My first meeting with Ilina Sen was when I visited Dr Binayak Sen for an interview at Christian Medical College, Vellore in June 2009. After two years in a Chhatisgarh jail Binayak Sen had been admitted in the hospital for a heart surgery. He was quite drained out, and it was Ilina who filled in the details and even completed many an answer for her husband. Neither of them was keen to dwell on personal problems or the physical and mental trauma they had undergone. I had found Ilina to be a person with strength and determination. She had seen me out of the hospital room with a warm hug.

Dr Ilina Sen currently heads the Department of Women’s Studies in Mahatma Gandhi University, Wardha, Maharashtra. Pic: The Quest.

Nineteen months on, Ilina is unable to reconcile with the fact that Binayak has been sentenced to rigorous life imprisonment for sedition and conspiracy against the state. She is distressed by the denial of justice and the invectives of the lower court. But her words have not lost their fire and firmness.

On 26 January, in a letter to those who support the campaign for the release of Binayak Sen, she wrote: “Dear Friends, as we celebrate 61 years of India becoming a Socialist Democratic Republic we are shocked to witness that the spirit of our Constitution stands violated every so often today, sacrificing people's democratic rights and throttling the socialist dream of our Constitution makers.”

In this interview, Dr Ilina Sen, well-known social activist and feminist scholar, who currently heads the Department of Women’s Studies in Mahatma Gandhi University, Wardha in Maharashtra speaks in detail about the trail, verdict and expresses her anxiety about the diminishing space of democracy.

"I do not want to be another martyr, another reluctant heroine. If I have to leave (India) for survival, I will."

Dr Binayak Sen has completed more than a month in the second phase of his imprisonment. What is his condition in the jail? Are you allowed to visit him regularly?

I have only seen him once, on the 27th. As a convicted prisoner, he has fewer rights, and can have visitors only once in 15 days. I was told that he is in a maximum security cell. This is a small courtyard with five cells (cages with iron grills like in the older zoos), in which Binayak, Piyush, Sanyal and three others are kept.

In 24 hours, they are let out only for six hours into the courtyard, and meet no one else except each other and the guards. One newspaper is given to Sanyal, with ‘sensitive’ news cut out, none yet for Binayak. I do not know the legality of this but know that this kind of treatment for a prolonged period can drive one to insanity. The jail superintendent refused to discuss prison conditions with us, and said they would be having a meeting to discuss how the enemies of the state were to be kept.

What is the current state of the case? It could be really a testing time for you.

We have filed an appeal in the high court against the verdict of the district sessions court. The hearing for the suspension of the sentence is going on. It is not a testing time for us alone but more for our political and judicial systems, which are on trial for accountability, rationality, justice and equity.

Was the verdict totally unexpected? Or during the trial, at any stage, had you felt the judgment is going to be harsh?

We were aware of the way in which the police kept proclaiming that there was pacca sabut (definitive evidence) against Binayak, even when nothing was turning up in court. Sometime in 2009, a spiral bound book with highlights of the evidence from our computer was presented to the court. This had bloomers like my supposed correspondence with the ISI (Indian Social Institute), invitation from Apoorvanand, professor at Delhi University to a ‘resistance’ conference, and a remark from a friend that ‘there is a chimpanzee in the White House.

Much of this was funny, and we felt the prosecution was resorting to this because there was no evidence to be found. We realized that this trial had become an embarrassment for the state of Chhatisgarh, so we felt that a conviction on some public security act related offence, with a sentence covering the two years he had already spent in jail, may be an outcome that would save the state’s face. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this conviction for sedition, and the sentence of a life in prison.

For the last three years you have been going through tremendous emotional and physical trauma.

This has been a complete nightmare - beginning with Binayak’s arrest and the vilification campaign against both of us. There is no letting up even now. The local press has served as a complete tool of the police - I do not know how to explain this. Perhaps this is paid news, perhaps an example of a backward and sectarian consciousness. I am deeply affected by this humiliation and loss of image, and also worried because Binayak’s crucifixion was preceded by exactly this kind of campaign against him. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, quite possibly a result in some way of the enormous physical and mental trauma I had undergone. I have had six cycles of chemotherapy, and am better now.

