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Sen bearded or Sen barbered?

In a free country, is there a law under which a citizen can be jailed on no substantial charge? The TV debates on Binayak Sen’s arrest, and release on bail, seem to have missed the point, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

india Updated: May 29, 2009 22:02 IST

The national embarrassment over the Binayak Sen affair is finally over. Or is it? I am seeking confirmation that the Binayak Sen who emerged from jail this week is the same person as the Binayak Sen who was put behind bars. The Binayak Sen that so many of us campaigned for was a grand Abrahamic patriarch with the flowing beard of a wilderness prophet. The Binayak Sen set free this week is a regular, clean-shaven guy. Hop into a Kolkata minibus and you could find people who resemble him sharing a seat with you. So is the real Binayak Sen still in the cooler while an impostor walks free, taking the heat off the new government?

Bengalis like me are natural black humorists, adept at poking fun at their own breed. Humour is the last refuge of the down and out, whether in Kolkata or London and Paris. Once upon a time, what Bengal had thought yesterday, the rest of India would think next year. Today, no one cares what Bengal thinks. It’s a muddled echo of what India had thought in 1991. After forcing capital to flee the state, the Left Front government woke up to liberalisation some years ago, went hunting capital without a licence and shot itself in the foot at Singur and Nandigram. The enormity of the violence forced even the intelligentsia, which had remained shamefully uncritical of the Left for decades, to turn against it.

Since the Bengali intelligentsia includes all Bengalis except a few hardware dealers, tubewell contractors, ticket scalpers and suchlike, this produced a state vote swing in the general election, propelling Mamata Banerjee into the Rail Ministry. After the debacle, lifelong CPI(M) voters in Kolkata freely admit to feeling a sense of luxurious comfort and ease. But they choke on their celebratory rum and water when you remind them that the Assembly elections in 2011 could propel Mamata Didi into Writers’ Building. It’ll be a case of poison driving out poison, for the Trinamool Congress can be as violent as the Left. As the Bengalis battle with an impossible choice, black humour will flourish.

After Binayak Sen’s release on bail, television hosts invented a similarly impossible choice for us: if you support Sen, you support Maoist violence and if you oppose him, you’re for the State-sponsored violence of the Salwa Judum, paid for by your tax money. The central issue was lost in the caterwauling: is a law under which a citizen can be incarcerated on no substantial charge valid in a free country? It’s a sovereign question, irrespective of whether you support or oppose Maoists or State terrorists — or Sen bearded or Sen barbered.

Laws are not etched in stone. They are made, amended and annulled by elected representatives through whom constantly changing public will finds expression. The draconian laws applied to Sen have been opposed by a large section of the public, who believe they are illegal and counterproductive. But despite the public outcry in India and overseas, and despite the Supreme Court having declared civilian militias like Salwa Judum illegal in almost as many words, we had to wait for two whole years to get Binayak Sen released. That’s the real black joke, and even the alert Bengalis seem to have missed it.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine