Who is Shoma Sen?
In one of her letters to her daughter, Shoma writes, “They can keep me locked inside, but my mind is completely free”
A reputed academician, a Dalit and Women’s Rights activist, a teacher and dissenter, Shoma Sen is all of the above and more. Born and raised in Mumbai, she moved to Nagpur with her partner and daughter with a strong resolve to protect and promote democratic rights of the most marginalised people in the society.
Shoma has been a respected academic for almost three decades. She has been actively involved with the Women’s Department of Wardha Vishwavidyalaya and taught in various colleges across Nagpur. During the time of her arrest she was the Head of the Department of English at Rashtrasant Tukadoji Maharaj Nagpur University. She has written extensively on post-colonialism and women’s studies for several decades.
Shoma’s writings have discussed the feminist subjectivities of Dalit and Adivasi women oppressed under multiple structures. Her writings re ect the resilience and political assertions of women. Apart from her writings, her political work has contributed significantly to the processes of political and social transformation. She was a part of Vidyarthi Pragati Sangathana in her college days in Mumbai in the late 1970s. In the 1980s, she edited the students’ magazine Kalam and was active during the textile workers’ strike.
When she moved to Nagpur, Shoma continued to work for the furtherance of civil and democratic rights. She became actively and intimately associated with the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR), and continued to organise people under its banner with the aim to protect civil and democratic rights. She was actively involved with women’s organisations Women against Sexual violence and State Repression (WSS) and Stree Chetna and founded and convened the Committee Against Violence On Women (CAVOW). CAVOW conducted fact findings in conflict torn regions affected by State brutality like Manipur and Chhattisgarh. She also worked vigorously to organise legal aid for women political prisoners. It is her sincere belief that women should have the space to actively and effectively participate in democratic processes, as opposed to being given tokenistic gestures. She has worked for the rights of Dalit women who are doubly oppressed under Brahmanical patriarchy. Shoma has also been publicly critical of mainstream feminism which invisibilises caste and the oppression of Dalit women from outside and within the community.
Shoma, 60, was arrested by the Pune Police on June 6, 2018 as part of a brutal crackdown of the State on human rights defenders. Her daughter has documented their jail mulaqats on social media. In one of the letters to her daughter, Shoma writes, “They can keep me locked inside, but my mind is completely free”. This mirrors her resilient spirit that holds strong despite the prison officials’ insensitivity to her arthiritis, her age and her needs.
Shoma’s exemplary contributions to the eld of education and her profilic ability to mobilise people and especially women from across locations, had brought her under the State’s scrutiny. It is the clear intent of the masculine State to stife the voices of women who transgress the rigid structures of patriarchy and challenge the very structures that shackle them.
WHO IS SHOMA SEN?
Shoma Sen, Professor and Head of the Department of English at the Rashtrasant Tukadoji Maharaj Nagpur University, was arrested on 6 June 2018 and eventually suspended from the college, days before she was scheduled to retire in July 2018.
Shoma Sen grew up in the locality of Bandra, in Bombay (now Mumbai). Her father worked as creative head of an ad agency, her mother was an art teacher and an accomplished singer well-versed in Rabindra Sangeet.
In an interview to Jyoti Punwani, of the Mumbai Mirror (reproduced in Kracktivist) in 2009, marking the 40th anniversary of the Naxalite movement, Sen recalled how moved she had felt as a schoolgirl when her father had answered her queries about Naxalites. “I wanted to go to Presidency College and look for Naxalites. I used to fight with God for being so unfair towards the poor,” she said. A birthday card her father had made for her, had a bust of Karl Marx against the backdrop of Central Park in Salt Lake, Kolkata, where the Sens lived after her father retired.
The ’70s were a turbulent period. At that time almost everyone had sympathies with the Left. Shoma Sen was close to the Vidyarthi Pragati Sangh (VPS). When she married a worker she met during her involvement in Mumbai’s historic textile strike, her parents were dismayed, but supportive – they had long been acquainted with their daughter’s sympathies.
Sen moved to Nagpur soon after she completed her master’s degree in Mumbai’s Elphinstone College. She pursued her M.Phil and Ph.D in Nagpur. She felt that if all the intellectuals lived in Bombay, there would be no one to work for the people in the poorest parts of Maharashtra. She would spend the next 35 years of her life teaching in Nagpur.
