It was now three months since Dabba Boomaiah took the road-building crew to Bhopalpatnam Police Station. After his arrest, he had been taken to Dantewara jail, from where he was shifted to Jagdalpur. He had not seen his wife and children since his arrest. When I asked why he hadn’t been in touch with his family, he answered that they had never even visited Dantewada town. How then could they come to Jagdalpur, which was many hours away? However, he was in touch with a lawyer, who would represent him in a court hearing, which was scheduled for the following week. At that hearing Dabba Boomaiah hoped to get bail, and be permitted to rejoin the family.

I do now know whether Dabba Boomaiah got bail, whether the charges against him were dropped, whether he is still in Jagdalpur prison or has been reunited with his wife and children. A friend who knows the region well tells me that hearings are often cancelled at the last minute, as the Criminal Court in Jagdalpur is short of staff. Besides, cases against alleged Naxalites demand extra security, and when these are not available the cases are postponed.
There is always the possibility that Dabba Boomaiah was a consummately gifted actor. To me, he seemed merely to be another victim of the civil war in Dantewada. In the eyes of the Raipur Sessions Court, Dr. Sen’s ‘crime’ was that he had talked to Maoist prisoners and was alleged to keep Maoist literature in his home. The guilt they presumed was by association and insinuation, for Dr. Sen was not myself a member of the Maoist party, nor had he committed acts of violence or otherwise broken the law. Association and insinuation had also landed Dabba Boomaiah in jail. His ‘crime’ was that he happened to live in a district that had seen intense Maoist activity, and where a suspicious and paranoid State Government demanded that everyone take sides.

From what one hears and knows, there are thousands of Dabba Boomaiahs languishing in the jails of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Orissa, thousands of adivasis innocent of all crimes except that of having made their home in districts where insurgents and the police are ranged against one another. Pace the Supreme Court judgement, these adivasis have not read Mao, indeed have not even heard of Mao. But they live in areas where Maoists are active and influential; which makes them, in the eyes of what passes for the law in these tragic, troubled parts of India, Maoists themselves.

When the judge in Raipur sentenced Binayak Sen to life imprisonment, the Home Minister said that he could always appeal to a higher court. Most victims of the civil war in Chattisgarh, however, do not have such recourse. They are at the mercy of an arbitrary and often brutal police, and of lower courts shot through with corruption and subject to intimidation. For someone like Dabba Boommaiah, New Delhi is even more distant than Jagdalpur is to his family. The Supreme Court deserves three cheers for the relief it has granted Dr. Binayak Sen, but, pending the suffering of the ordinary adivasi in Maoist-infested areas, let us not raise three cheers for Indian democracy itself.

(published in The Telegraph, 23/4/2011)