In Chhattisgarh's theatre of the absurd, nothing should surprise. Not the fact that the genial Director-General of Police (DGP), Vishwa Ranjan, who vigorously defends Salwa Judum—the state-armed militia that has wreaked havoc against poor tribals—has a Husain print of Mother Teresa behind his desk. Or that he considers Binayak Sen a "very good doctor" (clearly, he hasn't read the official chargesheet) even if "a Maoist". Or that, on this particular day—though maybe not on some other day—it's OK for a journalist from Delhi to meet Sen. Or that the jail superintendent at Raipur Central Jail offers not just tea but unsolicited praise for the jail's best known inmate. "I don't know about his vichardhara (views), but he is a sajjan admi (good man)," he says. "You can tell from the way he speaks and the way he carries himself."
More hospitality, in the jailor's room, where I am to meet Sen—but with a tell-tale glimpse of reality. There is a cushioned chair for me, but for the man who has just been awarded the Jonathan Mann prize for global health and human rights, and whose release is being appealed for by 22 Nobel laureates, only a wooden bench. A persistent worry for Sen's wife, Ilina, and his friends is that Sen has lost 20 kilos in jail (and that this is not being investigated by the authorities). And yes, the first impression is of a man far frailer than his pictures suggest—but one with his thoughts soaring way beyond captivity.
The way my first question goes is typical of our conversation. A personal query about the one year spent in prison turns quickly into a discussion on Salwa Judum, and the worrying implications of the "clean chit" given by the home minister to the militia, a statement that has been widely reported in the day's papers.
Gently, Sen declines to talk about court judgements denying him bail, but on the reason why he is in jail, he is firm and clear. "This is nothing to do with criminal activity—no evidence has been produced—it is to silence our voices".
From his friends, you hear that the police are trying to demonise Sen by injecting his court appearances with trappings of high security appropriate for hardened criminals—commandos, sniffer dogs, metal detectors. You hear of the acute disappointment of those who travel to meet him during his court appearances, only to find he has not been produced at all, for the most specious of reasons. Of the trauma of seeing him, when he does appear, wedged with his co-accused, inside a wooden compartment in the courtroom, sometimes for hours on end. ("I broke down," said one friend.) Of the wilful arbitrariness of the system, extending privileges to his family, like allowing them to meet in the very room where I am meeting him today, and then abruptly withdrawing them.
Sen however, is calm. Yes, he confirms, he was put in solitary confinement for three weeks. "No reason was given," he says simply. On the fact that he can now only see and speak to his wife Ilina, and his family, across two thick layers of wire mesh and one row of iron bars, he concedes quietly, "It is very dispiriting." But he can't divorce, he points out, his living conditions "from those of other people around me". And, then adds, with a pause: "How people sleep and eat is not important. The important thing about the people in jail is their condition of hopelessness—because the legal process passes so many of them by." What you see on his face, however, is a quiet intensity and stoicism, a tinge of exhausion maybe. But definitely not hopelessness.
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