The Binayak Sen trial has thrown a lot of questions to the civil society which feels the space to dissent within the Indian democracy – prided as the largest in the world – is shrinking. The state has started the trend of bracketing debate and dissent as seditious. Author-activist Arundhati Roy started the recent sedition debate with her statement on Kashmir. Here is the full text of an interview with Roy after Binayak Sen was sentenced to life for his alleged Maoist links. She was interviewed by Rupashree Nanda:
What was your first reaction when you heard that Binayak Sen and two others have been convicted for sedition and life sentence has been awarded to them?
I was not expecting the judgment to be fair but I was taken aback at the extent of the unfairness. In a sense, it seemed as though the evidence produced in the court and the judgment were just not connected to each other. My reaction was that in some way it was a declaration… it wasn't a judgment it was a declaration of intent, it was a message and it was a warning to others. So that works in two ways. The warning will be taken into account of. I think perhaps people who passed this judgment were not expecting that it would unite people in outrage the way it has done.
Why didn't you expect a fair judgment?
We have been following this case for some years now. The reporting of the trial was coming through. The fact that some of the evidence was fabricated, what evidence there was, was so weak… even Narayan Sanyal who seems to be the kingpin around who the whole sedition case was built up wasn't accused of sedition when Binayak was arrested. So there is an atmosphere of prejudice and I think what is really worrying is that the infrastructure of democracy, the courts, the media is being rented out to the mob. Whichever side you are on, whether you are a corporate, business man, middle-class, Hindutva or not – it is something that anybody who has any kind of affection should be worried about.
Many believe that stringent laws like CSPSA, UAPA, and sedition are needed to fight terror? Do you think that the state can ever walk the tightrope between protection democratic rights and safeguarding against terror? Is that a fair expectation?
The definition of terror is a loose one. We can argue about that. But such laws have always been there, whether it is TADA or POTA. If you look at the history, how many people have been convicted among the accused… it is 1% or 0.1 %. Because people who are really outlaws, either rebels or terrorists are not interested in the laws. So those laws are almost always used against those who are not terrorists or not outlaws in some way. And this is beyond Binayak Sen. Point is, if you are talking lets say about the Maoists who are a banned party… why are they banned ? Because they believe in violence – but today's papers talk about Hindutva elements being involved in the Samjhauta blast. Even mainstream political parties have been involved in acts of heinous violence, even amounting to genocide but they are not banned. So what you choose to ban, what you choose not to ban all these things are political decisions.
Today, the situation is it is the government and the economic policies which are actively performing anti- constitutional activity. They are the ones who are going against PESA ( Panchayat Extension Scheduled Areas Act ), they are the ones whose economic policies are resulting in displacement, in 800 million people living under 20 rupees a day, in 17000 farmers committing suicide in a year…
But does that justify violence. A CNN IBN poll had shown that a majority of people sympathized with the Maoist cause but disagreed with their methods. And yes mainstream political parties do indulge in violence, but they do not say that in their manifestos? There is a difference?
Yes, I agree there is a crucial difference. One can question the methods of the Maoists of course. But I am trying to say that these laws are so loose and, so draconian that you and I and everybody are a criminal. It does not work for Maoists it works for those who are not Maoists. It criminalizes democratic activity and pushes more and more people outside the pale of the law. . So it is actually counter productive in the end. If you have somebody who is indulging in violence, you have plenty of ordinary laws to deal with that. So to have laws where even the tendency to cause disaffection against the state is a crime and an offense means that all of us are criminals.
What would be an adequate safeguard?
See, I think you got to understand that all this stems from a people's lack of faith in institutions of the state, from a people who are beginning to believe that they can expect no justice from any democratic institutions. So there are no quick fixes. You have to signal to the people that you are taking cognizance of their dissent and that you are prepared to change tack. Otherwise, you are going to have a situation in which you polarize things, you create a violent atmosphere, you have a police state or a military state… and that is not going to benefit anyone. Because you cannot impoverish 800 million people and expect to be secure. It won't happen.
More and more people are being charged and convicted for sedition.
You are creating a situation where your definition of what constitutes anti-national and what is the definition of doing something for the greater common good are completely conflicted and corrupted. A man like Bin yak Sen who worked amongst the poorest of the poor is a criminal and those who have scammed 175,000 cores of the public exchequer with the help of the judiciary, the media and everybody else… there is a little tut-tut and everyone is going about their lives, their farm houses, their BMWs. So the definition of anti-national activity is itself corrupted now. Anyone who is talking about justice is being called a Maoist. You have a whole spectrum of people's movements that are challenging policies that are leading to this kind of dispossession and this kind of displacement and this kind of terrible despair among people. So it is a word game. Who decides what is in the national good.
There is an FIR in Delhi against you too …do you fear that you might be charged for sedition?
Well, right now it is just private parties. The person who filed the case is the non official campaign manager of the BJP. It is not the state that is doing it and I don't want to overreact or make myself a martyr. In the case of Binayak and hundreds of others who are in jail, the process is the punishment… their lives have been destroyed. Even if he will be released on bail, he will be impoverished by legal fees. He has been made to give up his practice doing the great work he has been doing. It is a way of silencing you, tripping you up, choking off the air supply and it is very, very worrying.
Have you ever seen things so bad? People are scared of who they are meeting, who they are talking to?
Listen, in places like Kashmir and Manipur it's been like this for years… now the fact is that it is seeping into the heart of the capital, it is seeping into our lovely drawing rooms. And that is a very worrying sign – but its been happening in Bastar for years now.
As a writer, how would you sum up the climate we live in today?
My point is that these set of policies cannot be implemented and pushed through without us turning into a police or a military state. We have heard the Radian tapes, and the scandal about 2 G has been exposed. But the scandal about the privatization of the natural resources is equally great with a much greater human component. It is arbitrary. It is people jumping of their treadmill and saying that you'll take the coal, you'll take the gas, and you'll take the housing. So we are a nation in crisis. And if we are going to put a black executioner's hood over all the people who are blowing whistles and raising the alarm, they are not people who hate this country. If you go back and read what they have been saying and writing and saying, you will find that they predicted this situation a long time ago. These are people you need to listen to, not send to jail, not sentence to life, and not kill.