I first meet Dr. Ilina Sen when she visits the Zubaan office on Thursday afternoon. Listening to her and Urvashi speak about communities, work, and solidarities from the heyday of the Indian women’s movement is just so. cool. One of the most amazing things about being an intern at Zubaan has been observing the strong connections and solidarity networks of South Asian feminists from another generation. It feels as though the work young feminists like me do today is preceded by a strong tradition, and that there are older people out there who have blazed the trail and are our allies. I always feel this irrepressible need to sit down with these older feminists and listen to them talk about every single thing they have done in their lives.
Magically, Ishani suggests I interview Dr. Sen for the Zubaan blog. And so the next morning, watery sunlight filtering through the clouds, I head to Dr. Sen’s guesthouse (she lives in Bombay and is visiting Delhi for a few days) in Central Delhi. Her room is spare yet comfortable, and she invites me to sit down and offers me chai.
Ilina Sen is largely known in popular discourse as the wife of Binayak Sen, a doctor who works with tribal people in Chhattisgarh, and was imprisoned wrongly by the government on suspicion of being a Maoist. However, in feminist circles, we also know her as a brilliant scholar and dedicated activist who lived in Chhattisgarh for many years, struggling with the mine worker trade unions (Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh, or CMSS) against corporatisation, and advocating for adivasi ecologies in her and her husband’s NGO Rupantar. Today, she primarily works as an academic in Women’s Studies. She has taught at Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, and now teaches at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
I begin by asking Dr. Sen about her life prior to the events of 2007, when her husband was arrested. I want to know more about what brought her to feminist work, Women’s Studies, and Chhattisgarh. She responds thoughtfully to my question, outlining the history and context in which her feminist consciousness bloomed. She says that she “grew up with the women’s movement”. The post-Emergency period was a time of political vibrancy in the country - especially at JNU, where she was a student in the late 70s and early 80s. She became part of this movement, often spontaneously going to protests against dowry deaths and the Mathura rape case. “So many things happened around us: the meeting to found Manushi occurred on the lawns of JNU. I was there, along with many others - it was a huge meeting.” She tells me that Urvashi is also from that generation of feminists. That’s how long they go back.
Later, she ended up going to Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh for her Ph.D. field work, where she met people working in a “voluntary agency” (which we would now call an NGO) called Kishore Bharti that aimed to transform science education. She got to know rural India a little bit, and eventually heard about the mine workers’ struggle in Chhattisgarh. So she headed there. The first thing that struck her, she says, a note of admiration still in her voice, was that so many women were involved. Half of the organisation’s membership was women - about five thousand, out of a membership of ten thousand. These were mostly tribal women, and they were “visible and articulate,” very different from the women of North India she had known before. “I was very impressed,” she says. “It was an impressionable age also...I really learned so much.”
When I ask her what she learned, and how her feminist consciousness developed in her struggle with the mine workers, she tells me an anecdote of her time in Chhattisgarh. “Earlier...when I first went there for example, if we had a meeting, it would go on till 10 o'clock at night, and nobody would stir. Men, women, everybody would be there - and...if the women had small children, the women would be scolding the small babies - that for everybody it was important to be there, to participate and to understand. Later when there was relatively more prosperity, women would start getting up from the meeting at quarter to 5.” They would ask the women who were leaving where they were going, and why they weren’t staying, only to find out that the women had to leave to start cooking for their families. “As long as you are at the same level, and everybody has to work for a living, women are valued as comrade, and they are part of the movement. Later when the men start earning a family wage, they start feeling like the head of the family. Then...many of these patriarchal assumptions about gendering of labor and women’s roles within the family [come into the picture].” This experience, she says, helped her - and also everyone else in the organisation, including the women who were leaving at 4:30 to cook - to understand the pulls and pushes between women’s production and women’s social reproduction. Now, teaching at TISS Mumbai, when they discuss the theory of these contradictions, she tells this story to her students to get them to understand what it looks like in practice. “[It]...was a different way of communicating feminist understanding and consciousness across class and across settings.” She is proud that during her time in Chhattisgarh, they were successfully able to build a body of working-class women activists who were aware of the oppression.
Sen stayed with the mine workers’ trade union, slowly getting immersed in the language and culture of Chhattisgarh. Many people, she tells me, have asked her why she chose to live in Chhattisgarh. It was not a conscious decision, but after “...learning the culture and language, I felt at home...it became impossible to think of moving away.” She sustained herself with her research, while spending most of the day working with tribal mine workers. “There was no average day, you know. An average day would be spent with people in what you would call the field - in villages, rural settings, tribal settings.Some days I would be writing up my experiences, writing as part of my research...I was speaking their language fluently, singing their songs, and I enjoyed it hugely.”
