How did your loss of freedom affect you?
(Long pause) As a civil rights worker, never being in jail was a hole in my CV (laughs). But I thought it would be 10- 15 days. If I’d known it would last two years, I’d have been less sanguine. You cannot access any privilege in jail; you are an equal in a way you can never be in the outside world. This may not always be very pleasant, but for me, it was interesting. The physical circumstances were obviously not pleasant, but everyone is coping with the same thing — hot winds, mosquitoes, terrible food — so that didn’t bother me. The jail system runs on corruption. In some ways, this corruption is almost positive because it brings a kind of humanising intervention that the system has completely shut out. So though it’s illegal, almost every inmate has a stove and at six in the morning, you’ll find everyone making dal.
But as you realised you were in for a long haul, did you go through an emotional graph?
Your mind becomes soggy. After a while I couldn’t remember names, familiar words. That used to panic me. We have seven dogs — I couldn’t remember their names. That is how the absence of familiar interaction impacts you. I was depressed quite often. There were interesting ideas in my head, but I just couldn’t write. There’s an infinite variety of human nature and circumstance on display in jail. This made me think very deeply about categories. You think section 302 is 302 (murder), but it could range from an entirely fabricated case to self-defence to a gang war to a supari (ransom). Yet this range of crime is subsumed under the same legal category. One of my closest friends in jail was a 25-year-old boy who had been arrested when he was 19 for stabbing his father. He had done it as a last resort to prevent his mother from being beaten to death by his drunk father. He’s been convicted to life imprisonment. What’s horrifying is that the authorities are consumed by active contempt for these inmates. Even the most basic human dignity is denied to them. Every evening I saw lambardars beating inmates with lathis and chappals — 10 to a man. There were much worse things as well. But if I complained the authorities looked at me as if I was soft in the head. There are so many people in jail who are innocent, or at least, who carry the idea of their innocence in their heads. And there is nothing ahead for them but this systemic brutalisation. So I had this feeling of helplessness. It was like living through a near-death experience, watching yourself and your loved ones from a distance — [my wife] Ilina traveling every week by train to meet me for half an hour and then traveling back.
I’m not inherently an ambitious person. I’d happily turn my back on all this if I could. My daughters are at an interesting stage of life. Ilina is someone I respect, which is a big thing to say after living 35 years with someone. But there is a very bad situation here —there’s a state of war in central India. It needs to be addressed, and I find myself in a position to address it. Perhaps more than most people in India. That has to be capitalised. I’m a little confused about how to go forward. I’ve always believed that violence can’t be the final arbiter. This aversion doesn’t stem from being some Gandhi romantic (I’ve always been slightly repelled by his bania personality) but because I believe violence is a never-ending cycle. Once you say yes to it, you can’t get out. Both the Maoists and the State have painted themselves into that corner. At the same time, there are millions of people leading stunted lives. As a doctor, especially as a paediatrician, every malnourished child makes me angry. That child, that mother’s uterus doesn’t need to be that way. It makes you feel desperate. These grave inequities are not maintained by default. Someone is keeping them in place using efficient and diligent methods. So at one level, one has to try and stop the military confrontation between the Maoists and the State and replace it with political confrontation or engagement. At the same time, someone has to ask hard questions about this other structural violence that keeps poverty in place. I’d happily back out if I could, but it seems more and more impossible.
The dilemma is that advancing the case is bound to attract the State’s ire. But doing less will not suffice
Did the scale of the ‘Save Binayak’ campaign surprise you?
I genuinely thought we were small-time people. It appears we are not — that was a huge, humbling revelation. I have to work out with my colleagues what it means, but it places a bigger responsibility on us to keep giving voice to a particular perception of reality. What we’ve done so far is the bare minimum. We’ve never gone out of our way to be abusive or attract State attention. The dilemma is that pursuing ways that will really advance the case is also bound to attract the ire of the State. But we can’t do less because it will not suffice.
Do you regret your visits to Narayan Sanyal?
No, I never knew there would be such a fallout. Everything I did for him was done with the full sanction and permission of the police and State. Also, as a human rights worker, if a man needs legal and medical help, where do you draw the line?