FACE TO FACE
‘Prison was a learning experience’
Unjustly imprisoned by the Chattisgarh State and now out on bail, doctor and activist Dr. Binayak Sen talks of the horrors of prison and what lies ahead. Excerpts from a conversation...
Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
Battling trauma: Dr. Binayak Sen soon after his release.
Dr Binayak Sen came out of prison with a new cause: to highlight the abysmal condition of prisons and the state of the prisoners languishing in jails. He says, “It’s far worse in there than what people think. Prisons get little or no publ
ic attention and the prisoners remain a forsaken lot.”
His health took a severe beating when he was in detention for two years. So he was at the Christian Medical College (CMC) hospital in Vellore recently for medical examination. When I met him in Vellore, he remembered his time in prison and spoke of the road ahead.
Dr. Sen is a renowned doctor and activist committed to community health and human rights. At the time of his arrest, he was the national vice-president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and the general secretary of the Chhattisgarh PUCL unit.
He sees his prison time as a “huge learning experience”. Thrown into a cell with those serving life sentences for murders and other heinous crimes, he learned first-hand about the deplorable conditions and the sub-human lives prisoners led.
Dr Sen was arrested and sent to the Raipur jail in May 2007 by the Chhattisgarh State on trumped up charges because he exposed government oppression of the tribals. He was labelled a “Maoist” by the state. The Supreme Court granted him bail on May 25 this year, and he was released from jail.
Nearly two months after his release, he is still battling the trauma of his jail term and gets very emotional when he remembers his prison mates with whom he developed “close friendships”. “The jail officials strip the prisoners of their dignity,” he says. “They are treated like cattle, identified only by the numbers allotted to them.
Dr. Sen is now enjoying quality time with his family — wife Ilina and daughters Pranhita and Aparajita. He is proud of his wife, a professor in women’s studies, who spearheaded the campaign for his release and turned the spotlight on his case, even as she ran the home and saw to their children’s needs.
Touched by the global outcry against his detention and the support that poured in, Dr. Sen says he is now experiencing the healing that only the warmth of loved ones can bring not just family, but also the hordes of friends and well-wishers. He is overwhelmed by the affection he has received from his alma mater, CMC-Vellore, during his ordeal and after. Excerpts from the conversation:
Has the prison experience robbed you of your motivation to continue with the good work you started nearly two decades ago among poor tribals?
The jail term was a dark phase. I had lost all hope of being released. My wife would ask me to remain optimistic during her weekly visits. She would brief me on the movement outside for my release. Her faith in a solution helped me hold on. I was also completely disappointed. This was the jail I walked in and out of as a doctor to treat the inmates, and there I was behind bars. I had never imagined that would happen. It was a setback but I will pick up the threads from where I left off and continue my work among the really poor people of the region.
Were there uplifting moments in lockup?
It has to be the love and concern of my prison mates. Their gentleness and sensitivity were amazing. They saw me as different from them and encouraged me as they watched the news clippings on TV and discussed aspects of my case. In my ward, which was barely a 10’x10’ space, there were 18 prisoners, all of them serving life-terms for murders and other serious crimes. Each had a concrete slab that was our bed and we were provided a blanket. Nothing else. My ward mates would give me their blankets to use as a mattress while they slept on the hard concrete without a cover.
We spent time talking and sharing. I also read a lot. We talked about ourselves but no one would delve into the other’s past. In our fellowship the past was never the focus. We accepted each other as we were.
I am convinced that many of those serving life sentences would not be rotting in jails if the laws were more sensitive and cases put on the fast track. Our judicial procedure is besieged with delays and lawyers are part of the problem.
What gives you nightmares still?
Many memories. After the wake-up call at 5.30 a.m. we were herded into a courtyard and counted like cattle to make sure none had escaped. There would be a recount every few hours. The prisoners were treated with contempt. I have seen fellow inmates flogged by the officials and the scale of the torture will always haunt me. Nobody dares to question the authorities and their actions are never given reasons. Nobody knew why I was sent into solitary confinement one day and brought back to the ward a month later. I was not given preferential treatment, but I was never beaten up or singled out for any form of ill-treatment. I remember one instance when I was sweeping the corridors, an official took the broom away from me saying that was not my job.
Again, suicides are a matter of grave concern and the suicide rate is quite unnerving in the jails.
Your future plans?
I am not yet free completely. However, I will go back to Rupantar, our NGO, and resume my weekly clinics in the tribal areas. My priorities will remain the rights of the poor and their quality of life. But first, I will lobby for prison reforms.
Meera Prasad is a freelancer based in Mumbai.
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