Throughout our conversation, she often emphatically says that she never felt like “a lamb that had been sacrificed.” She is resistant against the image of the upper middle class bleeding-heart NGOer, living in privation in order to uplift the lowly working-classes. “I...loved Chhattisgarh...I loved the place, I loved the people...I never felt martyred.” When she was in Chhattisgarh, she was living on Rs. 1000 a month, but she didn’t feel like anything she did was a sacrifice. Both she and her husband, Binayak, did what they did out of choice, and because they wanted to. And they both enjoyed their work very much.
She speaks about the NGO that they both set up. In Rupantar, they worked on gender issues and trainings, as well as agrobiodiversity. They started documenting the different indigenous strains of rice and seed banks Chhattisgarh had, and she started learning about adivasi ecology.
Here’s a story she told me which helped me understand how her feminist and ecological work is connected. At one point, the Bhilai Steel Plant, which employed a lot of women in the trade union as contract labor, was trying to modernise the plant. The women realised their jobs were at risk - they could potentially be replaced by machines and more formally-skilled labour that would have the technical know-how of how to operate the plant. Sen embarked on a huge study with the mine workers of how mechanisation affects women workers. The women workers, after the study, took a resolution (that the whole trade union followed through with) to think about the kind of technology a country like India needed to have. Since people were not in short supply, India did not need to follow the same automation norms many less populated countries needed to. Technology options needed to be rethought such that everyone’s work - men’s as well as women’s - was equally valued, and there was space for people to develop new skills within the job setting. “It was an entirely new way of looking at women and work,” Sen says. They needed to think about what the community needed and what kinds of lives would be livable, convivial, and sustainable. This work, it seems to me, was about prioritising development strategies that privilege those often left behind, displaced, and marginalised by traditional strategies of development - who are often women and members of the working class.
Sen has lived through a lot of change in Chhattisgarh - for example, the granting of statehood in 2000. Earlier, she says, “Chhattisgarh was just one forgotten corner of Madhya Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh itself is a forgotten part of India. It wasn’t well connected, except Bhopal, Gwalior...some areas like Khandwa, because of Medha Patkar’s movement...Chhattisgarh bahut zyada kabhi - it wasn’t really connected.” Unlike their neighbour Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh never had a strong movement for a separate state. However, their culture and language was very different from the rest of Madhya Pradesh’s, and administratively, living in Madhya Pradesh was difficult since everything was so far away. So when statehood was granted, Sen says, “there was general happiness that the administration was coming close...and everything was going to be more convenient. There was a sense of joy and happiness, that at last we have our place in the sun, our culture, our language [is being recognised]. That feeling lasted for four or five years.”
What happened after that? She says that the way the new state ended up taking shape disappointed her. “I realized in the 90s I think, that there was a tribal way of looking at life and doing things, and there was an administrative way, and the two were contradictory.” One area of discomfort was government education policy. Earlier, since Chhattisgarh was part of Madhya Pradesh, education was in Hindi. However, most people spoke Chhattisgarhi, not Hindi, and the two languages were very different - for example, Chhattisgarhi is not gendered like Hindi. School dropout rates were very high. So Sen, together with the rest of the CMSS, started building community schools - where everything was taught in Chhattisgarhi, where the poems children were taught were not Jack and Jill, but instead the community’s own songs. They built this curriculum from the ground up, writing down the songs, games and other material that was to be taught (Chhattisgarhi is largely an oral language). The community felt pride and ownership in this school system. However, with the new state, formal experiments had to take place in education. Sen says that they initially spoke to her, and other people, who had been doing this kind of work in the area for a long time. They were on committees and gave feedback. However, their feedback was largely disregarded, shunted aside so that the state could follow directives from the centre and from external organisations that gave them funding. They were interested in a more centralised vision of education.
Another way the new state disappointed her was the changing political climate, marketisation, mining activities and the coming of the corporates. “...Once the big corporations started to come, and tried to acquire land and push tribals out, there were many violations of basic rights that took place in that context.”
For example, Salwa Judum, a government-supported militia, was publicised as an anti-insurgent movement, specifically a movement to get rid of the Maoists. However, its real agenda was ground-clearing. It was also a movement to get rid of the people, because the government wanted to give the mineral-rich land to mining corporations. Salwa Judum led to huge abuses of human rights, including sexual violence against women. “Anyone who tried to take a position against that was persona non grata in state of Chhattisgarh...anyone who opposed the Salwa Judum was branded a Maoist sympathizer.”
