Ilina Sen

Bread, roses and Ilina

Print edition : September 11, 2020

Ilina Sen, a file picture. Photo: By Special Arrangement

‘Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir’ by Ilina Sen (Penguin, 2014)

Binayak Sen and Ilina Sen at a seminar on sedition and human rights violations at Gandhi Peace Foundation, in New Delhi on May 7, 2011. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Ilina Sen (1951-2020) will be remembered for her deep commitment to the preservation of democratic rights, contribution to women’s studies, involvement with people’s movements and her vision of an equal world.

Ilina Sen, academic and ardent campaigner for tribal and women’s rights, passed away on August 9 after a nine-year-long battle with cancer. She was 69.

She was a part of a generation that believed that the principles of democracy, secularism and socialism were worth fighting for. At a personal level, Ilina Sen battled cancer but a subsequent attack of paralysis worsened her health. On a broader political level, like several others of the post-Emergency generation, she campaigned for the rights of the marginalised, women and tribal people. She also had to face the might of the state when her husband and ideological soulmate Binayak Sen was sentenced to life by a lower court on charges of sedition in 2007. Chhattisgarh was then ruled by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government.

Binayak Sen, a medical doctor, was in solitary confinement until 2011 when the Supreme Court ruled that no case for sedition could be made out against him. Ilina and her young daughters bore it all with the kind of fortitude typical of her generation. She was not without support from the women’s movement and several colleagues and individuals. “Bread and Roses”, a rallying call of the suffragette movement and of 20th century women textile workers in Massachusetts, was one of her favourite poems.

In an interview to Frontline in 2011 in Delhi after she addressed the media as part of a campaign for Binayak Sen’s release, she spoke on the assault on the democratic rights of people. When working as a researcher, this correspondent and two colleagues had met Ilina Sen in Raipur in the early 1990s. The Sens’ work among tribal people was well-known and their organisation Rupantar straddled the worlds of academia and activism effortlessly. It was not uncommon for young researchers to meet the Sens to get a sense of the issues in Chhattisgarh. Ilina Sen was as warm, affectionate and welcoming in 2011 as she had been to the team of three young researchers who met her in her modest house years ago.

In the early 1970s, the Sens were based in Tamil Nadu. Binayak Sen pursued an M.D in paediatrics in Christian Medical College, Vellore, while Ilina Sen taught in a school. In 1976, they went to Jawaharlal Nehru University for higher studies. While Binayak Sen joined the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health, Ilina Sen enrolled for an M.Phil and later PhD in population studies. Her PhD thesis, titled “Declining Sex Ratio in India”, was based on her field experiences among Adivasis in Hoshangabad. The Sens got involved with tribal issues and the specific problems faced by them. They set up medical facilities in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

A writer with the people

Some of Ilina Sen’s books, Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir (2014), A Space Within the Struggle: Women’s Participation in People’s Movements (1990) and Sukhvasin: The Migrant Woman of Chhattisgarh (1995), articulated her concerns and hopes for a better India. A Space Within the Struggle, a collection of essays which chronicled the struggles and lesser known aspects of women workers, is seen as one of her most important writings. In the preface to Inside Chhattisgarh, she expressed her world-view thus: “Chhattisgarh for me has always been much more than a place of work. Our engagement with the land and its people goes beyond that. It has been our home; its people have been our own; it lies at the root of our sense of belonging there. The trauma we experienced following the case can in no way wipe out those rich memories.” The book documented Binayak Sen’s arrest, trial and conviction. She wrote: “I have tried to recreate the bittersweet cocktail that Chhattisgarh has now become for our family members. I wish that the bitter remains a subject for intellectual analysis, and the sweet passes, through these recollections, into the collective consciousness of my readers.” In the book, she recounted how the police searched her daughter’s algebra books for “codes”. In 2007, the year Binayak Sen was arrested, she had been teaching in the Department of Women’s Studies at the Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, Wardha, Maharashtra. Between her classes and helping lawyers with their briefs, Ilina Sen would frequently take the train from Wardha to Raipur and back.

Between 2011 and 2014, Ilina Sen was president of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies (IAWS). Indu Agnihotri, former director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), who was general secretary when Ilina Sen was president, said: “The conference was in Guwahati. Ilina always had a special feeling for the North-East as she had studied in Shillong. There was this understanding she had of the politics too of the place and shared common concerns. She used to sing a lot. At the inaugural she sang a few lines from ‘Bread and Roses’.” Meera Velayudhan, the current president of the IAWS, also recalled Ilina Sen’s passion for singing. As both Meera Velayudhan and Indu Agnihotri recalled, Ilina Sen was particularly fond of James Oppenheim’s poem. The American women’s suffrage activist Helen Todd was known to be the inspiration behind the poem. In one of her many speeches, Helen Todd had famously said: “Bread for all, but roses too”. The iconic poem was a rallying cry in the textile workers march in 1912, Lawrence, Massachusetts, and has been sung at picket lines, and rendered by many well-known singers, including John Denver and Judy Collins.

