Thursday, 23 April 2009

Pranhita Sen speaks....

I had received an email from Arundhati Roy about Dr Binayak Sen's deteriorating health as he languishes in Raipur jail. I knew that as I was on my way out of Mumbai Mirror, and non-independent journalism, I had the power to do my kind of stories. A few phone calls later, I learnt that Dr Sen's daughter Pranhita was studying in St Xavier's College in Mumbai. I had to interview her somehow – I didn't care much at that time whether the interview would go on print or not. However, I proposed the idea to my boss who gave me the green signal.

I had the idea of Pranhita as a very stoic and nerdy girl, what with the turbulent times she is going through. But at the end of the interview, and a free-wheeling chat over kheema pav at Kyani's, I was happy to have found another person whose wavelengths matched my own quirky ones. It is too early to say if we would be friends for life, but I know for sure that we would have a great time together whenever we would catch up in future. And yes, we have been in touch.

What went on print on the April 10, 2009 edition of Mumbai Mirror was just excerpts of the interview. However, here is the near-complete transcript of the interview. At some places, I have framed my own syntax for better flow of the copy.


"In 2005, Salwa Judum - which in the tribal dialect Gondi means 'holy hunt' -- was kickstarted. It was for the Maoists who were in Bastar, which is highly rich in minerals like diamond bauxite and iron. Even the government wanted the villagers to move out from the area since government had signed an MoU with De Beers. So they began to call people and said they would compensate them in accommodation elsewhere, as well as secure them away from the Maoists.

Naga battalions and the BSF were called in, and SJ commenced in full swing. People in villages were brought and told to leave since they two armed forces were fighting for them against Maoists, and hence they were needed to join in the battle. Some went, some didn’t. In the name of SJ, people were being killed mercilessly. I remember, in one village, 79 people were killed by Nagas and the SJ, and the police later said that all 79 killed were Maoists, which is not true. By just donning some fatigues everyone doesn’t become a Maoists.

Children were killed, women were being raped. People were get scared of the Nagas because there were rumours that they ate people. When people were arrested they would never return. People thought Nagas would devour those arrested. After a certain point, it was decided that a human rights group should be investigating these unwarranted arrests and disappearing of people. There were 10 other organisations which began to document these incidents. I had gone along with Baba to document on camera because the appointed cameraperson at PUCL wasn't willing to join us.

It was very bad scenario in the camps. People were kept in bad conditions. They weren't allowed to go their villages where their houses and granaries were burnt, the cattle were destroyed and eaten up. The camps were small tin houses where the adults were housed while there were separate dorms for children. From girls section of the dorm, there were reports of many girls getting pregnant. It is a bad situation there.

Narayan Sanyal was arrested sometime in late 2004 or early 2005. a From the newspapers, I learnt that he is a Maoist. One day, a man called Madhav Sanyal came from Kolkata and said that he was the younger brother of Narayan. Baba told him that he never heard of Narayan having a brother named Madhav. Apparently, someone in Kolkata who was a common acquaintance of our family and Narayan Sanyal had connected Madhav to Baba since he wanted to file a habeas corpus in Bilaspur for Narayan's arrest, and needed help since he was new to Chattisgarh.

Nevertheless, Baba told Madhav that he would help him file a habeas corpus at Bilaspur. But they later found that Narayan was kept in Warangal, so they approached the Andhra Pradesh police. Madhav began to frequent Warangal and finally Narayan got bail and was released. But soon, he was arrested by the Chattisgarh police for crimes in that state.

Madhav would then come to Raipur every month. Sometime in February 2007, he sent a message to the jail authorities that he would be undergoing a bypass surgery in March 2007 and would hence he would not be able to come for the court hearing. Instead, he named my father for representing him in the court.

During one particular hearing, the lawyer told my father that he had to be paid his fee. Madhav told the lawyer over phone that he would be sending a businessman, Piyush Guha, from Kolkata with the money.

On April 30, 2007, my father was to meet Guha and collect the money. He waited for quite a while at the hotel where Guha was reportedly putting up, but Baba couldn't meet him. The hotel authorities later told Baba that Guha had checked in but then had left the hotel, and had not returned. My father was worried.

