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Should Binayak Sen’s Wife Seek Asylum?

By Farzana Versey

04 January, 2011

She is a quiet lady who shares her husband’s beliefs. Binayak Sen has been sentenced to life imprisonment on the flimsy charge of acting as a courier for a Maoist. I was, therefore, surprised when Ilina Sen, mentioned at a meeting organised by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) about seeking asylum outside India. “The political establishment in Chhattisgarh is against us. We are not safe here. I have two daughters, one 25 and the other 20 years old. Our phones are tapped, we are followed. We want to live. But if we don’t get justice now, I’ll have to seek political asylum in some other country.”

There will be many countries that will offer it to her. Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen had the West ready to keep her, but she tired of the climate and did not feel comfortable, so she came to India, Kolkata specifically, because it felt like home. In India she keeps creating the occasional noise by making controversial statements to stay in the news. However, her reason for exile is that her country will not have her.

Ilina Sen is indeed leading an imprisoned life in many ways but has there been a threat to her life or to her daughters? If that is so, she should file a police complaint. One might well say that the cops are hardly likely to help someone whose husband is serving a sentence for sedition. She can take recourse to the courts. Her phones are tapped and that should not come as a surprise. Is not the world applauding WikiLeaks and the Radia tapes for exposing scams? Governments have always kept a hawk’s eye vigil on anyone who does not toe their lines. We do not live in a world where privacy is guaranteed, especially not if there is a question mark regarding our allegiance. When she mentions a “liberal and democratic” country that would be her destination, she must know that the liberal need not be democratic.

Asylum seekers can become symbols for other regimes to flaunt liberalism when their own record isn’t quite so clean. I am aware that India is flawed in more ways than one can count. She and her husband have suffered. She will get a taste of the liberalism in a foreign country because she won’t be battling any forces there. She will be the recipient of their generosity. Personally, I understand her. As a belief, it negates what the Sens have stood for.

The fact is that the Naxals have given a call for a bandh on January 5 to protest the life term for Binayak Sen. This is the grassroots speaking. He may not be a Maoist – and even if he is, the state has no business to target people only because of their beliefs unless they actively participate in causing civil unrest – but he has been bracketed with them. Some of the tribals are most certainly Naxals but they may not even agree with the ideologues that have been thrust on them.

The intellectualisation of any movement has validity only to the extent of tracing its history and expressing those viewpoints. The Dalit poets and writers are themselves Dalit and have worked actively among their people. When outsiders took up for them it was an academic exercise or to portray their sufferings. The Maoist movement, on the other hand, has been taken over by these lobbies and it does more harm to the tribal movement. The fight for land and against corporatisation does not need an ideology; it is a matter of survival and space. This is how it would have been until it became a topic to be discussed and sedition became an over-the-counter drug for ailing egos.

That has been the unfortunate problem with the activist culture in India. A few hours in the slammer ensure instant sainthood, and like prophets who have had to fight a few stones hurled at them their agony only gets intensified. Binayak Sen spent almost all of his working life among the tribals in Chhattisgarh to do what he was trained to do – practise medicine. He is an educated man and could have been a part of the Bengali bhadralok (high caste elite) to which he belonged. Like most people from such a background, his sympathies were with the Left; it may have been with a political party or merely a political thought. There is something almost touching about the manner in which Marxism is upheld in a state that still suffers from the Raj hangover, seen in the vestiges of its clubs, its monuments and its anglicised cocoon that insists on wearing local dress but sticks a cigar in the mouth and riffles through the great Russian classics as Wagner plays on an old gramophone.

I recreate this scene because it is heartbreaking that Dr. Sen could leave it all and find new ways to improve the lives of the tribals. He is not the first one and he won’t be the last. The difference is that the state has sentenced him to life imprisonment for sedition, for carrying letters that were supposedly against the state to a septuagenarian imprisoned man, Narayan Sanyal, who belongs to a banned party, the Communist Party of India (Maoist). This is utterly ridiculous when we have cases of underworld dons conducting their nefarious activities from within the jails, and it includes causing bomb blasts; there are cases of such criminals contesting elections and winning them; there are cases of police connivance in providing them with VIP facilities – these goons have access to mobile phones but books taken for Binayak Sen will be screened. By now a lot has been written about the absolutely shaky pretext on which he has been charged; some of the concerned people have come forth to say that because of their support for him they too should be jailed. This is an utter mockery of what he has stood for – he was not shouting from the podium and writing reams against the state; he incited no one to take to violence. One cannot even say that his dissent was intellectual. It was more for social equitability, and all he did to make this possible was to use himself rather than words; he lived by the Hippocratic Oath rather than hyperbole.

In times of exaggeration when you have to be a Tarantino scream to get noticed, Binayak and Ilina Sen have gone way beyond the schisms created by superficially-sanctified ‘isms’. Their fight is not to prove their innocence but the guilt of the state. It can only be done within the shores of their own country and among the people whose lives they sought to make better.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer-columnist. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/