Saturday, December 27, 2014

Book Excerpt: After Being Jailed, The Nightmare For Chhatisgarh's Dr.Binayak Sen’s Most Disturbed Family

In her book ‘Inside Chhattisgarh’, Dr Binayak Sen’s wife Ilina Sen talks of their lives as activists and the persecution they were subjected to.

On December 24, 2010, Binayak Sen, the Chhattisgarh-based doctor, public health specialist and activist, was convicted of sedition by a Raipur Sessions Court and sentenced to life imprisonment. The Supreme Court granted him bail on April 15, 2011, and his appeal against his conviction is still pending. His wife and fellow-activist Ilina Sen recounts the early days of the nightmare. 

How did this entanglement with the courts and police, and the prosecution begin? I am taken back to 5 May 2007, when the peace of our annual summer retreat to Kolkata and Kalyani with the girls, to the two grandmothers, was shattered by a call from Rupa Guha claiming that her businessman husband, Pijush, had gone missing from Raipur and there was no news of him since 1 May.

She called on Binayak’s cell phone, seeking his assistance in his capacity as general secretary of the Chhattisgarh state unit of the PUCL in tracing Pijush. Binayak told her that he was not in Chhattisgarh - in fact, he was in her city - and that she should call up Rajendra Sail (then state president of PUCL) in Raipur. Rupa appears to have done so, and Sail, having failed to find any trace of Pijush, issued a press statement about this on 6 May.

The same evening, at a police press conference, Pijush was produced and a story put out that he had been captured under suspicious circumstances with sandehajanak (suspicious) literature, and had made a statement to the police that certain letters he was carrying were, in fact, written by jailed Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal, and had been couriered from jail and delivered to him by Dr Binayak Sen. 

Over the next two days, several friends from Raipur called Binayak, as did journalists, to find out what he had to say about the story. To all queries, Binayak had one answer. That he was coming back in a few days to clear up the misunderstanding, that there was no question of delivering letters to Pijush, because he (Binayak) had been in Kolkata since 1 May, and that anyone who required a clarification was welcome to call him on his cell phone. At his insistence, his cell number was printed in a Raipur newspaper.

Not only did no one officially call him, but the rumours from Raipur also continued to gather steam. Finally, as his planned departure drew closer, Binayak agreed, on the advice of friends, to detrain at Bilaspur, en route to Raipur, to discuss the possibility of anticipatory bail with Sudha Bharadwaj, a lawyer and member of the PUCL.

I was not travelling with him, since I had planned to fulfil a longstanding promise to my mother to take her to north Bengal. In an inspired moment, we changed the tickets of our daughters, earlier slated to go with Binayak, to travel back to Chhattisgarh with me on the 17th, while Binayak took the train alone on the 13th, the same night that I left with my mother for Malda.

I got the news of Binayak’s arrest after a morning spent exploring the ruins of Bengal’s old capital, Gour. Binayak had alighted at Bilaspur, gone to Sudha’s office and just begun to discuss the matter, when a police constable appeared at the door with a message that the thanedar (head) of Tarbahar police station wanted to see him for a discussion. From Sudha’s account, Binayak joked about it with the constable and asked him if this was an arrest warrant. Sudha and Binayak went to the police station in an autorickshaw, and the officer there welcomed them with tea and chatted with them as they waited for “senior officers” who were the ones apparently interested to see him.

After about an hour of this, there was a call on the office phone. The tenor and tone of the officer suddenly changed as he ordered Binayak to move over to the side, and declared that he was placing him under arrest. All of this was conveyed to me by Sudha shortly after; she then proceeded to mobilize friends who could follow the police party and Binayak to the magistrate’s court for the formal remand. It was the 14th of May.

The tailspin into which our world descended began that hot afternoon as I texted friends in Chhattisgarh and beyond from my handset, and as their responses began to come in. Although Binayak had gone to the police station of his own accord, and had literally walked into his arrest, media reports in Chhattisgarh in the following days described the arrest as the result of a dabish (raid) at the home of his lawyer. This was the beginning of my Kafkaesque existence.

I have hazy memories of completing the tour — a funny one, of the manager of the hotel we stayed at requesting me to say a few words of promotion for his facility to the electronic media that caught up with me in Malda; and a disturbing memory, of explaining everything to my daughters who had stayed back at the family home in Kalyani with Binayak’s mother. As we left for Raipur, we got the news that our house had been sealed following a police attempt to search our home and failure to open the front door without the key (which was with me).

Coming into Raipur on 17 May, we were met with TV cameras even as we sought refuge in a friend’s house (we could not get into our own!). Over the next couple of hours and days — as we negotiated the magistrate’s court, where I first saw Binayak in custody, visited him in jail and accepted the notice for a house search in my presence on 19 May — I began to realize that our days of wandering unchecked and free in our city, of dropping into favourite haunts and chatting with friends were probably gone forever.

In the coming days, weeks and months, we “settled” into the totally unsettling pattern of fielding phone calls at all hours of the day and night, answering the same media questions again and again, preparing and circulating information handouts, planning and putting into place the legal action.

Our initial simplistic assumption that the case was bound to be dismissed fairly soon proved to be far off the mark. Every day the papers carried sensational speculations about Binayak’s involvement in anti-national activities, of his masterminding various terror attacks. His brother, his wife, Rupantar (the organizational platform that we had created) were all painted by the media in pitch black. The first bail application in the court of the district judge was rejected. I still remember the manner in which the lawyers crowding the courtroom on this occasion looked at me—it was one of my first lessons as a pariah, my newfound identity.

Our friends contacted Nitya Ramakrishnan, a Delhi-based lawyer, who was a tower of support throughout this traumatic period, and she came to Raipur to work on the legal strategy. Talking to Binayak on a court date outside the court lock-up, she tried to give us a realistic assessment of the situation. She said it would take her two to three months to get the bail through the High Court.

Three months seemed like an unbearably long time then, but we had no way of guessing what the future held for us. Perhaps this was just as well, because if someone had told me at that stage that this nightmare would stretch into the next decade (and perhaps into the next and beyond), I am not sure I would have had the courage to go on.

Our home in Raipur was searched — and vandalized in a police search — a few days after I got there. A legal notice was issued to me. I pressed for a special order to be obtained from the magistrate, allowing me to videograph the search. The search process itself was an experience: I found my daughter’s algebra notebooks being closely examined for codes, and being asked why there were so many maps in the house. The plain truth was that I loved travel and, through maps and travel magazines, I tried to pursue an interest that my material circumstances did not allow me to indulge in. Of course, this was not even a conceivable answer to give them.

The ferociousness of the media in Raipur, and the averted glances of long-time acquaintances were at first the hardest to deal with. The loss of respectability — the sudden descent to tum from aap, to woh from weh, when addressing or referring to Binayak was hard too, although I think he managed to cope with it better than me.

We had to endure a virulent media trial by the local press. Right from the time of the arrest, Binayak was portrayed as a dangerous criminal, the kingpin of the Naxalite “urban network” and the mastermind of the Maoists. The newspapers reported sensational details of how he used to hold “meetings of the Maoists”, and how his “near relations” were also suspect.

Reading morbid reports like these every morning while in Raipur was extremely distressing. Having to live with them was worse. Rereading them today, however, one is struck by the element of absurdity in them, bordering on black humour. At the time, it was hard to deal with them and also to do all that was required to keep the legal action going, and to balance work and family.

How can one forget the massive police presence (both in uniform and plain clothes) during the court dates; the bag searches and identity checks before entering court; or how the grocery shop owner, known to us for over fifteen years, dived behind the counter at the sight of my daughters and me, when we went to buy things after getting back possession of our house—these are all snapshots of this time.

Slowly, we settled into living in that hostile environment. Over time, the hostility also lost some of its edge. Sometime after 2008, the national media slowly picked up the case, and a more sympathetic series of accounts began to appear. There were reports in the Hindustan Times, and then the Tehelka report, “No country for good men”, was the first to examine in some detail the thin layer of evidence in the case.

Once summer was over, I moved back to Wardha to get on with my teaching at Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, a Central university. I began to lead a truly fragmented life, switching on and off my identities and roles, as I took the train to Raipur and back to Wardha. In the middle of all of this, Binayak resigned himself to life in jail, and we tried to come to terms with the realization that this was no misunderstanding that would get cleared up in a few days. We were, in fact, in for a long, long haul.

I was at this time teaching MA and MPhil classes in the Women’s Studies department, which was understaffed. Often I prepared for Monday’s lectures on the Sunday night train to Nagpur (and Wardha), and read the case files on the Friday evening train from Wardha to Raipur, to be able to instruct the lawyers.

During the week, there were incessant phone calls from Raipur about the police investigation and court proceedings, such as the time we suddenly learnt that our computer, seized by the police, was being sent to the Forensic Science Laboratory at Hyderabad for examination. Since we had taken permission from the magistrate earlier for our lawyer to be present when the computer was examined, we had to swiftly organize a computer- savvy lawyer who could rush to Hyderabad.

Our daughters coped with all this as well as they could. At the time of Binayak’s arrest, our elder daughter, studying fine arts at the Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidyalaya at Khairagarh in north Chhattisgarh, had one more year to go before she finished her graduation. I took her back to college in July while exploring at the same time the possibility of moving her out of Chhattisgarh, where her father was being portrayed as a serious public enemy.

Once we were there, her teachers and peers, however, turned out to be extremely supportive and talked me out of disturbing her, assuring me that they would ensure her safety. With their support, and the support of the parents of her closest friend, she managed to complete her degree, despite some rough patches.

Once when she was staying alone at the Raipur house for a few days, she found anonymous letters inside the morning newspapers on several days successively, saying that “they” were aware that she was staying alone, that “they” knew exactly which bus she took to go to college, and that “they” would “take care” of her in “their” own time.

Our younger daughter had just written her secondary school examination when Binayak was taken to jail. For junior college, I moved her to Wardha with me, but this too was not a simple proposition. In a new city, having to make new friends and in an unsettled condition herself, she found that I was travelling all the time, and that she was obliged to fend for herself.

Three months into this, we decided together that we would somehow get through the year and then move her to a residential girls’ college in Mumbai to complete junior college. I stayed on alone at Wardha, struggling to maintain normalcy in difficult times.

(Excerpted with permission from Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir, Ilina Sen, Penguin Books.)

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