Less known women’s movement

According to Indu Agnihotri, the women’s movement, of which Ilina was also a part, was one of the most sustained and enduring movements in the post-Emergency era: “Everyone talks about the JP movement or the Socialist movement. It is not highlighted sufficiently but an entire generation of students acquired that consciousness from the women’s movement which became a part of their daily lives and practice, including in Ilina’s case. We may have had different streams of political consciousness but the desire to challenge forces that threatened our democracy united us all.” She added: “The challenge was to build democracy, not to wreck it as we see it happening today.”

Indu Agnihotri recalled that the 1970s were a time when an entire generation took to activism and when social concerns were part and parcel of academic spaces. It was the period when several civil liberties organisations came up. It was also a period of crisis in capitalism. There was considerable industrial strife in the years 1974-75 that led to the largest number of man days lost owing to strikes. There was unrest in industrial tribal belts, too, said Indu Agnihotri. In one of her books, Ilina Sen described how she and Binayak Sen arrived in Chhattisgarh as part of a team to investigate the illegal detention of the firebrand trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi and his associate. Niyogi was murdered allegedly by those whom he took cudgels against. “There was a concern that development should reach these areas [in Chhattisgarh] through democratic processes. Their organisation ‘Rupantar’ was very successful,” said Indu Agnihotri.

There was a growing academic interest in workers’ movements, especially the role, lives and struggles of women workers. Meera Velayudhan recalled how in one of the IAWS sessions in the early 1980s on people’s movements, Ilina Sen presented a paper on the women miners and their struggles as part of the Chhatisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), while Meera Velayudhan presented her paper on the women factory committees of the Coir Workers Labour Movement in Alleppey, Kerala. Ilina Sen was a member of the women’s wing of the CMM. Women workers were emerging as an important constituency. This was around the same time, Meera Velayudhan said, that the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) also formed the All India Co-ordination Committee for Working Women.

“She was both an academic and an activist. She was very good at profiling the lives and struggles of women workers. She became the president of the IAWS a little before Binayak was arrested and she was fighting her cancer even then,” she said. At one of the IAWS conferences in Wardha, which Ilina Sen helped organise, Meera Velayudhan recalls how the participants were harassed only because of the case against Binayak Sen. Ilina Sen herself was under surveillance. “She managed all of that admirably. She had this capacity,” recalled Meera Velayudhan.

The IAWS and women’s groups like the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) paid rich tributes to the memory of Ilina Sen. The IAWS noted that Ilina Sen was part of the IAWS and the women’s studies movement since its inception in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The IAWS condolence note stated: “She brought perspectives and collective wisdom from the most marginalised communities and her book, A Space Within the Struggle, reflected her lifelong emphasis on the rights of women in all spheres of life, in people’s organisations and trade unions”. She had a keen understanding of cultural issues, and played a pivotal role in initiating the Cultural Front of the Chhattisgarh Mineworkers’ Association, stated the IAWS release. “Ilina’s presidential speech at Guwahati remains in our memories as she ended her speech with the song ‘Bread and Roses’, which energised all the participants,” recalled Meera Velayudhan.

The AIDWA described her as a “face of the public health movement”, as someone who strove hard for the health care rights of the working class. Not only did she spearhead the campaign for the release of Binayak Sen, she also campaigned for the release of several young men wrongfully arrested in Chhattisgarh, stated an AIDWA release. She remained a vocal critic of human rights violations in Chhattisgarh and, despite her worsening health, she stayed active in several people’s movements, observed the AIDWA.

Tributes poured in from outside India too. The Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) described her as a “doyen of feminist politics, blending it with indigenous community perspectives and that of the trade union movement of Chhattisgarh. Her convictions and activism made her known to every sector in the civil society movement in South Asia.” As a member of the Forum, she reminded them of the need to go “outside the middle-class activist space” and establish lively relationships with ground movements. She vehemently argued for every space of the Forum being gender sensitive, stated the PIPFPD. Ilina Sen will be remembered for her deep commitment to the preservation of democratic rights, contribution to women’s studies, wider involvement with people’s movements and her vision of an equal world. Not just bread but roses for all, too.