Sonam Saigal

In happier times: Koel Sen (centre) with her parents.

In happier times: Koel Sen (centre) with her parents.  

Prof. Shoma Sen’s daughter talks to The Hindu about her mother’s work for the betterment of the country, and the anger at hearing her being called anti-national

It has been over 250 days since Professor Shoma Sen, a reputed academician, has been lodged in the largest prison in Maharashtra, Yerwada Central Jail, for her alleged involvement in the Bhima-Koregaon violence. The court is currently hearing her second bail plea, after rejecting the first application on November 2, 2018, noting that the material collected prima facie reveals her involvement in alleged unlawful activities inimical to the country’s security.

Talking to The Hindu, Prof. Sen’s daughter, filmmaker Koel Sen, repeats her mother’s words: “They can keep me locked inside, but my mind is completely free!” Ms. Sen talks about the day that changed the fate of her family when her mother, now 60, was arrested on June 6, 2018. The Pune Police landed up at their house at 6 a.m., without a search warrant, and left 10 hours later with her mother. Prof. Sen, the then head of the English department at Nagpur University, was slated to retire in July 2018 and had plans to celebrate her 60th birthday in August that year. Ms. Sen talks about how the second-oldest university in the State suspended her mother and blocked her salary account, and how a teacher for 38 years was charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Edited excerpts.

What is your memory of June 6, 2018?

I was at my place in Mumbai, and for some reason my phone was unreachable. It was a network issue. I am sure that my mom must have been trying to call me, but couldn’t get through. I still feel terrible about that. I reached my workplace at 11 a.m. and found out on the internet while browsing through the news. I was first shocked! I couldn’t believe that it could be my mother. I tried calling her number, but it was switched off. I then realised there was something wrong. Then I found out about the raid from my mother’s lawyer friend, who told me [the police] are probably going to arrest her. I still couldn’t believe what I had heard. I was panicking and frantically trying to call our domestic helper, who was the only person [I could] contact.

Later, when I heard the entire story from my father, it was appalling. The Pune Police had planned to make it appear like a big crackdown. Almost 150 police personnel from Pune and Nagpur were designated for this task. They surrounded our house, and spread across the lanes outside our building and our neighbourhood in Nagpur. The police had entered to raid our house flashing a letter from one of the Pune ACPs. They did not have any search warrant. My parents were cornered into one room and the police behaved terribly with them. They were not allowed to eat or drink anything or to even go to the kitchen. They were asked to leave the washroom door open when they needed to use it. My parents are in their sixties and my mother has arthritis! The raid went on from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. till they flew my mother to Pune, without a remand notice from the nearest district magistrate. It is almost an illegal arrest of the same nature in which they tried to pick up [Professor] Anand Teltumbde recently from Mumbai airport. All of this has led to a lot of defamation for my mother who has been a reputed academician for 32 years in Nagpur.

Prof. Sen was brought up in Bandra so why did she decide to move to Nagpur?

Maa grew up in Bandra, studied in St. Joseph’s School and later went to Elphinstone College. She was attracted to social work at a very early age. There are some people who are very sensitive to their immediate surroundings. My Maa is one of them. I remember my grandfather telling me that when she was very young, Maa would often say that when she grew older, she would do everything to stop poverty. She cannot see the look in the eyes of the beggars on the streets. That’s how she started teaching at a very young age.

Soon after Maa completed college, she taught at Ruparel College, Dadar, in the early 80s. Maa felt that education was the first step at creating an equal society. She dedicated her life to teaching the underprivileged. Even at home, when we had a domestic helper working at our house, Maa would make sure that she would take some time out to help the maid with her domestic problems, help her with educating her children. This is my mother’s nature, she sometimes goes out of the way to help people.

Life in Mumbai was getting very hectic and expensive. My grandfather had left their rented Bandra house and moved back to Kolkata. Maa also felt that there is a need to spread education in the smaller, more underdeveloped parts of Maharashtra, especially where there is complete lack of infrastructure for education. That’s why she chose Nagpur. She started teaching at PWS (People’s Welfare Society) College of Arts and Commerce in Nagpur where there was a predominantly Dalit community of students coming to study. My mother’s students who had enrolled in B.A English could not even spell the basic English vocabulary. She would start teaching them English right from scratch. This is the kind of dedication and sincerity that my mother has towards her work as an academician and as professor of English.

