Gabriele Dietrich

Ilina Sen, teacher, author and activist has left behind a rich legacy of work and warmth that will continue to inspire women’s and human rights activists and students.

On 9 August 2020, Ilina Sen, former professor and head of Advanced Women’s Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai and a former president of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies (IAWS), died at the age of 69, after a decade of struggle with cancer, at her home in Kolkata. She was surrounded by her family, husband Binayak Sen, daughters Pranhita and Aparajita, her mother and a cousin. She is mourned intensely by a wide constituency of people, not only in the women’s movement and in the IAWS, but by many activists in human rights movements, trade unions in the unorganised sector and public intellectuals. She did not struggle “against” her illness, she lived with it. She frequently said: “I just want to…live!” And live she did, with enormous energy and serenity and a very gentle sense of humour.

I had known Ilina since the 1984 conference of IAWS in Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) and had visited the Sens in Dalli Rajhara, Chhattisgarh, where they worked since 1981 with

the mine workers’ union, Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS), founded by Shankar Guha Niyogi. Ilina worked with the women’s wing of the union and Binayak belonged to the group of doctors who helped to build up the Shahid Hospital together with the workers.

The Sens had a connection with South India, as Binayak had studied medicine at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, while Ilina was teaching in a school. In 1988, there was a small meeting in Thiruvananthapuram of people working with different unions and organisations, like Nalini Nayak, working with fishworkers, Dileep Kamat from Belgaum, working with weavers, and the Sens, Ilina, Binayak and Pranhita, then three years old and very active and adventurous. My own children, who were a bit older, upheld Ilina to me as a model of patient and risk-friendly mothering, who remained smiling and unexcited in view of any escapades.

The meeting tried to understand the commonalities in different organisations and their relevance in transforming the society. Ilina, who was working with the women in the CMSS, raised the question of women’s representation in “mixed” organisations, which were unavoidably male-dominated. This was later presented in depth in her book A Space within the Struggle: Women’s Participation in People’s Movements (Kali for Women, 1994). She was researching this problem in a wide range of organisations and later wanted to update it, because so many new organisations had come into being. This is now left to the youngsters.

Ilina had been alerted to such problems already during the time she worked on her PhD. A trained demographer, her dissertation had been on the skewed sex ratio in Indian births. She was one of the first researchers to highlight this problem. She also researched the problems of women migrant labourers in Chhattisgarh, and published a book titled Sukhvasin: The Migrant Women of Chhattisgarh.

The Sens had come to Chhattisgarh in 1981 to work with Niyogi. They left Dalli Rajhara before Niyogi was murdered in 1991. Ilina had a deep interest in the biodiversity of the state, which had earlier been documented by Richharia, who had collected many rice varieties. Unfortunately, this collection was tampered with and landed up in the International Rice Research Institute in Manila. There were activists from the state and also from Kerala, who were trying to restore this knowledge.

Details of this history can be found in Ilina’s most recent book Inside Chhattisgarh (2018), which is a must read for anybody interested in the recent history of the state. It was written when she followed the invitation of Indian friends in the United States to take a break for writing about the state and its people and history.

The Sens moved to Tilda, in 1988, where Binayak worked at a hospital. This was the time when Aparajita, their second daughter, entered their life. After about two years they moved to Raipur, where they bought a piece of land and started to gather experience in ecological agriculture. Ilina did groundwork for building a non-governmental organisation called Rupantar to pursue cultivation of local seeds and Binayak wanted to create public consciousness in preventive healthcare, which he had done all along. It looked like a good perspective for constructive work.

But the times were not conducive for peaceful work. Binayak became active in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. Before long, he became the general secretary for the state and started visiting political prisoners in the jail, as was his duty. This, in turn, was held against him and he was accused of sedition. He was arrested and was in jail from May 2007 to April 2009. The family had to withstand political pressure, visit him in jail and be in touch with massive support work. I sometimes visited and went with Ilina. It was disconcerting when sometimes the visit was suddenly cancelled, despite written permission. The support to the Sens from friends and civil society was overwhelming. Binayak was convicted on 24 December 2010, but later got bail from the Supreme Court. It must be noted that Ilina’s illness first appeared in 2010.

Ilina decided to take the opportunity to work as head of the Women’s Studies Department of the Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya in Wardha, which helped to give the family a new lease of life. Her students loved her, as she opened up new perspectives for them. She took responsibility for organising the national conference of IAWS in Wardha in 2009, while Binayak was still in jail. She was targeted by the police who alleged that she had permitted participation of foreigners from neighbouring countries without informing the police of their presence. This was a blatant lie, because they all had proper visas and their presence had been duly reported. This was probably retaliation for a small spontaneous procession on campus with the slogan “Free Binayak Sen.” We spent a tense night imagining what would happen if Ilina was also arrested. But on the next day everything got clarified. It was a great conference, despite all the impediments.

A little later, Ilina was elected president of IAWS. She also got the opportunity to become the head of the Advanced Women’s Studies Department at TISS in Mumbai. Ilina invited some of her well-known feminist friends for special lectures and it was a time of creative discussions. The campus gave some sense of security. Ilina headed the next national conference in Guwahati as president of the association. She was already visibly ill at that time, but discharged all her duties gracefully and with amazing energy. She was an energetic participant at the conference in Chennai in 2017.

After retirement from TISS, the family moved to Kolkata, except the younger daughter, who was then a lawyer in Mumbai. In 2019, Ilina’s cancer appeared in her brain, and this led to her feeling disoriented, but still aware of her condition. The family agreed to have the tumour removed in Vellore, CMC. The surgeon, Ari Chacko, made it clear that taking the tumour out could only give temporary relief. But Ilina was determined to protect her mental faculties as long as she could. She was successfully operated and insisted on getting up the very same day and walking in the corridor. We could not believe our eyes when she did so. Not only that, she visited another patient whom she knew on the same floor. She lived! She will be alive in our memories and future generations will learn about her from her books. The IAWS is planning to establish a memorial lecture series in her memory. She has left with us one task, about which she was passionate and which may be very difficult to achieve: To do away with the sedition law.

Gabriele Dietrich (reach.gabriele@gmail.com) is professor emerita at Department for Social Analysis, Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary, Madurai.

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