Big nations defy attempts at straitjacketing or being bound by narrow definitions. Big nations, such as India which has as many people living inside its borders as four continents combined, are not nations in the strictest sense.
To help define such a nebulous entity, euphemisms such as ‘the other India’ have gained currency. This ‘other India’ is a grand illusion because this country has numerous ‘other Indias’ coexisting like parallel universes. A lifetime isn’t enough time to gain perspective into each.
Dr. Ilina Sen’s ‘Inside Chhattisgarh – A Political Memoir’ released by Penguin is a glimpse into one of the oldest surviving segments of India – its tribal hinterland inside the boundary of what is now the state of Chhattisgarh.
On the 14 May, 2007, paediatrician Dr. Binayak Sen, walked into Tarbahar Police Station in Chhattisgarh with his friend, the lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj. He was told that the police wanted to discuss some matter with him. In the station, they were courteous and offered him chai and biscuits as they talked.
A little while later, the inspector got a call. His demeanour changed. He asked Binayak to step aside and said he was putting him under arrest.
On the face of it, it was a simple incident, the likes of which has happened a million times in the past and will continue in the future. Yet, this was not a simple arrest. It was the beginning of something that would reverberate through history.
But that day, and in the days to follow, no one thought of history. All that the present showcased to the family of Binayak, were bold newspaper headlines like: ‘Police nab Naxalite Courier’ or ‘Dr. Sen’s letters carry the message of revolution’.
In the next few days, months and years as the news gained traction, the nation suddenly woke up to this man who few knew before. Most believed the police version of the story that he was a dreaded Naxalite out for open revolution against the Indian State. Few asked for proof of his crime, as 600 word news articles erased decades of grassroots work done by this genteel man and his wife.
Yet, another thing also happened simultaneously. Aware people woke up to the issues involved. And over the years a movement gained traction, called the ‘Free Binayak Sen Campaign’ not just in India but the world over as protests for his release happened in as far places as New York and London. 22 Nobel laureates wrote to the Prime Minister and President of India protesting his incarceration.
Who was Dr. Binayak Sen? Was he a dreaded revolution-seeking Naxalite/Maoist as the police and newspapers declared him to be? If he was, why then did so many protests spontaneously erupt across the world in favour of this man?
In the heat the case generated, many people ventured to write books about the couple – Dr. Binayak Sen and his wife sociologist Dr. Ilina Sen and their work in what is literally the middle of India, in jungles where few ‘civilized’ people have ever gone. Most of them were quickies. Few, like Dilip D’Souza’s ‘The Curious Case of Binayak Sen’ highlighted the Kafkaesque nature of the whole case and helped the cause of this innocent man.
Yet, besides a few comments from the couple in articles, interviews and columns they wrote themselves or speeches they gave, nothing had come in detail directly from the couple themselves till now. Dr. Ilina Sen’s ‘Inside Chhattisgarh – A Political Memoir’ fills that void. It tells the story from the proverbial horse’s mouth.
In an interaction with the audience during the release of the book, Ilina was asked how she could smile and be so positive despite having going through things that would break anyone’s spine. Her reply was typical of people who have known her. She said that though the incarceration of Binayak and his case has taken years, there were decades before her of love, beauty and wonder. She remembered those previous decades and felt happy about what they had done and achieved and the love of people they had got.
That is also the structure of the book. Though it begins with the case of Binayak’s arrest and incarceration, it occupies only 5% of the book. The rest 95% is a classic textbook for anyone wanting to bring about real change in the nation and what they have to go through in the process both in terms of struggle and the sense of joy and achievement that brightens their lives.
‘Inside Chhattisgarh’ is a beautiful, resplendent and even transcendental story of a couple fired by the zeal to do something more with their lives than just raise a family, of them venturing out into the unknown, meeting people like the legendary trade unionist Shankar Guha Niyogi and in the process doing things which would touch millions of lives for the better not just around them, but across the nation.
