I first met Binayak Sen in early May 2011, a couple of weeks after the Supreme Court granted him bail and he was released from jail in Raipur. It was before nine in the morning when I arrived at the Sens’ farm on the outskirts of Raipur. A few dogs sniffed curiously at my shins and a small team was working on some repairs on a low building on the premises. Sen greeted me and we sat chatting on a parapet outside: how was your trip, hope your health is better, and the like.

His wife Ilina emerged soon after, with biscuits and tea. After a while, Sen rose and went into the house for something. “The time in jail has left him a little confused,” said Ilina. “He’s forgotten how to use ATMs, for example.” 

When Sen returned, he told me of an incident from the previous day. He was walking the dogs on the road outside the farm, as he did every day. An open jeep passed him, driving fairly fast. It suddenly braked and stopped about 100 metres ahead of Sen. Then it reversed, also at speed, and drew up alongside him. In the jeep was a bearded young man wearing shades. He stared at Sen for a few seconds, then suddenly shifted into gear and roared off. 

Nothing overt had happened, yet this odd encounter had clearly shaken him and Ilina. “We’ve seen posters in Raipur,” said Ilina, “posters with Binayak’s picture on them, saying ‘Traitors must be hanged’”.

When I was done with my tea, two of the workers came up to discuss some aspect of their repairs. The building was one that the Sens built to use for occasional courses, for example to train health workers. We walked over. It wasn’t finished yet, but it gave the impression of light and air. On one side stood a wooden ladder that did not inspire much confidence. One of the men held it firm as Sen and I climbed to the curved roof. It was laid with bits of broken tile, making for a smooth, cool surface to walk on in my bare feet. From below, the man directed us a few steps to our left. Sen pointed out a long crack that ran across the roof. As we walked around the roof, we saw more cracks that needed repair.

Back on terra firma a few minutes later, Sen took me into the house and produced two slices of toast. 

It was a morning remarkable only for its ordinariness. It prompted me, later that day, to ask Sen, what was a typical day in jail like? 

“I usually woke at 6 a.m.”, he said. The warders would open the door of the cell, and Sen would go out for a walk in the courtyard. At about 7, there was tea, and breakfast an hour later. The newspapers of the day, always censored—that is, with jagged holes where material unfit for Sen’s eyes had been excised—arrived at about 11. Local papers were available, but Sen had specifically asked for The Hindu. 

Since The Hindu does not have an edition printed in Chhattisgarh, he’d get the previous day’s Delhi edition, with day-old news. With holes in it, that is.

He’d read the paper, do some exercise and walk some more. Lunch was served at about noon. In the afternoon, he’d read some more—he had access to a few books, though the prison library “had no books worth reading”. If there was time, the prisoners would sit around and talk about their cases and the news. There was a TV on which they could watch the news on the government’s own Doordarshan channel. In fact, that was how he found out about his own bail. After dinner at about 7 p.m., he would be locked into his cell for the night.

A few physical details rounded out this picture. His cell had no windows, only a grill set in the door. He was allowed visits by family once a month, and he quickly realised how important it was just to be able to touch whoever came to visit. Sometimes prisoners were separated from their families by a double grill and could not touch them. He also spoke about feeding a cat that lived inside the jail, one egg yolk a day. 

More ordinariness. If I was expecting stories of shackles and beatings and fights to the death with other prisoners, Sen’s account showed only that prison life was so bland that blandness itself was the penalty. 

No wonder he seemed confused to his wife. No wonder he had forgotten how to use ATMs.

Done with the toast and a cup of coffee, I asked Sen: “What about the case? How do you react to all that it has done to you?”

A short pause while he gathered his thoughts, then a swiftly rendered few sentences in response. From my notes, they went like this: “I am hopeful,” he began, “that the verdict, the life sentence, will be overturned. Because there’s no logic in it. There’s no evidence of any criminal act that I committed. Not even the state has accused me of anything criminal. They have accused me of meeting certain people. But just meeting people is not a crime.” He repeated: “The state has not accused me of any crime.”

Referring to his colleagues in the PUCL in Chhattisgarh, he went on: “We’re very clear that government policy was behind the rise of the Salwa Judum. We knew we were opposing Salwa Judum, and thus the government, but that’s our democratic right. Salwa Judum has caused the burning of houses, raping of women, killing of civilians by armed militias. In opposing all this, in demanding the legitimate rights of people to justice, we were fulfilling the demands of our conscience. This is required of any loyal citizen.”