I ask her how her work has changed with these changes in the political and economic environment of Chhattisgarh. In general, I am curious about how, through these dramatic changes, the political climate leading up to the arrest of Binayak Sen, and the eventual national furor over his case, her time and energy has been channeled into different things. How does she feel about this change? The answer, it seems, has many different facets for her. We spend a significant amount of time unpacking this issue.
“It’s a very complex issue and I’m still trying to come to terms with it. It wasn’t just my husband’s arrest, but the way in which the political climate in Chhattisgarh was changing...One challenge was that as people who are socially conscious and claim to have a social commitment...do we raise our voices or do we keep quiet?” The government tried to get her and other people “who straddle[d] the local culture and the public space” to join committees and become policy advisors. She did do that for a while, advising the state on educational reform and gender.“And although nobody listens to that advice, we start to feel self important, that we are engaging, we are trying to change policy...They’ll call you to meetings, they’ll stand up and give you those outward marks of respect, but actually you know whatever you are saying is not having an effect.” She wondered about the usefulness of engaging with policy issues, but eventually decided it was not worth it. She came to the conclusion that “one had to critique [the government]...because if one did not, it would lead to a total surrender of all the positions one had earlier stood for.” It was a difficult choice for her. She realised early on that such a choice would make her unpopular, and unwanted by the State.
She speaks about her path to full-time academics, which also happened around this time. This transition was related to her research and because she felt she needed to theorise and write more, but it was also because of the lack of safety she felt living under the repression of the State’s development strategies. “I felt very strongly even in 2004 that it was not going to be comfortable to sit in Chhattisgarh and articulate the kinds of positions that I wanted to articulate.” She needed to have a space where she could retreat and, in a way, change her identity in order to be more secure. An academic would be less likely to be persecuted by the State. And so in 2005, she began looking for academic opportunities.
Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya was just coming up at that time in Wardha (Maharashtra), and incidentally, their Women’s Studies program was being put together by feminist historian Uma Chakravarti, who Sen knew personally through feminist networks and through the Indian Association for Women’s Studies. She also knew many other scholars involved in the Antarrashtriya Vishwavidyalaya project, and she also had the unique advantage of being able to teach Women’s Studies in Hindi (the curriculum was in Hindi). So she was welcomed into the fold.
She tells me she also applied to an institution in Calcutta. However, she later found out that they did not consider her application “serious” because her primary work at that time was seen as activist work (despite the research she did alongside) and also because she was a Women’s Studies scholar, which the historians at that institution did not consider “mainstream academics”. “...[And that] was unfortunate, because I was really feeling that this was not a safe situation for me anymore.”
So Wardha it was, and eventually when Wardha advertised for full-time positions, she applied and was selected. Wardha was close to Raipur, and she commuted for several years, teaching in Wardha from Monday to Friday, spending the weekend in Raipur, and going back on Monday morning. Even while her husband was in jail, she would do the commute - reading up on the case on the train back to Raipur, visiting him in jail, conveying or carrying out any instructions he had, and then preparing for lectures on the way back. At Wardha, they had a huge teaching load, a very small faculty teaching M.A., M.Phil, and Ph.D. programs. During this time, she says, her own academic work came to a standstill, apart from just the bare minimum. She became seriously unwell after that period of extreme stress.
Her apprehension that the situation was not safe was confirmed with her husband’s arrest in 2007. “There were indications I too might be picked up,” she says. However, by that time she was safely employed by her university. Binayak Sen’s case, and the associated Free Binayak movement, took a toll on the family. It was an important case - not just for the Sens, but for the entire country. Ilina Sen became the public face of the case, and became known as Binayak Sen’s wife in popular discourse. For a feminist and activist with a strong body of work, it was difficult to be known primarily as someone’s wife. Laughing, she says, “I mean, I am his wife, and we’ve had our ups and downs but on the whole we enjoy a good relationship, but now it was a primary identity, and I had to deal with that.” Her return to feminist academia was also accompanied by the consciousness that she was now known in another avatar as Binayak Sen’s wife. Occupying this role in the public eye was another part of the work of fighting the case.
The first time she went to file for bail was the first time she had stepped into a courtroom, and she had “genuinely no clue” about how legal processes worked. A lot of her time was now devoted to learning about the law and fighting the case (she kept teaching throughout this time). “You can have all the lawyers in the world (and I had many, who gave their time pro bono, I had very good support)...but even then, at the end of the day, when an affidavit has to be signed, when I have to make an application on his behalf, it goes with my signature. And when I’m signing something, I must be responsible and understand all the implications. So that [was] a huge responsibility.”
Concerned relatives and friends would get in touch all the time, suggesting strategies, people to meet, things to do. While they were all extremely worried and concerned, and were trying to be helpful, dealing with them was also a drain on her time and energy. One cousin, a newly qualified lawyer, kept suggesting she file a petition in the Supreme Court on the basis of the Constitutional Right to Freedom.
While such a petition would not have been incorrect, the case had gone way beyond that. The protest against Binayak Sen’s arrest only made the government more adamant. “...[Within] six months, it had deteriorated into a prestige-based fight with the state...the State was saying he’s a hardcore Maoist ideologue, he’s this, he’s that, and cooking up all kinds of evidence...and his friends are saying he’s this doctor who could have gone anywhere in the world and he chose to work with tribals.” Neither of these constructions of Binayak Sen, she says, are true - “they are both extreme articulations.” Whatever he did, he did out of choice and because he liked doing it, she says. Neither of them ever felt martyred. Nevertheless, the positions solidified. Meanwhile, they kept applying for bail - and kept getting refused. Once, a government officer they talked to told them - even before the judgment was out - that the government was going to refuse bail because they thought it would “demoralise the police.”
“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 recognized as someone who was au 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.”
While many things have changed, she reflects, she doesn’t think the transition from full-time activism to full-time academia was such a drastic change. She hasn’t left one world totally behind to move to another. Her relationships with the Chhattisgarhi mine worker women have remained strong - even after her transition to academics and moving away. “Even now when I go back to Dalli Rajhara, and go and visit my old friends - many of my old friends and very close friends are women who are mineworkers, and I still am able to meet with them with a lot of affection, spend time in their homes, eat their food, just relax there, and feel absolutely comfortable.” She acknowledges that with age, and with health issues, she may not have been able to continue activist work in any case - “it was a rough-and-tumble life.” She feels lucky to have had the resources to make a change to a less active life - despite all that has happened, she does not feel embittered.
How did her politics change after experiencing the repressive turn of events in Chhattisgarh?
“...Well, okay, [I had known about State repression before]. It was happening in Manipur. AFSPA is there. But Manipur is very far away. And I was younger, a more optimistic person...I felt that there were special issues in Manipur. And I’m sure there are...there are dominant cultures and subordinate cultures...[and] relations between them are flawed. But I felt [Manipur was] some kind of a distant reality. But what happened in Chhattisgarh was before our eyes and in very rapid succession - and that was an eye opener.” It’s not that her political positions changed, she says, thoughtfully. But they solidified, became much more forceful, and today she has a more mature understanding of the way things work.
How do activists - especially activists who are sometimes protected by their privilege - respond to the repression? What are some strategies? She thinks that people, wherever they are located, respond to repression in different ways. Irom Sharmila has been fasting for several years. Some people write about it. For example, Praful Bidwai kept writing about the connection between the State and international political economy, and how the State plays the role of a handmaiden of imperialism and corporatisation, until his last day. “As the repression grows...it is [the duty of intellectuals] to highlight it...[But for] activists, it is much more difficult.” She brings up the case of Teesta Setalvad, persecuted for her activist work. Among many other allegations, Setalvad has been accused of buying a hairdryer with institutional funds. Sen thinks this is utterly ridiculous. “Teesta...was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She does not need to use institutional resources to buy a hairdryer. Anil Ambani doesn’t need to stand in line for rations. The real issue is the work they have done.” Misinformation is spread about activists, she says, to degrade them in the eye of the public. Teesta is very strong and resourceful, and is still fighting the case, but many, she says, succumb. Many families fall apart under the pressure. So activists need to be watchful, to be sharp, to keep moving, and seize opportunities as and when they come - sometimes reinvent themselves, like she did. The situation must always be reassessed.
