His idealism is undiminished but his focus, he says, is staying out of jail
I meet Dr Binayak Sen after five days and some 1,500 kilometres on the roads of south Chhattisgarh. On my last clean shirt, I arrive at the Sen household, in a typical apartment block in Raipur, just past 10 a m, for what I hope will be an insightful session with the controversial doctor and human rights activist. I don’t leave disappointed, writes Devjyot Ghoshal.
It has been a lively chase to land this interview: not only have Sen’s travel plans seemed incredibly fluid, he has been a little reluctant to give me details of his itinerary over the phone. He also wondered why Business Standard would want to interview him. “I have nothing to say about Standard & Poor’s,” he had teased in a deadpan tone.
Eventually, I had to call from Dantewada to confirm the appointment, so it is with some satisfaction that I enter their living room on a searing Monday morning for breakfast. Sen arrives in a plain blue kurta, shortly followed by cheese toast and upma, served on standard-issue steel plates, which are placed on a large, hand-beaten copper disc that is the centre table. There are four wooden chairs in the room, one large bookshelf across an entire wall and two more steel cabinets. It is a house devoid of decadence.
Soon after we start, we are politely interrupted by his wife and colleague, Dr Ilina Sen. The soft-spoken professor asks us to move into an inside room. We shift, plates in hand, Sen paces up and down the room, while his wife and I finish our breakfast. Apart from his father’s profession – he taught pharmacology at the Armed Forces Medical College – his mother’s talent for singing Rabindra Sangeet and a family that adhered to Brahmoism, Sen says he can’t trace any other major influences in his early years.
After studying all over the country, by virtue of his father’s army job, he finished at the Calcutta Boys School. Strangely, he refuses to name the school, instead only saying that M J Akbar was his schoolmate. But ask him about medical school, and the other, somewhat garrulous side of Sen materialises.
“I went to CMC [Christian Medical College] Vellore in 1966 and spent 10 very happy years there,” he says. The affection has been reciprocal. In 2004, CMC awarded him the Paul Harrison award for having “broken the mould, re-defined the possible role of the doctor in a broken and unjust society, holding the cause much more precious than personal safety”.
Between 1976 and 1978 he went to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as an associate fellow only because it offered him a “position in community health based on a pediatrics degree,” he says, with a laugh. It also helped him acquire an understanding of the political economy of health and healthcare, yet what affected him more, but not directly by his own admission, was the Jaiprakash Narayan movement.
Later, Sen quit his job at JNU and joined a group called the Medico Friends Circle, founded by doctors of Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini, a youth outfit part of Narayan’s movement. He then moved to Hoshangabad district in Madhya Pradesh because he wanted to work in a village setting but “didn’t have the confidence to jump off into a fully bucolic existence”.
By now, Sen is sitting comfortably on a chair, one foot over the other. His reticence has evaporated. I get a feeling that these are not things he talks about very often.
His work in Hoshangabad revolved around the Friends Rural Centre, run by the Quakers, where for three years he focused on tuberculosis. He launches into a story about an old Korku adivasi man who came to him for treatment. After diagnosing him with tuberculosis, a 30-year-old Sen insisted that his patient come on time for his next dose of medicines. Yet repeatedly, the man would be late.
“The next visit again he was late, so I lost my temper and shouted at him and he walked out of the clinic. I ran after him, and he said he didn’t have the money for bus fare. I said, I’ll give him the money. But he said ‘you don’t have the right to shout at me. Nothing gives you the right to shout at me’. And he walked away. I have never forgotten that incident,” Sen recalls slowly, his usually robust voice quavering.
Ilina walks in with tea. Sen refuses, but I grab a cup. He tells me that he also joined the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), which claims to be India’s oldest and largest human rights organisation, around this time. It was 1981 or 1982. I am more interested in understanding why a brilliant medical student shunned what could have been a lucrative career to focus on healthcare in the hinterland and human rights. “It was never in the form of repudiation of money, as such. But the involvement in issues was very strong, and whichever direction that involvement went was the direction that we took,” he explains.
