An hour's drive from India's eastern metropolis of Kolkata, an 84-year-old woman in a suburban town lives in the hope that her famous son - put behind bars for his alleged connections with the ultra-left Maoist rebels - will walk free one day. Time has stood still for Anusuya Sen ever since her son, Binayak Sen, a doctor and human rights activist, was handed down a life sentence by a sessions court in India's central state of Chhattisgarh in December last year, after he was charged in 2007 with sedition for "acting as a courier of the dreaded Maoist rebels".
Sen, who was on bail since May 2009, was convicted of sedition and conspiracy under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Act, 2005, and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2004, and was sent to jail immediately. Since then it has been a story of repeated legal setbacks for the family and Sen's countless supporters. The latest reversal came when his bail plea was rejected in February by the Chhattisgarh High Court.
The court verdict and related proceedings over Binayak Sen have been perceived by many as a grave miscarriage of justice. A rainbow coalition of human rights groups, civil society activists, intellectuals and even Nobel laureates, has got together to demand a fair trial for the 60-year-old paediatrician of international repute.
Interestingly, some of the strongest voices behind this struggle for justice are those of women. Besides Sen's octogenarian mother, and his wife Ilina - an academic, who has been a pillar of strength for him and the pointsperson in the legal fight for his release - there are innumerable others from different fields, from social activist Medha Patkar to writer Mahasweta Devi and Aparna Sen, one of India's most respected women filmmakers. There's also an unlikely group that has expressed its solidarity - Kolkata's sex workers recently participated enthusiastically in a rally organised in the city for Sen's release. The forums of protest are many. The recent past has seen Facebook campaigns, strong-worded articles in leading news dailies and websites, as well as innumerable street protests. In fact, there is nothing that women haven't done to register their protest.
Sen's mother, Anusuya, is an angry woman today. She says, "I suffer as a mother and could never think that I would undergo this. I want to fight against the laws that keep Binayak behind bars. These laws do not fit in independent India; they are relics of British rule. Every person who has been detained wrongfully like him should be released. We have to move the Supreme Court now and the fight will continue."
Of course, despite their trauma, Sen's family can keep their spirits up largely because of the great support they have received. Says Anusuya, "What keeps me hopeful is this outpouring of support despite the stifling of the freedom of speech." Ilina, too, is overwhelmed by the public outcry and it has strengthened her resolve to carry on the fight, which she leads from her home in Wardha, Maharashtra, where she teaches at the Women's Studies Department of Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University. Says she, "It is like the support we have seen for Myanmar's pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. So we have to carry on. It is not the script I had written for myself but one has to manage this and keep fighting the legal battle."
A reasonable person, Ilina has even accepted the contentions of the group that differs with the supporters of Binayak Sen. "Those opposing my husband [victims of Maoist violence] have a position too and should be taken into account. But Binayak was convicted only on the basis of a chargesheet. There was no witness against him," she argues.
Binayak Sen chose to work among the tribal people of Chhattisgarh ignoring the allurement of wealth as an accomplished doctor. Devoted to human rights activism, he has been the national vice president of People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a rights group that spoke against police atrocities on the poor and oppressed in the state. "He kept telling me that he did no wrong. I think he could not do any wrong. He was serving the underprivileged and this is what he got in return. I feel there is no democracy here," rues Anusuya.
Mahasweta Devi couldn't agree more with Anusuya's observation. She says, "He helped the poor selflessly and that became his offence." Adds the 84-year-old Magsaysay Award winner, "He was not given the right of self-defence and taken to jail. Is this law? We should all spread the protest and sit in demonstration before courts to get him released." At a press meet in Kolkata recently, Mahasweta Devi even egged on the supporters of Sen to go to Raipur and squat before the High Court.
Echoing the veteran writer and social worker's sentiments is actor and filmmaker Aparna Sen. She, too, did not spare anyone in her acerbic open letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, published in a Bengali daily. She questioned how, in a country where even those charged with financial scandals go scot-free, the likes of Binayak Sen can be allowed to suffer in jail. "It is a mockery of democracy. If we remain silent now, we will be condoning fascism," says Aparna. Challenging the silence of the Prime Minister on the issue, she adds, "I cannot imagine how a person who dedicated his lifetime for the oppressed tribal people can be jailed while the fraudsters roam free."
Also putting their weight behind the good doctor were the city's sex workers, who marched in the streets of Kolkata for Sen's freedom. They came forward because they see it as a fight for human rights and dignity of the underprivileged. "We have fought for rights all our life. Here is a man who fights for the poorest of the poor and the tribal people. So we marched for him," says Bharati Dey, secretary of Durbar Mahila Sammanayee Samiti (DMSS), or Forum for Coordination of Unstoppable Women - a collective of 65,000 sex workers in West Bengal.
Amongst the international supporters for Sen is the human rights organisation, Amnesty International, which slammed the life sentence of the activist. "The life sentence handed down against Sen violates international fair trial standards and is likely to inflame tensions in the conflict-affected area," says Sam Zarifi, Amnesty's Asia-Pacific head. "This sentence will seriously intimidate other human rights defenders who would provide a peaceful outlet for the people's grievances."
The Raipur Court's judgment, coming after a trial that lasted nearly three years, sent shock waves throughout India. Today, the fight to set Binayak free has taken a very serious turn, and with women from all walks of life joining in, it is to be hoped that Anusuya and Ilina will be able to put a dark and difficult chapter in their lives behind them.
By arrangement with WFS