Should Binayak Sen’s Wife Seek Asylum?

Should Binayak Sen’s Wife Seek Asylum?
by Farzana Versey
Countercurrents, January 4

She is a quiet lady who shares her husband’s beliefs. Binayak Sen has been sentenced to life imprisonment on the flimsy charge of acting as a courier for a Maoist. I was, therefore, surprised when Ilina Sen, mentioned at a meeting organised by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) about seeking asylum outside India. “The political establishment in Chhattisgarh is against us. We are not safe here. I have two daughters, one 25 and the other 20 years old. Our phones are tapped, we are followed. We want to live. But if we don’t get justice now, I’ll have to seek political asylum in some other country.”

There will be many countries that will offer it to her. Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen had the West ready to keep her, but she tired of the climate and did not feel comfortable, so she came to India, Kolkata specifically, because it felt like home. In India she keeps creating the occasional noise by making controversial statements to stay in the news. However, her reason for exile is that her country will not have her.

Ilina Sen is indeed leading an imprisoned life in many ways but has there been a threat to her life or to her daughters? If that is so, she should file a police complaint. One might well say that the cops are hardly likely to help someone whose husband is serving a sentence for sedition. She can take recourse to the courts. Her phones are tapped and that should not come as a surprise. Is not the world applauding WikiLeaks and the Radia tapes for exposing scams? Governments have always kept a hawk’s eye vigil on anyone who does not toe their lines. We do not live in a world where privacy is guaranteed, especially not if there is a question mark regarding our allegiance. When she mentions a “liberal and democratic” country that would be her destination, she must know that the liberal need not be democratic.

Asylum seekers can become symbols for other regimes to flaunt liberalism when their own record isn’t quite so clean. I am aware that India is flawed in more ways than one can count. She and her husband have suffered. She will get a taste of the liberalism in a foreign country because she won’t be battling any forces there. She will be the recipient of their generosity. Personally, I understand her. As a belief, it negates what the Sens have stood for.

The fact is that the Naxals have given a call for a bandh on January 5 to protest the life term for Binayak Sen. This is the grassroots speaking. He may not be a Maoist – and even if he is, the state has no business to target people only because of their beliefs unless they actively participate in causing civil unrest – but he has been bracketed with them. Some of the tribals are most certainly Naxals but they may not even agree with the ideologues that have been thrust on them.

The intellectualisation of any movement has validity only to the extent of tracing its history and expressing those viewpoints. The Dalit poets and writers are themselves Dalit and have worked actively among their people. When outsiders took up for them it was an academic exercise or to portray their sufferings. The Maoist movement, on the other hand, has been taken over by these lobbies and it does more harm to the tribal movement. The fight for land and against corporatisation does not need an ideology; it is a matter of survival and space. This is how it would have been until it became a topic to be discussed and sedition became an over-the-counter drug for ailing egos.

That has been the unfortunate problem with the activist culture in India. A few hours in the slammer ensure instant sainthood, and like prophets who have had to fight a few stones hurled at them their agony only gets intensified. Binayak Sen spent almost all of his working life among the tribals in Chhattisgarh to do what he was trained to do – practise medicine. He is an educated man and could have been a part of the Bengali bhadralok (high caste elite) to which he belonged. Like most people from such a background, his sympathies were with the Left; it may have been with a political party or merely a political thought. There is something almost touching about the manner in which Marxism is upheld in a state that still suffers from the Raj hangover, seen in the vestiges of its clubs, its monuments and its anglicised cocoon that insists on wearing local dress but sticks a cigar in the mouth and riffles through the great Russian classics as Wagner plays on an old gramophone.

I recreate this scene because it is heartbreaking that Dr. Sen could leave it all and find new ways to improve the lives of the tribals. He is not the first one and he won’t be the last. The difference is that the state has sentenced him to life imprisonment for sedition, for carrying letters that were supposedly against the state to a septuagenarian imprisoned man, Narayan Sanyal, who belongs to a banned party, the Communist Party of India (Maoist). This is utterly ridiculous when we have cases of underworld dons conducting their nefarious activities from within the jails, and it includes causing bomb blasts; there are cases of such criminals contesting elections and winning them; there are cases of police connivance in providing them with VIP facilities – these goons have access to mobile phones but books taken for Binayak Sen will be screened. By now a lot has been written about the absolutely shaky pretext on which he has been charged; some of the concerned people have come forth to say that because of their support for him they too should be jailed. This is an utter mockery of what he has stood for – he was not shouting from the podium and writing reams against the state; he incited no one to take to violence. One cannot even say that his dissent was intellectual. It was more for social equitability, and all he did to make this possible was to use himself rather than words; he lived by the Hippocratic Oath rather than hyperbole.

In times of exaggeration when you have to be a Tarantino scream to get noticed, Binayak and Ilina Sen have gone way beyond the schisms created by superficially-sanctified ‘isms’. Their fight is not to prove their innocence but the guilt of the state. It can only be done within the shores of their own country and among the people whose lives they sought to make better.