What is the society’s response to you and your daughters while Binayak is away in jail? Any changes in the attitude of your friends and relatives? Is there any tendency to keep your family at a distance?

In the middle class colony where we have our home in Raipur, there is a definite turning away of face among our neighbours. Many causal acquaintances refuse to make eye contact. But friends and relatives who have known us well have stood by staunchly in support, as have Binayak’s patients from among the workers and the tribal community where he worked.

Did you and your children have to face harassment from the police?

All the time. The state government and the police would like to finish Binayak, his work and his family. I was threatened in court once when I was arguing to be able to speak with Binayak with the police guard who had brought Binayak to court, by the investigating officer that I too would be ‘phansaod’in a naxal case.

A few days ago, a case has been registered against you by the Maharashtra government.What was the context for this case?

It was a totally misconceived case under Foreigners Act. The case was registered immediately after after the three-day national conference organized by the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS) at Wardha during the last week of January. I am an executive member of the IAWS. There were three foreigners as the invited plenary speakers. Zahida Hina from Pakistan, Shahina Akhtar from Bangladesh and Penniya from Sri Lanka. For these three foreign invitees, we had taken all clearances from the Central Ministries of Home, External Affairs and Women and Child Development. Even then, the police entered into Yatri Niwas at 2.30 in the morning where a large number of women participants, who were mainly students and teachers from universities across the country, were staying.

Are you liable for not informing the police about the foreign invitees?

No. Under this Act hotels and commercial places of residence are liable for not registering foreigners with the police , but not private citizens. What is interesting is that the case against me was filed by the Anti Terrorism Squad from Nagpur, not the Wardha police. It is not clear how they come into the picture. Anyway, because of the public pressure, no one actually contacted or touched me.

The Home Ministry has now issued a statement saying they are asking the Maharashtra government to take the case back, but I have no idea whether they have actually done so. My understanding is that once a case has been filed it can only be resolved through the magistrate's court.

Were you present in the court during Binayak’s trials that ended up in the sentence for rigorous life imprisonment? Had there been any efforts to influence your lawyer?

I was present during major chunks of the trial but not the entire thing. It was an unfair prosecution. Throughout the trial there were references made to me, although I was not an accused and was not being tried. I do not think any one influenced our lawyers. They were very dedicated, and did a great job. We lost the case not because we had bad lawyers, but because we had an unfair judiciary that was intimidated by the severe police pressure that was brought to bear on the court.

What were the evidences against Binayak? Were the evidences strong enough to force the court to deliver such judgment? How could the court establish Binayak had close association with maoists?

There was no evidence. His meetings with Piyush were disproved in court, the jailors who were present during his meetings with Sanyal were categorical that the letters could not have exchanged hands, an unsigned letter from the CPI Maoist, which the police claimed was seized from our house, was a plant. It was not signed by Binayak or the investigating officer as were other seized items, and was not part of the seizure memo. Despite this the court followed the allegations of the charge sheet.

The judgment says Rupantar (An NGO founded by Dr Binayak and Ilina Sen) employed the hard core Maoists Shankar Singh and Amita. In fact, who are they? Do they have any connection with the Maoists? And what about Malti?

Shankar Singh worked with Rupantar in 2004 and 2005.We had first met him at the Asia Social Forum in Hyderabad at a dalit workshop. He said he worked with the railways, but wanted to work in the NGO sector. He came to Raipur, and asked whether he could work with Rupantar. He helped us with the urban slum teaching. He went home for Diwali in 2005, and called from somewhere in Uttar Pradesh that he would not be returning since his father had unexpectedly died.

Amita had been working (according to police evidence) for sometime in Raipur, before she met me with the reference of her research guide, Prof Lalbahadur Verma, who is known to me. Since she was looking for work, I suggested she try the school where my daughters studied. She got his job, and apparently disappeared under mysterious circumstances. She must have visited my home a total of five or six times. The police say Shankar and Amita were hardcore naxalites but have provided no proof of this. They have not shown them as charged or convicted with any offence anywhere in India.