Sen, her husband Tusharkant Bhattacharya, and their daughter Koel, now a filmmaker, lived in a modest home in the middle-class part of Nagpur.
Family, friend and students
Koel’s earliest memories of her mother are of her going out of her way to help people – providing financial support for poor girls and women, and even putting them up in her home for several years at a time. She writes: “One day Maa returned home with Lata, a young girl whose father had committed suicide before her eyes. She had already lost her mother at childbirth. Lata was carrying a cloth bag with a few rags inside for clothes and looked traumatized. Unable to look after her needs, Lata’s extended family had requested my mother to help. Lata lived with us for almost five years. She became my elder sister. Then, another girl − Neha − would drop in very often. She was studying for her medical entrance exam and needed a place to stay….”
“Our home became a shelter for almost anyone who needed help. As a child, I often felt outraged and often even jealous, that my mother had so much love to give and share with others’ children. It took a distant cousin from Kolkata − who stayed with us for two years − to put it into perspective: “Shoma Mashi is a woman of true individuality, who has worked tirelessly throughout her life for underprivileged people, has empowered women and encouraged them to speak up. She taught us that our voices are meant to be heard.”
Koel tells another story of the love and respect Shoma Sen has earned: “One of the policewomen accompanying her to the Swargate Police Station in Pune, fell at her feet the other day. Maa didn’t understand. The police woman was in tears. “Madam, you have taught me, I am so sorry to see you in this condition,’’ she said.”
In recent years, as Sen’s old friend Jyoti Punwani writes: “Along the way, the permanent activist mellowed, allowing herself the luxury of domestic help; a kitchen garden which her husband tended; watching Mad Men and other TV series; even occasional holidays abroad from where she posted pictures on Facebook. She seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time on social media, posting her own pictures in striking handloom sarees. Her in-laws spoke highly of the old fashioned Bengali delicacies she cooked for them. Given her arthritis, high blood pressure and early glaucoma, she started going for yoga classes at the nearby temple. She had already started learning the sitar; after retirement, she hoped to spend more time on it and on her other passion, travel”.
Koel recounted the time her mother 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 favor of the survivor and she got justice,” Koel said.
At the Rashtrasant Tukadoji Maharaj Nagpur University, heading its English department, she was well-loved as a teacher. Pathatte, one of her ex-students, said of her: “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 emphasize there was no shame in not being able to speak it well.”
Patthate 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 organized several debates, discussions and seminars on these issues. Patthate particularly remembers a meeting organized soon after the government’s demonetisation move to discuss how it affected women.
Work: Academic and Activist
Dr. Sen is that rare combination – a committed scholar and teacher, and an equally committed political and social justice activist.
On moving to Nagpur, Shoma got involved with the Women’s Studies department at Wardha’s Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, and being fluent in Hindi, often helped cover the shortage of teachers and examiners. She taught in ad hoc positions in several colleges, like the People’s Welfare Society (PWS) College in Indora, Nagpur, leaving home (and her then young daughter) early in the morning to get to work. She would ride her little moped for half an hour every day to teach her first class at 7 am. Her daughter recalls: “I woke up on most mornings to an empty house, making my own breakfast from the age of 9-10 and living very independently. Her evenings would be spent visiting women (many of them Dalits, and victims of domestic violence) in the slums of Juni Magalwari (a big ghetto in Nagpur), discussing their immediate issues and concerns.”
Dr. Sen has been an active scholar in the fields of post-colonialism and women’s studies for several decades. Her articles have appeared in scholarly publications such as the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) and The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. One of her articles, “The Village and the City: Dalit Feminisms in the Autobiographies of Baby Kamble and Urmila Pawar,” looks at the ways in which mainstream feminism has tended to ignore the problems of caste, resulting in a distinct Dalit feminism that acknowledges patriarchal oppression from outside and within communities. In 2011, she took part in the Indian Association of Women’s Studies (IAWS) national conference in Wardha.
