Social Activist, Academic and Author Ilina Sen Passes Away

Ilina Sen spent years working on healthcare in remote tribal regions, mostly in central India.

Author, activist and academic Ilina Sen, who had been suffering from cancer for several years, passed away on August 9. She is survived by her husband, Dr Binayak Sen, and two daughters, Prahnita and Aparajita.

Ilina passed away in Kolkata. CPI(ML) West Bengal state secretary Partha Ghosh, in a statement issued to the press, said, “Dr Ilina Sen was a face of the public health movement. Tomorrow, at 6 am, her last rites will be performed at Keoratala crematorium (in Kolkata).”

Ilina, who spent many years in Chhattisgarh and worked with several trade unions and Adivasi organisations, had moved to academics a decade ago. She taught at the Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya in Wardha, Maharashtra and later moved to Mumbai to join the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

In 2007, Binayak, a medical practitioner and also a human rights activist, was arrested on charges of being a “courier” for Maoists. He was later convicted by a Raipur sessions court on charges of sedition and under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Chhattisgarh Public Safety Act. Ilina spearheaded the legal battle for his release and also campaigned against the wrongful arrest of several young men from the Adivasi community in central India.

As soon as the news of Ilina’s death was announced, several rights activists and academics took to social media to express their grief. Mumbai-based writer and journalist Dilip D’souza wrote, “Dismayed to hear of Ilina Sen’s death. She was an endless source of material, common sense and inspiration when I was writing my book about her husband, Binayak Sen, and also later. Her own book, “Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir” was an eye-opener. Go well, Ilina.”

Ilina had been a vocal critic of rampant human rights violations in Chhattisgarh. In her books Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir and Sukhvasin: The migrant woman of Chhattisgarh, she provided a broader political perspective about Chhattisgarh, talking in detail about the people’s struggle in the region. Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir is both a personal memoir and a political biography of the state.

In her book A Space Within The Struggle, published by Zubaan, an independent feminist publishing house in Delhi, Ilina wrote about several women in social movements and how they questioned patriarchy within them.

In a detailed interview given to Zubaan in 2015, Ilina says, “(I) grew up with the women’s movement.” In the same interview, Ilina had said that she could divide her work and life into two periods. “Whatever I have done in my life and work, I can divide it into two periods…Prior to 2005, a lot of it was focused on Chhattisgarh. For anybody at that time who was doing research on Chhattisgarh, wanting to work on Chhattisgarh, when they were passing through, they would come and meet me. I met lots of people at that time – people from Delhi, international scholars – and I was recognised as someone who was a fait with those issues…When I again started writing, 2009 onwards, it was a different phase. I had seen the repressive face of the state at close quarters. My own academic interests also changed,” she said.

She spent the late 1970s and early 80s studying at Jawaharlal Nehru University and had actively participated in protests against dowry deaths and the Mathura rape case.

Ilina worked closely with her husband on healthcare in remote tribal regions, mostly in central India. The couple spent several years working in rural Madhya Pradesh and were associated with the Chattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangatan (CMSS), an independent union of workers in the iron ore mining belt of Madhya Pradesh, in Dalli Rajhara (now in Chattisgarh). The couple eventually worked with the Shaheed hospital of the CMSS, created to provide healthcare within a working class movement.

The two also set up an NGO named Rupantar, which focused on gender issues and trainings, as well as agrobiodiversity. At Rupantar, the couple started documenting the different indigenous strains of rice and seed banks Chhattisgarh had, and in one interview Ilina said that the efforts were to preserve several indigenous strains of food grain that were being ignored.

Even as her health worsened, Ilina stayed active in several people’s movement and had been associated with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) for a long time. She had voiced her dissent and objection over rampant arrests of human rights activists in the country, most recently in the Elgar Parishad case of Maharashtra.


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