  1. Farzana,
    Nice that you brought up this topic. It appears, the Mainstream Media has missed out on this topic (atleast the one I have been following summarily, namely TOINS and HT).That said, Ms. Sen's choices are truly limited .Here are the choices that I see - Sweden, Switzerland, Iran, Cuba, Canada and yes, an enlightened India. (OK, being rhetorical and simultaneously pragmatic about the last choice - i.e. homeland, here). That said, it all sounds tragic. Binayak Sen has had all the appropriate backing - including a voice lent by as prominent a person as Amartya Sen and yet Mrs. Sen is talking about emigrating. A true let down, if you ask me. Only understandable if she were Mrs. Non-Descript. That said, there is a recurring and underlying issue about the progressive politics. Its absentia. Let me compare our situation with Americans , who atleast have progressive voices such as Paul Krugman , Frank Rich expressing their dissent and disgust with the establishment. Our progressives - it appears - have given up even trying.
    Our own discourse has been missing - in porgressivism. Mainstream Media and everywhere else. The progressives have just about ceased being a voice - a space me thinks would be filled by nihilist anarchism prone to manipulation by "powers that be".
    p.s. : Happy New Year - 2011 to you, your loved ones . May the same be extended to all those who commentators and un-commentators at this blog.

  2. Mahesh:

    I too am surprised at the skirting of this. For me it is a crucial development, even if a mental one at this stage, and could denote as you rightly point out the manner in which progressive society can buckle down. (I am curious that you mention Iran as an asylum choice. ??)

    Ms. Sen did have the backing, but do remember that she and her husband were not dramatic enough.

    The mainstream media loves those even if it does not understand the issues well enough. So, these subjects are discussed but a a level that alters the essence, which I find more damaging.

    Let me share a note I received from a very staunch Maoist supporter. Among the other things, he wrote:

    They have a right to cry and feel like they want to get away... Sometimes the "liberal" shores of the west can give some respite... One woman, Archana Guha was so severely tortured that she actually ended up being in Netherlands, where she was able to recover.. There is no harm in breaking down and wanting some respite.

    I replied, "...breaking down, as I said as a personal respite and expression of grief I understand; I just feel that their work and beliefs will suffer due to it. It will become just another symbol".

    PS: The best to you and yours too in the year ahead...and may we live in less 'interesting' and more enlightened times!

  3. Farzana,
    OK - first things first.
    Mrs. Sen has every moral and legitimate right to seek asylum for herself and rest of her family (Binayak Sen included). Given the level of opression state has more likely inflicted on Binayak Sen and her family, she is entirely justified in doing so. But then again - Binayak Sen is no "lone crusader" - even Amartya Sen has lent his voice against the court judgement. Given such a support - me thinks Mrs. Sen's seeking asylum would be a "conceding of defeat" on behalf of progressive dissent. She may not realise this - but in this case symbolism matters hugely. And yet again - she is entirely justified. Perhaps, and just perhaps, a better option would be to task the judicial process further moving to higher courts, win acquittal and then emigrate. That said, it is her decision fighting a symbolic battle.
    Further ahead, while Binayak Sen may not necessarily be a Maoist - they, Maoists - need to introspect further and decide what they are fighting. From what it appears as public information - Maoists may be fighting a tribal nationalist struggle as against a Maoist revolutionary movement. Perfectly OK if they know they are representing the re-surgent tribal aspirations demanding a stake in India's "development story". Second thing Maoists may not realise yet is their
    "struggle" has mostly been reduced to a militarist battle with the state - politicisation and political struggle being left out entirely from the context.
    It may sound tragic but the Maoists - perhaps one of the most politically conscious of the progressives - are courting a political demise by choosing militarism over prolitical propoganda and struggle.
    p.s. : My "Iran as a choice for political asylum" comment was assuredly a "imaginary snub" that the Iranian state would rub on us Indians - perhaps to score a point on our alignment with Americans. But then again - this may not happen. As we know Ahmedinejad has proclaimed - Iran has no "homo problems".

  4. Mahesh:

    A post coming up on the first portion.

    Re. the Maoists choosing militarisation over political discourse, I think it has to do with a progressively deteriorating state of affairs. I do not understand how they are the most politically conscious of the progressives. Of their rights, of their place in the Indian state? Of their ability to chart a separate course? Of their intellectual backing? I don't know...for me they are a group that has genuine grievances against the state and they are not the only ones.

    PS: From what I can figure out, Iran snubs America quite directly.

    PPS: Have a good weekend.

  5. Farzana,
    I will specifically answer your question on Maoists being most politically conscious of the elemnts of our polity.
    Here is the thing - amongst the prevalent political struggles in the contemprary times I am yet to see anyboidy so as much combining polity with economism and further raise a struggle out of it. Maoists have done this with tribals as their base. Their obsession with Militarism is what I hate about them. Several of their positions do find alignment with International political economists such as Paul Krugman, Simon Johnson and yes - Jayati Ghosh. Rarely do we find such well defined articulations in the polity combining politicism and economics. This said, I have severe issues with their obsession with Militarism . Another issue I have is with their alignment with "opportunistinic leaders" such as Gilani. But again, they are hard-pressed for finding support in the pan-Indian politicque. A situation of their own making that forces them to explore alliances with leaders as opportunistic as Gilanis. Something that could've as might avoided by going mainstream and more importantly demanding their right to go Mainstream. All they have to lose is nothing but their militarism.


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