How does she feel about the women’s movement in India today? What does its future look like to her? It’s a big question, and she takes a minute to think. “I see some shifts. In the 80s and the early 90s the women’s movement was very vibrant and today it doesn’t seem to be quite that way.” She says that there are phases - in the 40s, there were many active feminist women in the azaadi ki ladai. In the 50s, there was a lull of peace. The 60s were again full of activism. So the movement reinvents itself, and she is sure that it will once again be vibrant. She thinks that queer organisations have maintained their solidarity networks through these phases, and have been a source of support in the feminist movement. However, she feels a certain disquiet with how it is right now. “There is a certain withdrawal from the external world into an inner world...identity discourses [are becoming prominent].” The lives of ordinary women - for example, migrants in a city like Delhi, abandoned women in the urban space, who often work as domestic help - should concern the women’s movement, and Women’s Studies also, much more than they do right now. These women and their circumstances should in fact be the central focus of the women’s movement, instead of the concern with personal identity. “I mean, the women’s movement has always had to engage with this dichotomy between the public and the private...I’m sure a time will come when there will be more engagement with the public space and the private life will become more influenced by that.”
In her book A Space Within The Struggle, which Zubaan published, Ilina Sen spoke about how women have questioned patriarchy within social movements, and how many autonomous women's movements have emerged out of that questioning. As I am speaking to someone who straddles the divide between the women’s movement and anti-class/anti-caste struggles, and someone who clearly has strong feelings about the need for activists in both movements to connect with each other and be conscious of their own and each other’s privileges and oppressions, I am curious as to how she navigates having a foot in both worlds. How can solidarity be forged between different movements in Indian society, where communities and oppressions are in no short supply and the political environment is often identitarian?
Sen acknowledges that in India, there is a tension between women’s organisations that are single-mindedly feminist to the exclusion of all other anti-oppression work, and the multidimensional women’s group she worked with in Chhattisgarh, which focused primarily on workers’ issues and took up many others in addition. The kind of hierarchy of issues that emerges out of an organisation that tries to dismantle multiple oppressions was fiercely critiqued by the former type of organisation. “I...lived the tension, and spent long periods interpreting class contradictions to feminists, and feminism to working class comrades. It was not easy, but sometimes the positions of autonomous women's groups strengthened mine in my own location, by articulating positions far more categorical than I was tactically able to myself.”
At the South Asian level, she says, women have done a commendable job of recognising the intersections of oppression and struggling against them. She gives the example of women's organisations in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which have been in the forefront of the struggle for peace and against militarization. “It is in India that the connection between broader movements and the autonomous women's movement is somewhat weak, and we tend to classify movements as anti communal, anti caste, et cetera.” She says that activists in any movement need to take sides, and stand with struggling people everywhere, to be able to understand the links between oppressions, and for barriers between different activist communities to dissolve.
We end our interview by talking about her daughters. Ilina Sen has adopted two daughters, Pranhita and Aparajita, at different times. Pranhita is the older one, and Aparajita is younger. I ask her what prompted this decision - and how does her decision to adopt relate to her politics, if at all? She seems to like this question. Her voice is warm and content when she says, “I have been very happy as an adoptive mother.” People have sometimes asked her, and she has asked herself, why she decided to adopt. It’s not that she did not want a biological child. Even when she was considering having a biological child, adoption was still something she was interested in. And when a biological child did not happen, she was not devastated. “The bonding I have with my daughters is very very special, and I think it would not have been any different if they had been born of my flesh and blood. About that I am very confident and so are they.”
Sen had always intentionally told her children many adoption stories, starting with Sita. But Pranhita had some insecurities about being adopted, when she first found out. When she saw the family dog having babies, she wanted to know what was going on. Sen explained that the dog was having babies, and they were coming out of her body. She was anticipating the next question - did I come out of your body like this?, Pranhita asked. Sen said, no, not out of my body, you came out of another mother’s body, and she couldn’t take care of you - she died. But another mother was waiting, so she came in. Pranhita was shocked initially, and took a while to adjust to it, Sen says - but now she’s resolved her questions, and Aparajita, Sen says, didn’t have any, because she had an older sister who was also adopted and because the family is very open about the process.
While Sen is very open about being an adoptive mother, she obviously does not have a label on her that says she is one. So sometimes when people find out, they come to her with odd questions. She relates one such instance - a student came up to her, because she had heard and was disturbed - and said that she had heard Pranhita was her “own” daughter, and Aparajita was adopted.
“So I said that they are both my own, and they are both adopted!” We both laugh. “Because really,” she continues, “what is your own?” It’s very patriarchal to think that it is someone to whom you give your seed. For the man (whose genetic inheritance is the only kind that matters under patriarchy) to pass on his genes, and to control the sexuality of his woman partner for that purpose, is central to the system of marriage and inheritance under patriarchy. So questions of ownership become crucial.
“Whereas if you love - whether you have heteronormative partners or not - if you love, those questions of what is your own, and what is not your own, dissolve.” She has never had those questions of herself.