A woman named Shanti Priya alias Malti was convicted in a Raipur court of a naxal related offence. The police claim that she is the wife of a big naxal leader. The police a;so claim that one Malti who is mentioned in a Rupantar document is this same Malti. Our defence witness had clarified that Malti who worked for Rupantar was Malti Jadhav, and gave her address. But this was not taken into account by the court.

Do you feel the judgment is a part of a larger conspiracy?

I definitely think so.

In connection with Binayak’s conviction, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram’s response to the media was “those who respect democracy should respect the processes of democracy, and those who respect law should respect the processes of law.” What do you think about his comment?

I would like to believe in the legal system, and that is why we have gone through this trial which turned out to be a kangaroo trial, and are in the process of fighting for bail. Had we not believed in the rule of law as well as Binayak’s innocence, it would have been so easy to jump bail after 2009. However, in a democracy, we have a right to maintain a critical watch on the judicial system.

I had visited Bastar last year and felt fear and suspicion was looming in the atmosphere. Everybody, including NGOs, was scared to speak openly. After Binayak’s conviction the situation must have worsened?

Chhatisgarh is a highly paranoid police state. I don’t think people from Kerala or elsewhere can even understand what it is like unless they have been there.

It has been a decade since the state of Chhatisgarh was formed for the development if the tribes. But now what is really happening there?

Chhatisgarh is a highly paranoid police state, says Ilina Sen. Pic: The Quest.

The tragedy is that Chhatisgarh had many examples of people-centred development pioneered by organizations like Chhatisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh as well as small NGOs. Unfortunately, the new state chose to ignore these efforts and concentrated on a strategy of mega development based on mining and industrialization, this has led to large-scale displacement, including displacement of tribals and loss of livelihood. You cannot preserve adivasi lifestyle, merely by showcasing dances at republic day parades.

In 2010, sedition cases were registered against six prominent persons, including Binayak and Arundhati Roy. Others were also human right activists.

I think the sedition law was the creation of a colonial state, which has itself scrapped it now. It is a sad situation when people who speak against unequal growth and human rights violations are termed seditious.

In recent years many stringent legislations have been passed in the country in the name of combating terrorism. Are they really necessary?

I think we would not need these laws if we had more inclusive growth, and greater space for democratic dissent.

Do you feel democracy is slowly eroding in India, especially in the central India?

I do feel so, but is not only in central India.

Can we say, in Chhatisgarh, all the four pillars of democracy are now in the grip of big corporates?

Yes, of the corporates, and a collusive, intolerant government.

Then, how come that the Raman Singh government got elected again in the state? How do they manage to win elections? Do they enjoy the support of the public?

A large part of the middle class is now completely self-centred. They are in the grip of virulent consumerism. They are shockingly indifferent towards the issues around them. Also, there are large-scale electoral rigging especially in tribal regions like Bastar. There have been many reports of rigged and fake elections.

The court termed you an international terrorist. What provoked the court to deliver such comment?

The film Khuda Keliye portrays exactly this phenomenon. Perhaps the general education of the court leaves a lot to be desired.

This comment will definitely affect your future life. Will you move the upper court to get this comment removed?

At the moment I am fighting for Binayak's release. The case has been admitted for criminal appeal in the high court. If there is any justice left in India, the entire judgment including uncalled for remarks like this will be overturned through appeal.

In an interview given to an English newspaper you said you might seek political refuge somewhere outside India. Do you feel India is not a place for those who believe in democracy?

What I said was that I had a deep sense of insecurity and might be left with no choice but to seek asylum in a liberal democratic country. I have loved India deeply, and spent my entire working life here out of choice. Now the ultra nationalists are at my throat about my remark. I want to repeat that I do not need a certificate in patriotism from anyone.

There is a definite decline in constitutional values in public life - I do not want to leave India. I always feel uncomfortable when I am in foreign streets. At the same time, I do not want to be another martyr, another reluctant heroine. If I have to leave for survival, I will.

What are you planning to do now?

Fight the case, try to stay alive, try to maintain hope that I will live again with Binayak in my lifetime.