While in college, Shoma Sen was with the Vidyarthi Pragati Sanghatana (VPS) and edited Kalam, the student magazine. She was involved in supporting the workers during the textile strike in Mumbai of the 1980’s. During this time, Shoma became member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR), of which she remains a member, and helped bring out the CPDR magazine, Adhikar Raksha. She is an active member of the national collective, Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS). She was an early member of the Nagpur-based Stree Chetna which would discuss issues such as violence against women and dowry deaths. She later became the founder convener of the Committee against Violence on Women (CAVOW) and edited its magazine, Stree Garjana. The organisation took part in fact-finding visits to examine the implementation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur after Thangjam Manorama’s brutal killing in 2004, and the allegations of sexual violence by the Salwa Judum in South Bastar in Chhattisgarh. CAVOW also played a role in organizing legal aid for many women political prisoners during the early 2000s. Shoma also convened an Adivasi Mahila Sammelan at Ranchi in March 2006. In recent years,
“The 70s and 80s were the best years of my life,” Shoma said in the interview. “Everyone was anti-establishment. To agitate was accepted.” The interviewer, her friend Jyoti Punwani, commented: “This rebellious spirit never left Shoma. She’s been part of every campaign against the State for violation of human rights. Now she’s paying for it.”
She has travelled to deliver lectures and talks and is a popular teacher, with a passionate interest in reading, researching, and teaching literature and women’s studies. Recently, with 38 years of teaching behind her, Dr. Sen became the head of the English department at Nagpur University. She was going to be honored by the Nagpur Teachers’ Alumni Association, with a book on her being released. The event was scheduled for 31 July; 1 August was her 60th birthday, for which her family was planning a celebration. Instead she was arrested on 6 June; just days before she was due to retire, the university suspended her.
Shoma Sen has been charged under various stringent sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and has been accused of, among other things, inciting the violence in Bhima-Koregaon in January 2018 through speeches; of doing so on behalf of the banned CPI (Maoist); of having links with and harboring fugitive members of this party at various times; and of fundraising for them. Following the arrest, an attempt was also made to tie her to a plot to assassinate the prime minister. By charging her with an extraordinary number of sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and UAPA, the police want to project her as a “dreaded criminal”; this legal overreach is intended to ensure a prolonged stint in police and judicial custody, irrespective of the validity of the claims. These charges are meant to serve as a life sentence to the arrested by the police, reaffirmed through the media, even if the judicial system finds them innocent in the days to come.
Dr. Sen is currently lodged in Yerwada Central Jail in Pune. She applied for bail in a special court in Pune on Oct 15th on grounds of health – she suffers from arthritis, high blood pressure, and early onset of hyper glaucoma. Her daughter says she has become very frail in the almost 5 months since she has been in jail.
In late October, the Supreme Court had stayed the Bombay High Court’s order of October 24 that refused a 90-day extension to the Pune police for filing a charge sheet against the five activists arrested in the June 6 crackdown. This led to the defense counsel applying for regular bail before the special court in Pune. All five activists would have been legally entitled to a default bail on or after November 1 had the Supreme Court not stayed Bombay High Court’s order.
Ms. Sen’s counsel, advocate Rahul Deshmukh had stated on October 12 that there was nothing in the so-called Maoist communications to incriminate Ms. Sen. Opposing their bail pleas, public prosecutor Ujjwala Pawar had submitted before the court that the activists were actively involved in the recruitment of professional revolutionaries for Maoists.
Her application for bail was turned down by the court on November 2nd. The order rejecting Ms. Sen’s bail application noted that the material collected by the investigating officer prima facie revealed her involvement in alleged unlawful activities inimical to the country’s security and that the investigation against the accused and other activists was at a very crucial stage.
“We will be moving another bail plea once the Pune police files their charge sheet against Ms. Sen and the others,” said advocate Pradeep Vitankar, counsel for the defense. Shockingly, this makes it clear that the police have held the activist for over five months without yet filing any charges.
Patthate, Sen’s ex-student, 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 organized. 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 demonizing 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 owns 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, so clearly it was not secret at all. Likewise, Shoma Sen had nothing to do with the Bhima Koregaon event, even though she did support its principles.
Koel says: “The literary evidence they collected from my mother’s house includes basic Communist literature, like books by Marx and Lenin, which you will find in any left-leaning household. But in the court on Thursday, the police was treating my mother and the others as if they were major criminals.”
International Actions Taken
The Committee of Concerned Scientists has written to the Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, expressing their concern. They note that Professor Sen was involved in a fact-finding effort to look into an April incident in which law enforcement authorities killed 40 people in April an anti-Naxal operation in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, an investigation that concluded the killings were indiscriminate.