But it was clear that the state intended to suppress their protest with punitive action. The government was angry with the work of the PUCL, but there was no way they would not continue with it. “Once we deny civil liberties, we no longer know where we are headed. Democracy and civil liberties must always be maintained and protected. And in fact that in itself is the justification for a concern for civil liberties and human rights: that they contribute to the integrity of a democratic system. When you ignore them, you call that integrity into question.” 

All of which sounded reasonable to me. Yet I knew that one of the prime accusations against Sen was that he met a Maoist ideologue, Narayan Sanyal, in jail several times, and carried some letters for him to a man called Piyush Guha. What about meeting Sanyal, I asked Sen. And those letters?

After their first meeting, the jail officer asked Sen to get permission for subsequent visits from the senior superintendent. He got that. But the jail officials were present at every meeting, extra-vigilant in their body-searches before and after. There was a jail register that Sen signed, with every visit. 

And yet the government accused him of smuggling letters to Guha, now his fellow-accused. Apart from anything else, the police cannot even prove that Sen and Guha actually met. And in any case, the letters don’t contain any seditious material. In fact, there has been little critical evaluation of all the evidence the prosecution produced in pursuing this case. Yet it would be “retrograde”, said Sen, if his release on bail resulted in such an evaluation only for his case.

Instead, it should lay down a general principle about the need to carefully examine evidence.

This led Sen to another point about the process of justice. There must be greater public oversight of whatever is happening in our courts. This needs a committed audience, whose critical participation in the process—instead of trying to insulate courts from view— must be welcomed and seen as a step towards a better quality of justice. The aim always should be to have an open court.

He and his PUCL colleagues do not approve of any violence, whether by individuals, the state, or non-state groups like the Maoists. I listened to this, thinking of the number of times Sen has been asked what his connection was to Maoists, whether he approved of the violence they perpetrated, and if so why.

Throughout our conversation, I got the impression that Sen was discussing these details—the conditions he faced in jail, his thoughts on Maoist violence and the case against him—on sufferance.

In his mind, the whole case was only incidentally about him. At one point, he made his argument this way: “Whatever has happened to me is the result of the suffering of thousands of people. Any personal imprint would be ‘ghoulish’” (he really used that word). He was chafing at the bit to return to discussing the situation of Indians far less privileged than him. Of Indians facing annihilation—strong word, but Sen clearly saw it as possible—because of famine conditions and an inability to survive.

What advice was the Indian state giving them?

To him, it was particularly important for doctors to think about these things. A 2008 report by a committee headed by Sir Michael Marmot, for example, said inequity is killing people on a grand scale around the world. If we were to measure it, India would display some of the highest levels of inequity in the world. Nutrition has “implicit within it” the idea of inequity. “If we doctors are not able to address the problem of inequity and chronic undernutrition,” said Sen, “our duty as physicians is incomplete.”

It took him a long time, he said, to understand this connection. He had teachers who had worked on malnutrition and taught that the primary duty of the doctors they were training was to address the problems of the poor. Sen mentioned the 19th century German pathologist Rudolf Virchow, known for saying “politics is nothing but medicine writ large.” If people in medicine truly have the interests of their patients in mind, they will have to ask the series of ever-broader questions that come up during their work: from malnutrition to injustice to civil liberties, allowing always for the overlap between themes. And if they are willing to do that, doctors cannot help but bump up against the practice of politics.

“I don’t know much about the Maoists,” Sen explained. “I am not a political person and I never have sought a political identity. I just followed the logic of my profession.” But that logic itself leads a doctor to issues like inequity, and thus to the realm of politics: politics in the sense of how groups of citizens manoeuvre and negotiate their place in society.

These were the serious, if not outright depressing themes we discussed that day on Sen’s Raipur farm. And through it all I was conscious that this was a man with a sentence of life imprisonment on his head. Even if Sen seemed a little confused to his wife, he did not come across to me as downcast or pessimistic, in no way weighed down by the years in which his life had been turned upside down.

“I do believe,” he said that first evening, “that people are interested in peace. The issue of this enormous tension that’s at the heart of our society is something that all of us find unsatisfactory. 

Given a chance to reduce that tension, I believe the majority in this country would be interested. And so dialogue is the road towards peace: dialogue and equity, justice and equity.”

If enough people of goodwill talk to one another, Sen believes, a dialogue will ensue.

Cynical as I am about terms like goodwill and dialogue, I had to ask: Are you confident there are “enough people of goodwill”, and that they will really “talk to each other”? “What gives you hope about these things?” I asked.

“Hope,” replied Sen, “is a duty enjoined on us by our present situation.”