Dear Mr. Chidambaram,
We, the members of the Executive Committee of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS), write to you in shock in the face of our recent experiences of intimidation and harassment at the hands of the Anti Terrorism Squad during the XIII National Conference of the IAWS in Wardha at the Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya (MGAHV), from January 20-24th 2011. The IAWS (established in 1982) is an academic and professional association of nearly two thousand Women’s Studies scholars, teachers, students and activists. A National Conference is held once in three years, which deliberates on various scholarly and social concerns focussing on women’s lives in the country. The programme included 5 plenary sessions and 10 subtheme sessions, totalling over 300 submitted papers and 19 plenary speakers. The highest standards of excellence were demonstrated over the course of the conference. There were 750 participants from different parts of the country, including a few South Asian and other participants who had come to understand gender issues in an atmosphere of intellectual exchange and learning. A South Asia plenary is an old practice of the IAWS—this time eminent writers and poets from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan spoke, for whom full clearance had been obtained from the respective Ministries. The university authorities supported the conference throughout, including dedicated volunteers and enthusiastic students and staff.
You can imagine our utter shock, therefore, when, completely unknown to ourselves or the university authorities, male police forcibly entered the premises of the Yatri Niwas Sewagram at 2:30 a.m. at night on 24th January, where women delegates were staying and sleeping, demanding access to any foreign participants who might be put up there. The next morning, when the valedictory session was being conducted, more police from the ATS entered the venue asking questions from those present. These personnel flouted all procedural norms. They did not contact the university authorities in order to obtain permission to enter, nor did they ask to meet with the relevant office bearers of the IAWS in order to obtain whatever information they required. Instead, a fear psychosis was created in an academic conference involving large numbers of scholars and students, mainly women.
Only later at night did the news channels give the information that an FIR had been issued against Prof. Ilina Sen, member of the IAWS and the local host of the Conference. After an entire day of repeated efforts, a copy of the FIR was finally obtained, FIR No. 3004 against Professor Ilina Sen and another person “the Head of the Accommodation Committee for not furnishing details of foreigners participating in the conference” (dated 24/1/11 under the Foreigners Act, Sec 14, filed by Milind Totre, Police Inspector, ATS Unit, Nagpur, lodged at Police Station, Sewagram, Dist Wardha).
Upon perusal of the FIR and the Foreigners Act it is clear that the FIR is completely unfounded, baseless and not tenable in law. Why has Prof. Ilina Sen been maliciously singled out and targeted in this manner? In the wake of the life sentence imposed on her husband, the paediatrician and human rights activist Dr. Binayak Sen, Ilina Sen has stated that she fears for her safety and security. The Home Minister Mr. Chidambaram has been quoted in the media as saying that she has no reason to have such fears. But with this clear proof of a witch-hunt being undertaken by the Nagpur ATS to arrest her without any genuine grounds on a flimsy charge, we cannot help but ask you – on what basis should Ilina Sen feel safe in this country? We demand the immediate withdrawal of the FIR that has been issued.
As members of Executive Committee of the IAWS, the most prestigious and internationally recognised women’s studies association in the country, we register our protest in the face of such treatment at the hands of the ATS. If the ATS – confident of its impunity and with no concern for procedure – can create an atmosphere of fear in a longstanding, internationally reputed conference like ours, what does this say for India’s plans to become a global knowledge society? On what basis should any of us who wish to sustain critical inquiry and new knowledge in our universities feel hopeful about our own futures? And what will the global scholarly community think of our claims of being a responsible, open and democratic society if academic conferences – supported financially by various Indian government and international sources – are disrupted by police in this brazen fashion?
We hope to receive an immediate response from the Home Ministry to the issues we have raised and to know what action will be taken by the Ministry in the face of such intimidation and harassment.
Anita Ghai, Samita Sen, Meera Velayudhan, Rukmini Sen, S. Anandhi, M. Indira, Ilina Sen, Uma Chakravarti, Wandana Sonalkar, Meena Gopal, Sumi Krishna, Mary E. John (IAWS Executive Committee members)
26 January 2011