It was 1981 when the couple made an unremarkable entry into the state, fired by the zeal to do something there. They were not the only one. Though the optimism that lit up people after independence, had faded in the prior three decades, there were people who went where few had gone before. Some, like the young boys and girls in the Naxalite movement, took up guns. Others like the Sens took to non-violent constructive work.
They were not the only ones. There were hundreds who thronged Chhattisgarh - then (and perhaps even today) the final frontier of the nation, a place so cut off from ‘civilization’ only the bravest went there. They were one of thousands who went but they were one of the handfuls who stayed back, making Chhattisgarh their home.
They began work with Shankar Guha Niyogi who had organised workers of that area (it was still part of Madhya Pradesh) into strong unions that demanded justice. The couple became instrumental in helping construct a hospital built by the workers themselves – the Shaheed Hospital. However, differences and politics in the working of the union, saw them branch out to another area.
This was where their greatest work began with the tribals of their region Dalia-Rajhara. Realising that what the adivasis lacked most, was healthcare facilities in the absence of which touts were taking them for a ride, the couple built a program to provide basic healthcare facilities to the places, by training tribals to become health workers.
When Chhattisgarh was formed, the work done by this couple was adopted by the government of Chhattisgarh into their Mitanin Programme of 2003. This later became the precursor to the National Rural Health Mission – NRHM - one of the largest such healthcare programs undertaken anywhere in the world that was intended to take healthcare services to hundreds of millions of people in India and thus save millions of lives.
Another one of Ilina’s achievement has been her research on women’s issues. This found its way into the official governments women’s policy in two state – Madhya Pradesh first and then Chhattisgarh. Ilina writes humorously about how she wasn’t paid for writing the Chhattisgarh Woman’s Policy by a minister who evoked the sentiments of a new state. This is your own state, the state you love, the minister told her. Why do you need payment for working for its welfare?
However, the state did pay them for their three and a half decades of work in transforming the lives of millions. When the government of Chhattisgarh signed MOUs with national and international companies to exploit its natural resources by mining, it was in a terrible hurry. Instead of going about the right way of rehabilitating Tribals, they went ahead and tried to forcibly evict them, burning at least 644 villages (official figures) and killing thousands - of which there is no account because they happened in places where the administration had never bothered to go.
The couple reacted to this, as any citizen of this nation should. They demanded this violence be stopped and sought justice for those already wronged. The result was the arrest of Binayak and hounding of the family.
The book chronicles the trauma a bit, but the bulk of the focus is on their previous work. What also elevates the book from being a mere nostalgic chronicle of the past, is Ilina’s unique, feminist perspective. She minces no words and few are spared her razor sharp observations. She even criticizes Niyogi for his many failures and how a great trade unionists was also a traditionalist when it came to women. She however, credits him for changing over a period of time.
‘Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir’ is also a love story. It is the love a couple had for each other and their raising a family in the middle of a jungle. It is the story of their love for the people around them. It is the love of a woman for women she encounters, the likes of which few in the world ever had the privilege. The book opens up a portal to a universe few have seen even in passing and few ever will.
Ilina and Binayak are artists whose works was not in canvas, or strips of film, or in the number of plays or film they did and thus not quantifiable. Their art was in people.
How do you define hundreds of thousands of lives saved over decades, how do you categorise positively influencing millions more through your documents?
The book thus, also, becomes an attempt at quantifying the unquantifiable, a shot at trying to figure out – even as the media and most of the masses screamed otherwise after Binayak’s arrest - if their lives had been worth it. It is this undercurrent of doubt that gives the book an unstated yet stately poignancy that can reduce one to tears.
Ilina and Binayak become the emblem of the thousands of people that have existed before them, during their time and after them, who leave their all in pursuit of a higher life, of adventure and to find out if one simple life can make a change that can outlast them.
Inside Chhattisgarh is a must read book for anyone who wants to go beyond the rhetoric of change to bring about real change in this nation that we know as India.(Satyen K. Bordoloi is a writer based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)
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