You have seen your mother help and change lives of others. It must be very tough to see her in this position.

Yes, it’s extremely tough. She does not deserve this. [It has] just been an unending nightmare for me and my family. We feel so helpless and powerless. We cannot do anything to get her out of this misery. But we know that we will overcome all of this soon. As we have seen throughout history, [those] who do good for society and its people are never in the good books of politicians and the government … what the present government is doing to my mother is nothing less than a criminal act. Today, our country is seeing its worst time after Independence.

Do you think that voices of dissent are being suppressed today?

I am not even an activist so to say. I make films. But someone like me who is so remotely associated with any kind of political activism is also getting affected so gravely — that says something. It says that our society is dangerously turning into an extreme right-wing state.

When we see propagandist films like Uri and The Accidental Prime Minister get mainstream theatre releases, this is something we need to worry about. If Naseeruddin Shah gets targeted when he expresses his concern about the country that he loves so much, this is something we need to worry about. The present government is behaving so insecurely, and targeting each and every single dissenting individual with vengeance, that there is absolutely no space for even a simple dialogue, forget dissent.

What do you feel when you hear the prosecutor make the argument of your mother being ‘anti-national’.

If I tell you honestly what I feel here, I might get targeted too (laughs)! Initially, when I would hear the public prosecutor make the argument of ‘anti-national’ against my mother I would feel a sense of rage and anger mixed with utter frustration. I would question how — HOW — can she even say that? What does she even know about my mother… If nothing else, my mother has given her entire life’s work for the betterment of this country and especially Maharashtra. She is nothing but the exact opposite of an anti-national.

But, today, we are seeing that anyone who disagrees with the current government is tagged as anti-national, and anyone who supports the government is a nationalist. So this accusation doesn’t make me angry any more. It is plain stupid.

How often are you able to visit her and what keeps her going inside?

I visit her quite often, once or twice a month, sometimes even more as Pune is not very far from Mumbai. [We give her] books to read and there is also a jail library. Maa has access to paper and pen so she writes to keep herself occupied. We write each other letters too. She wrote in one of her letters, “They can keep me locked inside, but my mind is completely free!” So of course, hope keeps her going — a hope for justice and freedom.

What are your fights and hardships after the incident?

Every day has been a fight ever since my mother’s arrest. Soon after her arrest, she was suspended from Nagpur University where she was the head of the English department. The vice-chancellor and registrar are not giving our family any support either; it is the opposite actually. They are making our lives more miserable. Her salary account has been blocked, and there is a housing loan to repay. She was to retire the very next month after her arrest, and her Festschrift was cancelled. Very defamatory planted news articles keep popping up in the newspapers in Nagpur from time to time. People in Nagpur are generally very concerned about my mother, but they are genuinely scared. Many of them who want to talk about it are being asked to keep quiet by their authorities because we all know that Nagpur is also where the root of this government lies. Her colleagues and students are being individually harassed and asked not to speak out against her arrest by supporters of the [Rashtriya Swayamsevak] Sangh.

Do you ever ask ‘why us’?

Yes I do, all the time. But I also know why it is us. There are very few honest and good people left in this world who are genuinely doing good for society, the country and its people. And this government wants that minuscule number to completely diminish. At this point, I feel that these arrested activists stand as symbols of defiance, much like those who stood up against the emergency. It is no coincidence that those targeted are some of the most well-known human rights activists in this country, and that their names were also published in the Sangh mouthpiece right before their arrests. It tells us that they are scared — scared of their work and their appeal amongst people. It is [an indication] of the caste politics of the Maharashtra government, and its open support to people who are hell-bent on creating a new narrative around incidents that happened centuries ago and should best be left alone. And this is another scary iteration of this party’s strategy to conveniently manufacture evidence whenever they need it, whether its doctored videos, planted letters or fake degrees.