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‘Rights activism uses space within the Constitution’

Times of India, 5 Nov 2008

It’s been a hectic 17 months for Ilina Sen since Binayak Sen was arrested under the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act. In between teaching at Mahatma Gandhi Hindi University, Wardha, meeting her daughters in Mumbai, attending her husband’s trial in Raipur, and coordinating the campaign for his release in Delhi, she talked to Jyoti Punwani:

You and your husband worked with the previous government in some areas. Was the arrest therefore totally a shock?

We had a long history of social involvement and activism in this area and were very well known. I had drafted the women’s policy for the new state of Chhattisgarh. We were both part of the state advisory committee on health sector reforms. At that time too, we were often critical of government functioning. However, once the BJP government came in, they began to fill up civil society spaces with their own people, and people like us were
marginalised. This coincided also with the turning of Chhattisgarh into a high-security state, land
acquisition for industry, and the Salwa Judum.

As state secretary of the PUCL, Binayak spoke openly against state repression. Once the new security law was enacted, we were sure human rights activists would be targeted. PUCL organised two major national conventions against the Act. Yet, even as the clouds were darkening, one felt that one’s reputation and history would carry one through. In that sense, the arrest and the misinformation campaign that was spread about Binayak (he is a doctor only in name, etc) was a shock.

But as a human rights activist this shouldn’t have surprised you.

Human rights activism is based on using a certain democratic space within the Constitution. Binayak’s work was essentially in this area. He opposed the Salwa Judum, took up fake encounters, visited Maoist prisoners – all this was legal activity. It is only a paranoid system that can treat this as guilt by association. I suppose one had misjudged the democratic space available. I first heard the phrase psychological war from a retired police official after Binayak’s arrest. I have heard it many times since and marvel at the way in which lies and more lies are traded by the police and the administration to frame and nail a person. This has been a great learning experience. I would like to write a novel about it if i survive this crisis.

What about the judiciary?

It is part of the same establishment. A G Noorani in ‘The trial of Bhagat Singh’ writes about the way in which the executive and the judiciary colluded to hang Bhagat Singh. It is the same here.

What’s been the effect on your daughters?

They are hurt and show it in different ways. However, they have also rallied round and shown remarkable courage and resilience. Family and a very large circle of friends have been very supportive. People in Raipur, though afraid to speak up, have shown their sympathy and support in many subtle and unsaid ways.