When Prajwala Pathatte first met Shoma Sen in 2013, many of her acquaintances made it a point to ask her to be careful around the English professor, insisting that she was a ‘Naxal’. Pathatte, then in her mid-thirties, had just enrolled into a masters’ course in English at Nagpur University after quitting her job as an engineer and giving birth to two children. She had not studied literature earlier and was anxious about how the faculty would react to an older student like her.
Her fears were put to rest when she met Sen. “She doesn’t have any airs. A majority of the students in the university came from rural or not very privileged backgrounds. They couldn’t speak English well, but Sen would immediately put them at ease and emphasise there was no shame in not being able to speak it well,” Pathatte told HuffPost India.
Sen was arrested with other activists and lawyers such as Surendra Gadling and Rona Wilson on 5 June and has been in Yerawada Jail in Pune since then. Police have alleged that she is linked to a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
On Wednesday, Teachers’ Day, PM Modi tweeted, “Greetings to the teaching community on the special occasion of #TeachersDay. Teachers play a vital role in the shaping of young minds and building our nation,” he said.
Greetings to the teaching community on the special occasion of #TeachersDay. Teachers play a vital role in the shaping of young minds and building our nation.
We bow to our former President and a distinguished teacher himself, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan on his Jayanti. pic.twitter.com/npYEzhAYyw
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) September 5, 2018
Sen remains in jail, waiting for justice.
Koel Sen, the professor’s daughter, told HuffPost India that the day their house in Nagpur were raided, Sen and her husband were confined to their room all day and not even allowed to go to the kitchen to get a cup of tea. When they wanted to use the washroom, they were asked to keep the door open.
“My parents are senior citizens and have worked all their lives for the rights of Dalits and women and this was how the police treated them. While they didn’t get even a cup of tea, the police ordered vada pav and tea and had them and then went on to mock my parents by saying, ‘can’t you stay hungry for a day, we work days without food’,” the Mumbai-based independent filmmaker told HuffPost India.
She said that Sen has been unwell in the jail and even though she is an undertrial, she has been kept with convicts and has little access to books and visitors. “I can see she has aged years in the past three months,” Koel said.
I can see she has aged years in the past three months
Professor Pramod Munghate, Sen’s colleague from Nagpur University, said, “We miss her today.” Though he declined to comment on the allegations against her, he said that from their interactions on campus, he knew Sen had excellent knowledge of her subject and helped her students a lot.
Patthate, who had dabbled in activism around farmers’ rights in the past, was drawn to Sen’s work on the rights of women and Dalits. “Even as professor of literature, she would encourage us to look at canonical texts and almost every literary work from the point of view of women and oppressed castes and classes,” Patthate said. Together, Sen and Patthate attended and organised several debates, discussions and seminars on these issues. Patthate particularly remembers a meeting organised soon after the government’s demonetisation move to discuss how it affected women.
Koel recounted the time Sen took up the case of an adivasi woman who had been raped in police custody in Gadchiroli. “My mother took up the case despite the police being involved and went to the Bombay High Court against the police. The court ruled in the favour of the survivor and she got justice,” Koel said.
Sen spent her formative years in Mumbai and, according to an article on the website of Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), was an active participant in various civil rights movements during her days in the city as a student and backed the strike by textile workers in the city in the 1980s. The article notes that after she moved to Nagpur, Sen’s house was a “refuge for women struggling to survive and make ends meet”.
It adds that Sen founded the Committee against Violence on Women (CAVOW) which undertook fact-finding missions investigating actions of the Army in Manipur under AFSPA following the murder of Thangjam Manorama Devi in 2004. She also led a fact-finding mission into allegations of sexual violence against the Salwa Judum in Bastar.
Activist Subod More, who had worked with Sen while she in Mumbai, said she was a relentless fighter for the rights of the poor and dispossessed. “She was an integral part of the meetings and seminars organised across Maharashtra after the Khairlanji massacre in 2006,” he said. More said that Sen’s arrest was merely a ploy by the government to distract people from the investigations into the involvement of Hindutva activists in the Bhima Koregaon violence. “The allegations against her are bogus,” he said.
Patthate told HuffPost India that her teacher spoke about protests and holding governments accountable, but always wanted to do so with the aid of available laws. Sen, according to her, directed them to get police permissions and inform local authorities before holding any demonstration or meeting. “Activist groups have had a tradition of ceremonially burning the Manusmriti in Nagpur at a public place. The practice is to give the police a notification that such an event will be organised. Ever since this government came to power, the police has suddenly been telling activists that these events will get them in trouble and they will get sued. This must be connected,” Pathatte said.
She added that the local media’s role in demonising the likes of Sen should not be discounted, saying that even after they sent out formal invites to media houses, including English dailies, a national newspaper owned by a group which has a plethora of TV and entertainment channels published a report calling it a “secret meeting”, suggesting something ominous was being cooked up. “Meanwhile, other papers had reported from the event itself,” Pathatte said.
She also remembered an instance when Professor GN Saibaba’s wife had visited Nagpur to meet her husband who has been jailed for alleged Maoist links, and had stayed at Sen’s house. “The next day, a national daily published a half-page article which didn’t mention Sen but implied that the fact she hosted Saibaba’s wife meant she must have Maoist links herself,” Pathatte said. She doesn’t remember Sen ever defending instances of Naxalite violence in the five years she has known her.