My mother, my sister and myself were in Kolkata since April 26 for a vacation, and since Baba had to complete his clinical work in the villages, he was to join us in Kolkata on May 1. On May 2, while in Kolkata, Baba received a call from Guha’s wife. She said that she got his number from Madhav, and that she hadn't heard from Guha since the day he arrived at Chattisgarh. Baba called up some people at PUCL in Chattisgarh but they too hadn't heard of any recent arrests made.

On May 5, the Chattisgarh police officially arrested Guha and termed him a 'hardcore Maoist'. The local press was abound with photos of a hooded and handcuffed Guha, and the police also said that someone who knew the topography of Raipur quite well was also wanted but was currently absconding.

By May 7, Baba had an inkling that he would be arrested. He knew that all fingers were pointing towards him. He called up a section of the press and said that the Chattisgarh police knew his contact details, and should contact him first to verify such facts. Everyone knew him as the benefactor of the Chattisgarh.

On May 9, we had confirmed information that Baba would be arrested. There was utter chaos at home with my daadi sobbing. On May 13, we went to drop him at the station to go to Bilaspur to get back on his work at the clinic, as scheduled earlier. Baba got off at Bilaspur to meet a PUCL lawyer to discuss about filing an anticipatory bail. While they were discussing the matter at her residence, a constable came and asked Baba to accompany him to the police station for a chat. Both Baba and the lawyer went to the police station. They kept him waiting for 2 hours, and then Baba called us up in Kolkata to say that he wouldn't be arrested, and that they had kept him waiting at the police station for some officers to arrive.

On that day, my mother had taken my naani to Murshidabad because naani had wanted to visit the place. Around 4 pm, my mother called me from Murshidabad to say that baba would be arrested after all. She told me to take care of daadi and my younger sister. Shortly thereafter, baba called us up and daadi just broke down. So did my younger sister. Looking at their pitiful state, I did not know what I should be talking to baba. All he told me was to continue to be the pillar of the house. As I battled to silence my own tears, I heard him tell me that I had to fight it all and take on the work forward.

Actually, we were expecting something like this to happen after he began to investigate about the many fake encounters, and especially their increasing numbers since SJ was started.

I wasn't even allowed to cry because I couldn't afford to break down before daadi and my sister. We were in a trap, as all our phones were being tapped ever since baba had arrived at Kolkata on May 1. That's how they managed to trap him from Bilaspur. He was later taken to Raipur.

After we returned to Raipur a few days later, we saw that our house was seized and sealed. A family friend from PUCL let us stay in his house. A week later, they brought home baba after a court order, and on May 22, our house was searched.

150 constables had accompanied 25 officers to search our house. The police wanted to convey that baba was indeed a Maoist. Everyone in our building had shut their windows but were trying to peep in the proceedings. We couldn't enter our own house. The police searched our house for 6-8 hours.

Since our house is lined with books at every wall and corner, the police was aghast with the thought that checking each and every book at our place would actually consume a whole year! Their searched yielded some pamphlets. They were checking each and every VCD that was stacked up. The police had also begun to proclaim my father to be a quack. They confiscated his stethoscope. They picked up any book that had words like "red" or "Naxal". They even took away my sister’s Algebra notebook because they thought that it was some code language! Now as I recollect that day, I understand that none of the officers were well-educated and hence would pick just anything that looked suspicious to them. They had even brought someone from the IB, who however, kept on rebuking the officers for laying their hands on any lame innocuous piece of document lying in our house. But the officers took away a copy of National Geographic Magazine because it had a map of Chattisgarh, marking all districts.

When baba was first arrested, we were initially convinced that he would in there for 6 months. But after they searched our house and took away any innocuous literature with them, and had concocted such a false story about him, we knew that the stay in jail would go up to a year. But it has been 23 months now. They even submitted a supplementary chargesheet with 41 witnesses. In the first chargesheet, most of the 84 witnesses were declared hostile. The police would, in fact, bring only such witnesses who would go against my father and thus declare baba a Maoist.