PUCL was one such involvement, and it was to investigate the incarceration of trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi that Sen first went to Dalli Rajhara, a town that houses the iron ore mines of the Bhilai Steel Plant.
It became his home for the next 10 years, after Sen found a group of 10,000 mine workers and their families, who wanted to build a community health programme. The military habit of shifting households ensured that no relocation was too difficult. After all, Ilina, too, comes from an army family.
In 1988, the Sen’s moved home to Raipur and by 1991, started work in Dhamtari, headwaters of the Mahanadi, with dam-displaced people. In an area endemic for malaria, they set up a test facility that gave results for the disease within 24 hours; the local government hospital would take 15 days.
From then till his arrest in May 2007, Sen claims that the focus of his clinical work was centred on Dhamtari, but it was the PUCL that took him south.
Starting from around 1995, Sen began travelling through the Naxal belt investigating instances of custodial deaths, torture, rapes, encounter deaths and even dysentery epidemics. When rumours of Salwa Judum started in 2005, the PUCL decided that it was too big to take up alone and went into south Bastar with a platform of human rights organisations.
Their findings didn’t go down well with the government, and the protest against the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act put PUCL and Sen squarely under the scanner. I ask Sen two pointed questions: first, whether he had any communication with the CPI (Maoists) during the investigations and, second, whether there was any element of spontaneity in the early days of the Salwa Judum.
For the first, he takes a long pause and finally says “No”. That’s all. On the origins of the Salwa Judum, Sen says he doesn’t know what happened in the early stages but describes how a former district collector showed him government documents with a year’s budgetary allocation for the movement.
Ilina walks in again just as I bring up the issue of Narayan Sanyal. Sen spent a little over two years in jail on charges of acting as a courier between Sanyal, a Naxal leader, and businessman Piyush Guha. He was also accused of being connected with the CPI (Maoists), the political party representing the Naxal movement.
I want to know whether Sen knew Sanyal’s background. “Not much because I don’t know very much about the antecedents of people who are supposed to be Maoists,” he says, “I have no way of knowing much about it. I don’t have access to internal Maoist documents but I had heard [about his background] by then.”
But Sen did not see his arrest coming. “My main concern was that I had a clinic on May 15 in Dhamtari, so I came back from Kolkata on the 14th and got off at Bilaspur.”
What he describes next is 35 mm material. Two plainclothes policemen approach Sen and ask him to come to the police station; after speaking to the local superintendent on the phone, who said they just wanted to question him, Sen agrees to go to the station; he hails an auto and goes off – at his own cost – accompanied by the cops. After a few hours at the station, he is told that he is under arrest.
“Jail was a learning experience for me because I realised that there were hundreds and thousands of people who were unjustly kept in jail for long periods, their families and lives destroyed,” he recalls.
But then, he also wrote his first article for the Economic and Political Weekly in jail, he guffaws. Ilina is sitting on a chair, intently listening. Ineptly, I enquire whether the entire episode was hard for her. “Yes,” she says, and then sharply adds: “What else do you expect.” Luckily, Sen moved in. “I was the passive part in this whole drama, the active element was Ilina.”
Suddenly, I realise that I have spent close to two hours with the Sens and we’re chatting about democracy in general. I ask him, is India’s most dangerous internal security threat some 400 km down the road about justice and equality? “Yes.”
“If you take away all the resources of people, then resistance is key. If you create a panoply of laws to suppress the resistance and criminalise dissent, you [create a] self-perpetuating system of violence,” he adds.
Sen has somewhere to go, so I ask him my final question: what will Binayak Sen be doing a few years from now? His answer is simple. “I’m going to focus on staying out of jail.”
“My ambition is to spend my remaining years with my wife, my two daughters and the old people in my family for all long as I can,” he adds, after a laugh, “for a person who’s been in jail for any amount of time, staying out of jail is not a minor matter. It’s an important thing.”
As I leave, I overhear that Sen must be on his way to court. He has to get his passport from there. He can’t travel to London to accept the Gandhi International Peace Award without it. For the Indian state, Sen is still a convict.