Silencing Dissent, Curtailing Freedoms: The Role of the Indian State


          Smugly confident of living in the world’s largest democracy, we fail to heed the writings on the wall and note the invidious erosion of democratic rights in the country. The many ways in which dissenting voices are silenced by the state machinery is a wake-up call to all citizens.  Focusing on the FIR filed last month by the Nagpur ATS against Dr. Illina Sen, this editorial raises questions about the impunity with which the police can misuse the law to harass and intimidate people. It subsequently calls to question (as seen in the Binayak Sen case) the endorsement of police repression by the judiciary.

The Case

       Illina Sen (Coordinator of the 13th National Conference of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies, IAWS, and Head, Department of Women’s Studies, Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Viswavidyalaya, Wardha) was charged under Section 7 and 14 of the Foreigners Act. These sections mandate that the hotel managements and those who host foreigners for remuneration will furnish information about the residents to the Police under “Form C” of the Act. The First Information Report (FIR) filed by the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) Nagpur Unit notes that the “Form C” as prescribed under the Foreigners Act was not filed by the University.

        Since the Act is applicable only to persons who furnish lodging to foreigners, the grounds on which Illina Sen is charged in untenable; particularly since the IAWS has taken prior clearance from the Home Ministry for the participants from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Currently, the IAWS with the backing and support of the various feminist groups in the country are lobbying to get the FIR squashed. It appears that although the Home Ministry at the Centre has asked that the charges be withdrawn, the Maharashtra Government is yet to act upon it.

Silencing Dissent

        The flimsy grounds on which the FIR was charged is a point of concern to all of us: For it is apparent the charges were levied in order to intimidate the 700 participants of the conference who were raising slogans against the arrest and detention of Dr. Binayak Sen and the Dalit Activist Sudhir Dhawle.  The purpose of singling out Illina Sen is also evident: It is in order to intimidate her and thwart her efforts for the release of her husband Binayak Sen, who has been convicted recently by a Raipur Court for helping Maoists.

          Binayak Sen, a medical doctor and civil rights activist was arrested in May 2007 on charges of sedition and conspiracy against the state under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. His repeated bail applications were rejected until May 2009, when he was only released because of mounting national and international pressure. He has since then been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment along with his co-accused Narayan Sanyal and Piyush Guha by the Raipur District and Sessions Court under 124 A and 120 B of the Indian Penal Code and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act.  The matter is currently pending in Bilaspur High Court.

  Concerns about Draconian Laws

      The arrest detention and conviction of Binayak Sen and the harassment to which Illina is subjected indicates the sweeping powers that the state arrogates to itself.  The case against Binayak Sen rests on trumped up charges. He was arrested because he met Narayan Sanyal 33 times in Raipur jail, although it was with prior police permission and supervision. The material evidence against Binayak Sen consists of a post card from Narayan Sanyal regarding his health, duly vetted by the jail authorities. Additionally, it comprises Maoist literature given to him by Narayan Sanyal  and Marx’s Das Kapital.  Since, these by any stretch of imagination can be construed as seditious, the reasons for his arrest lies elsewhere. Binayak Sen has been very vocal in his protest against state atrocities in the name of anti Naxalite operations, particularly the vigilante groups established by the state to tackle terrorism. The state, in other words, feels threatened by dissent.

         Therefore, there is something wrong in the logic of the Indian state: for persons who drain the country’s exchequer of mind boggling sums of money get bail and are in course of time released on technical ground, while those who speak out for the poor and work for them are penalized.

     The whole sequence of events following the arrest of Binayak Sen to the FIR against Illina Sen indicates the blatant disregard the due process of law by the state machinery. The numerous draconian laws against dissent enacted across the country are all examples of growing repression by the state of all forces opposed to its policies of development. If this could happen to well-known people like Binayak and Illina Sen who have received national and international support, one can understand the situation of the poor, nameless people accused of sedition and held in detention.

         It is apparent, that this kind of brutal repression is inevitable in a socio-economic order where in the business interests collude with state power to exploit and pillage the rich forest and mineral resources. Chattisgarh, one of the resource rich regions of India, has attracted the rapacious interest of national and international firms. When the poor tribal communities protest against such plunder and fight to protect their way of life, they are met with brutal repression.

Veena R. Poonacha