Ilina Sen, Vice-president, People’s Union for Civil Liberties
AS WE remember the clamping down of Emergency on the people of the Republic of India 38 years ago, why is it that our thoughts turn, almost as if drawn by a magnet, to the history of jurisprudence in the city of Allahabad?
The dark history of Emergency, a time when all civil and constitutional freedoms stood suspended, was triggered by a series of events in the corridors of the Allahabad judicial establishment — a time when the judiciary elected not to oblige the political establishment, and countermanded the irregular election of the politician laying claim to the highest office in the country. Although the entire country underwent a trial by fire after this, the public institutions, especially the judiciary, gained hugely in terms of its reputation for independence and fearlessness.
Now, it is another judgment coming out of the judicial corridors of Allahabad that has us mesmerised, and this time for different reasons. The conviction of Seema Azad and Vishwa Vijay under Sections of the Indian Penal Code and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and the sentence of life imprisonment given to them on 9 June has sent shockwaves among Indian citizens.
Many of us did not know them, but their arrests, trial and conviction have once more highlighted the malevolent way in which the internal security laws like the UAPA are used and, more frighteningly, demonstrated the close nexus between the prosecuting agencies and the judicial system. The independence of the judicial process, on which we once prided ourselves, is nowhere in evidence.
This shows how a large number of half-truths can convert citizens into public enemies
The lengthy judgment convicting and sentencing Seema and her husband on charges of waging war against the State rests on the evidence of 14 witnesses, 12 of whom are police personnel involved in their arrest and its documentation, and two others are officials belonging to the telephone department. There is not a single public witness, and in a sense, this is fair enough because there is nowhere any mention of anything to be witness to. No act of violence or criminality is alleged anywhere, in which they are supposed to have been involved. The items seized from them and sealed after their arrest have been illegally opened in the police station “for inspection”, and they are assumed to be responsible for certain literature that is critical of State policy only on the grounds that this was found in their house. Nowhere is there any specific act or deed that endangers the State even attributed to them, and their conviction on serious national security charges is entirely on the basis of generalities. The court’s conclusion can only be explained by the fact that it refused to assume the innocence of the accused.
The judgment pronounced by the Allahabad sessions court in the case of Seema Azad and Vishwa Vijay is a perfect example of how, in the name of combating terrorism or Maoism, a large number of half-truths, inadmissible evidence, procedural violations and an archaic piece of legislation can convert legitimate citizens into public enemies.
The implied embargo on reading critical literature goes against the spirit of our Constitution, and if judicial pronouncements of this nature are allowed to pass into the realm of acceptability, we are really at the verge of a second Emergency, with our rights and spaces suspended. The Indian people will no doubt resist this attempt to curtail their constitutional rights; but this time round, do we have the judiciary with us in our struggle?