Since the last two months, baba had been getting angina pain, but had kept mum about it. He would tell the jailor that he needed to visit a doctor, but his pleas would fall on deaf ears. During one of the court hearings on March 27, baba angrily asserted before the judge that he needed to see a doctor because he feared that his health was deteriorating. The judge then ordered for a treatment with a Raipur-based cardiologist, Dr Ashish Malhotra.

After the medical checkup with Dr Malhotra, baba was referred to CMC Vellore, and Dr Malhotra also suspected that baba may have to undergo a bypass surgery. The doctor's report was sent to the judge. Later, when the SP of Chattisgarh learnt that baba was sent to Dr Malhotra, he scolded the jailor for doing so. But the jailor said that he it was a court order so he couldn't go against it. In the last couple of months, we have learnt it even more closely that the police is ready to disrespect the court at any given pretext.

We believe that it would still take time before baba finally undergoes any proper line of treatment. As per protocol, several documents have to be passed from the judge to the government, which will be most unwilling to help out baba.

Immediately after baba was arrested, I was living in Raipur for a few weeks. I would take a bus to the university and back, and sometimes even to go visit baba. But even I was soon targetted. I would get pamphlets with the daily newspaper that I was being closely watched upon and that I would be the next target. Our family couldn't afford to have me in there too. That's when I decided to come to Mumbai and do a film course, something that had already been playing in my mind since a long time.

Inside the jail, baba isn't treated well. We aren't allowed to talk to him for too long. We meet him just once a week for half hour and the jailor is always party to our conversations. Sometimes they try to disallow us to meet him. I have to fight and on certain occasions, have even abused them to seal their lips and show them their right place.

Nowadays, my maa travels every week to Raipur from Wardha, just to meet baba for an hour’s chat. It is sickening to see that the real Maoists are brought to court without any security, while baba is chained and there is a large security cover when they bring him to the court. The media should bring out this reality, and maybe that’s how the government could correct its steps.

After much struggle, we were allowed to take in books for baba to read. That's how he whiles away his time behind the bars. He also does a lot of writing. Baba is still very optimistic that he would get out soon. It has been long, yes; he too faces his moments of getting depressed. But being the kind of man that my father is, he bounces back to life and sheer optimism soon again.

The media in Chattisgarh has been completely bought out. With an impotent media, how could baba's unjust ordeal appear in the press? All protests marches and candlelight vigils are fine, but only if media talk about it, will people know that an innocent man is languishing in jail. People are scared to talk about it because it involves 'Maoists'. The press is well fed to keep their lips sealed. People do not want to watch real news and the ground realities of what is happening in the not-so-developed areas of the country.

In fact, very few of my friends know what I go through emotionally. But I guess I can't blame such souls who do not even know who Medha Patkar is! Such is the level of apathy and ignorance among the youth.

There have been letters of appeals sent from Amnesty International, as well as from 22 Nobel laureates, that baba should be released. We have met the Chattisgarh CM so many times, he says only says, 'Let’s see.' Many efforts have been on all this while, but I'm not informed well about it because all our phones are tapped. I speak to my mother only about each others’ well being, but we never talk about the case.

The government is too stubborn. Someone in the bureaucratic circles said that the police would try hard not to release baba because doing such a thing would go against the police morale. What kind of morale is this?

It has indeed been worthwhile for my father to have led his life in helping people. As a kid, I was angry because all kind of people -- rich or poor -- were made to lie down on my bed if they came home for treatment. But later, as I grew up, baba would explain to me the stark realities of our society and would show me the other side of India, which is rotting in poverty and pain. I began to work closely with him since the time I was 12. I am happy that whatever he did was right.

We all know that baba will get out one day; we have to be optimistic. Agar woh unko nahi nikaalenge, toh hum maarke unko nikaal laayenge. Baba has never befriended any Maoist ever. He has only been sympathetic towards the villagers who have been discriminated by caste. And that has been his premise of work since years.

As soon as I get my diploma, I am planning to make a film on my father. Beyond that, I have made no plans whatsoever. People have been staging satyagraha protests every Monday at Raipur, but after two years of ordeal, I'm beginning to wonder if the efforts will bear fruit.

I miss baba, but I am not sad about what has happened. I am proud of my father and wouldn’t swap my life with anyone else’s.

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