‘I saw posters calling for Binayak to be hanged. This is not the Chhattisgarh I have loved’

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By Ilina Sen

Unflinching devotion ‘When I heard he had been sentenced for life, I thought there was so much we could still have shared, so much I wanted to say…’
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Today, on one hand I feel great happiness and great relief that this part of the ordeal is almost over. On the other hand I feel anxiety — we have seen how hostile and vengeful the State has been. But there is no sense of loss, or futility over the lives we’ve led. At times one wishes for a less eventful, less traumatic life. But on the whole, it’s been a rich experience. A good life.

Binayak and I have given so much to Chhattisgarh — before anyone was writing about the state, we were doing it. Any journalist or researcher who came to the state would meet us first.

I WAS born in 1951. My father was an army doctor, so we moved every three years. We lived everywhere: I began my schooling in Faridkot in a Punjabi-medium school. Then there was a lot of growing up in Jabalpur, and I ended up finishing school in Shillong. Next was history at Lady Brabourne College in Calcutta followed by a master’s in English in Jabalpur, where my parents had settled. Studying history was very useful, giving a certain perspective to all my work. The literature was for pleasure — I focussed on two American poets: Frost and Dickinson.

Then I thought I’d like to study something connected to real people, real life, so I did an MPhil and PhD in sociology from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. My PhD thesis, submitted in 1984, was one of the first works on the declining sex ratio in India based on Census figures from 1901 to 1981.

Binayak’s father was also an army doctor and our families often crossed each other. We must have met as children, but met properly as young people in Jabalpur. Binayak is obviously very attractive, both as a person and a personality. When I first met him as an adult, he was soft-spoken, gentle. I immediately sensed that he was a democratic person — someone one could grow with, not dogmatic or patriarchal. I reached a comfort level with him very early. In those days, of course, we sent letters through snail mail and booked trunk calls. It did feel unusual to get married at 21, but we just felt we wanted to be together, to build a life together.

Also, my younger sister died in Jabalpur in 1970 at age 13 from Crohn’s disease. Something like this causes a total breakdown in a middle class family. I had no other siblings and her death wrecked us. Both my grandmother and Binayak’s had 8-9 children and they each lost one or two, but it wasn’t the same for my parents’ generation. In retrospect, when I think about it, a part of me must have also wanted to marry to get away from all this.

When Binayak started his residency training in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, I came to Chennai and saw the sea for the first time. It was very dramatic. I taught English in a school for two years, which was great fun, though I had no formal training. They selected me because, of all the candidates, I knew no Tamil, so they felt I’d teach more intensely — it was like ducking kids into the sea! I still meet some of those children.

Binayak and I moved together to JNU in Delhi in 1978 for our PhDs. He didn’t last very long, as he desperately wanted to do field work and this wasn’t even a medical college. He didn’t have patience with research and had problems with the senior faculty. He left in about a year, while I stayed on.

In Delhi, I was exposed to all kinds of things, the most pivotal being the women’s movement — there were groups like Manushi and Saheli. The Emergency had just ended. We’d get brilliant speakers like Noam Chomsky and AB Vajpayee. This period had a huge influence on me. I was the first recipient of ICCR’s women’s studies fellowship, for which I began fieldwork in Hoshangabad, Chhattisgarh.

Binayak wanted to build a hospital for workers in Chhattisgarh’s twin mining settlements of Dalli-Rajhara, where he had begun work in 1981. I joined him full-time in 1984, picking up Chhattisgarhi and the culture much more easily than Binayak — I’ve always been good at languages.

It was a fascinating place and time. I’ve always been very adventurous in finding new places, new relationships. It seemed like the whole world was going to Chhattisgarh, all the jhollawalla bhais were headed there. It was a social experiment, with tons of intellectuals visiting us. We had a sense of building a sustainable, egalitarian society.

Rapture undone Ilina loved the people but found the trajectory of public discourse disappointing
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Chhattisgarh was so invigorating. Madhya Pradesh, where I grew up, still had the ghunghat (veil) and segregation of sexes. I fell in love with Chhattisgarh, where the women are such an inspiration, so strong and articulate. The trade unions had 5,000 women members, and I made friends like Durga Bai, who worked in the mines and was equal to any man. The organisation of people was also remarkable.

I’ve been very lucky, being at the right place at the right time, forging enduring friendships across classes in both rural and urban worlds. I can go to my friend and pick custard apples from her trees — I know when it’s the right time.

Living in rural India has challenges like no toilets, but those are minor diculties. Now, as I grow old and become arthritic, there are some new diculties. Then I need electricity for writing, since I’ve always written at night after the children sleep.

