No rest for wives of political prisoners

Every year, West Bengal, and especially its capital Kolkata, lose themselves in fervent celebrations to mark the five days of Durga Puja. But Shikha Sen Roy has not enjoyed Durga Puja festivities since 2001 when her husband, the Maoist leader and ex-state secretary of the West Bengal committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), Himadri Sen Roy (alias Somen), was still with the family.

After 2001, Himadri went underground and then on February 23, 2007, he was arrested and imprisoned. Since then, life has been a grim battle for Shikha. “Although he had been away from home for years, I was happy because he was free. He was fighting against an unjust system. But now he’s in poor health and it tortures me to think that he has been robbed of the one thing a person treasures the most – liberty.”

Besides the emotional trauma, Shikha is also struggling with health problems. She’s chronically underweight, under constant medication and even came very close to a nervous breakdown. “I couldn’t have afforded medical treatment if it hadn’t been for our family physician who respects my husband and refuses to accept any fees from me,” she reveals, adding, “Yet, I often skip the medicines he prescribes because I simply cannot pay for them. But that’s no big deal. The vast majority of people in our country cannot afford any healthcare at all.” What is far more important to Shikha is to ensure that she can buy her husband the little things he needs in jail – clothes, dry rations, books, and so on.

An activist with a local women’s organisation, Shikha doesn’t like to talk about her own suffering. Yet, one look at the single dreary room that is her home, stuffed with a rickety sewing machine that provides her daily bread – she is a ladies’ tailor by profession – a small bed, a gas oven and a couple of plastic chairs, leaves little doubt of the wretchedness of her condition. But she chooses to remain positive believing that there are others who are far worse off than her. Women like Mukta Chakraborty, whose husband Gour Chakraborty is also a jailed Maoist leader.

Paying a heavy price
A pall of gloom looms over Chakraborty’s tiny home in the Kolkata suburb of Madanpur.  Her only son, Somprakash, too, was arrested on suspicion of being involved in Maoist activities and sent to Jharkhand. With her voice shaking with anger and despair she says, “First it was my husband, and now my son. What was his crime? Joining the campaign for the release of all political prisoners, including his father? That alone made him a dangerous terrorist? Why don’t they pick me up too and round off the score?”

Mukta works in a small medicine factory for paltry wages and is entitled to only one free day in a week. “But I have already used up all my leave visiting my husband in jail, consulting lawyers, being present in court for case hearings and participating in campaigns demanding his release. So now my wages are deducted when I take time off. At this rate, how will I meet my husband and son who are in jail in two different states?”.

Daily struggle
Mahamaya Sarkar, wife of jailed Maoist leader Chandi Sarkar, too, struggles every day to put up a brave front. A few months ago there had been a ray of hope when the state government had announced that 50-odd prisoners, including Sarkar, were slated to be released soon. “My daughter and I were so happy. I thought that that was to be the new government’s first step in honouring its electoral promise of releasing all political prisoners. I couldn’t wait for my husband to come home… it’s been seven years and he is really old and ill now,” she says. But her happiness was short-lived. The government soon announced that it would not be releasing any Maoist leaders.

Often the prisoners are sent to prisons far from their families, and some are in ill health and frail.  But often the wives are simply too poor or have too many work commitments to visit them regularly.  The men could get bail if they publicly renounce their ideals but more often than not, most of the wives don’t want that but they pay a heavy price.

“The police have raided my home twice – once before my husband’s arrest and once after,” recounts Shikha. “They ransacked the room in which I live with my son, interrogated me, and took away dozens of books and every single photo that I had of my husband. The second time, they came in the dead of the night and accused me of sheltering Maoist activists” she declares.

Personal woes have to wait
Shikha Sen Roy has gathered together wives of political prisoners and various women’s organisations on to a single platform to demand the unconditional release of not just Maoist but all political prisoners. “We will start a vigorous campaign soon. Political prisoners are not criminals and we are proud to be fighting for them,” she concludes with conviction, “Till then our personal woes can wait.”

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