I and Binayak had a fight — one of many continuing negotiations! — when I came to live in Dalli-Rajhara in 1984. He’d been staying with a worker’s family and I couldn’t look upon that as a permanent way of life — it was not how I wanted to be. The family was very loving but you can’t park yourself indefinitely in someone’s house. Eventually, we moved into a flat. Binayak is a very passionate man but he doesn’t always think of consequences. I’m a little more cautious, thinking about things — like, we have two children. He’s very pure in what he thinks has to be done.

We moved to Raipur in 1988 where I set up the NGO Rupantar for people-centred development. We worked with Gond and Kamar tribes in the Nagari-Sihawa area, who had built settlements in forest land after being displaced by dams. There were no schools, no social institutions. Binayak did health work while I worked with the kids, designing educational programmes. I tried to combine literacy skills with my own understanding of things. That world was very collaborative. The Kamar children would offer to build something in return for an education. The tribal community had a different context but it had the same energies as anywhere. And it had solidarity.

I continued to research, write, do consultancies. I wrote two books: Women’s Participation in People’s Strugglesand Migrant Women of Chhattisgarh. I’d been visiting to teach women’s studies, in Hindi medium, at the Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtrya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya in Wardha, Maharashtra, since 2004, and in 2006 I moved base there. Binayak stayed back in Chhattisgarh, which was already becoming virulent. The spaces were closing in. The Salwa Judum had come in 2005 and it wasn’t comfortable.

The times changed: Our daughters’ lives are very different. Pranhita works as a cinematographer in Chennai while Aparajita is doing her BA in Mumbai. They’ll make their own life.

The spaces were closing in. The Salwa Judum had come in 2005 and it was not comfortable. The times changed

I’VE ALWAYS romanticised Chhattisgarh. The people are so vibrant with their modern outlook about love and divorce. But the trajectory of public discourse has been a disappointment here — it’s become increasingly monolithic. It’s a combination of ignorance and arrogance, which is quite deadly. There’s a lot of self righteousness. Nobody likes good citizens, everyone likes good consumers. The Chhattisgarhi media doesn’t reflect the breadth of vision of the local people, it has a narrow worldview.

On the morning of 24 December last year, when Binayak was convicted for life, I thought: This can’t be happening. This can’t be true. But I believed the truth would come out when people analysed the case in 10-20 years. My sense of being was under threat when my name was also dragged into court. I had nightmares, migraines. There would be times when I couldn’t sleep for five nights. And I still had to lead a so-called normal working life with children.

There’s been a sense of deep insecurity, but these past few years I never felt suicidal. I kept hoping and praying. I had the conviction that we were right. Truth was on my side. And the lawyers, certain media, old friends and family, everyone stuck by me. The support was there. You cope because you have to. I’ve continued reading Frost and Dickinson and sharing them with friends. I don’t feel like giving up. I still want to find peace but the future will take time.

Prior to 2007, I used to be very much focussed on Chhattisgarh and the issues most prevalent there like displacement. But during the past few years, I have felt a larger canvas now of Constitutional values. The Constitution promises a lot but a lot of its entitlements remain conceptual. For example, even though I’m not a religious person I’m still governed by the personal law of my community.

I have a much larger worldview now both intellectually and spatially. Increasingly, I’ve also understood the great unevenness of India — there is no one India, whether it be the media, the courts or the government. The role of the State needs to be urgently renegotiated in our lives and our future will hang on how democratically we do that. For example, leave aside Anna Hazare’s politics, but look at the support for the Lokpal Bill.

Personally, these years have given me both confidence and a lot of uncertainty. There’s been a loss of trust. Now when I meet someone I measure them and what I say to them. I also don’t know where my home is anymore, which is a source of great pain. I haven’t yet dealt fully with being dislocated, not belonging anywhere.

It’s very difficult to understand what happened to the Chhattisgarh I was in love with. I had so much rapture about this place. I still do about its people, but the State is different. The newspapers would print headlines gloating over what was happening to us. There was such a tone of malice. I saw posters in Raipur calling for Binayak to be hanged. This is not the Chhattisgarh I’ve loved. Does it still exist? I don’t know. I hope so. I hope I find it again.

Today I still admire the democratic person in Binayak the most. On 24 December last year when I heard he’d been sentenced to life, I felt there was so much we could still have shared, so much I wanted to say to him and hadn’t said. We still have lots to explore with each other and I look forward to that.

As told to Gaurav Jain

Gaurav Jain is Literary Editor, Tehelka
gaurav.jain@tehelka.com

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