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Tag Archives: activism

On Topic: The September Review

September has been an eventful month, from Gauri Lankesh’s murder, to the setbacks in the countries harassment laws, to the police brutality faced by BHU student protesters. Most of the month was pretty awful, making us truly wish we could sleep through it all. But now September is over, and it's time to wake up. Here are the highlights of the good, but mostly bad things that happened this month.

Law and Society

September began with the death of prominent journalist and social worker Gauri Lankesh, who was shot dead near her home in Bangalore. Gauri Lankesh was known for her secular politics and criticism of the right-wing nationalism. Her death raised questions about the freedom of press, and led to protests in several cities across the country. This coincides with the United Nations reporting increasing harassment and violence towards human rights activists in 29 countries, including India. Meanwhile the debate over the fate of 40,000 Rohingya Muslims seeking asylum in India still continues. The centre had moved to deport the refugees citing ties to terrorism, facing heavy criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Council. Now another PIL seeking shelter and a petition supporting the centre’s claims have been filed in the Supreme Court, and will be heard in October. This article provides an interesting legal perspective on the issue. India’s sexual harassment and rape law has also taken a step back with the recent judgement on Mahmood Farooqui’s rape case. Not only was Farooqui acquitted by the Delhi High Court, but its judgement thoroughly dilutes the importance of consent through statements like ‘no could mean yes’. Similarly, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has granted bail to three men convicted of gang rape while blaming the victim’s mind-set and a culture of sexual experimentation.

Education

Protests broke out at Banaras Hindu University after the molestation of a female student outside her hostel. The incident turned ugly when the protestors were baton charged by local police, causing widespread outrage. Several student organizations in Delhi also protested the violence against BHU students. As the VC and state officials continue to trivialize the incident, inquiries are being made into the people responsible for the violence. Meanwhile, Jawaharlal Nehru University has dissolved its 18 year old Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), and replaced it with an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), facing heavy criticism from students, faculty, and independent women’s groups. The new ICC will have lesser faculty and student representatives, and have more nominated than elected members. On a positive note, Dr. Menaka Guruswamy is now the first Indian female Rhodes Scholar to have her oil portrait hung in the Rhodes House at Oxford. This should have happened a long time ago, but the first portrait of a woman Rhodes Scholar was hung only in 2015, even though women have been receiving Rhodes scholarships for the past 40 years.

Cinema

The Malayalam movie ‘Sexy Durga’ has been denied clearance by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry for a screening at the upcoming Mumbai Film Festival. The film deals with the violence and misogyny faced by women every day, and has received acclaim at international film festivals. But the ministry thinks that the film’s name might hurt religious sentiments. Seeing this as the government’s attempt to censor film festivals, an online petition has been started to allow the film to be aired. A new biopic has been announced by Viacom18 Motion Pictures on the life of Mithali Raj, the captain of the Indian women’s cricket team. Mithali hopes it will encourage more young girls to take up sports.

Sports

September has been very good for badminton player P V Sindhu, the first Indian woman to win an Olympic silver medal. She became the first Indian player to win the Korea Open Super Series title, and has now been nominated by the Sports Ministry for the Padma Bhushan award. India won 40 medals at the Asian indoor games held in Turkmenistan this month. P.U. Chitra won gold in 1500m women’s race after being excluded from the London World Championships for being ‘unfit’ by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI). Deeborah Herold from Andaman and Nicobar islands won three silver medals in track cycling sports. Other notable victories include Purnima Hembram winning gold at the pentathlon event, Sanjivani Jadhav winning silver in women’s 3000m race, and Neena Varakil winning bronze in women’s long jump.

In International News

While the NFL and NBA protests against racial discrimination and police brutality in USA have been at the forefront of international news, the WNBA’s protests spanning over a year have not received much coverage. More protests are expected at the WNBA Finals starting on Sunday.

Saudi Arabia has passed a law “allowing” women to drive from June 2018. Whether the law is actually enacting, and translates into real empowerment is yet to be seen.

September at Zubaan

We were interviewed by Artistik License! Find it here. The seventh edition of Zubaan’s ‘Cultures of Peace’ festival celebrating Northeast India is underway; this month we held a panel discussion on ‘Queer Identities in the Northeast’ in collaboration with The Delhi University Queer Collective (DUQC) and the Gender Studies Cell at St. Stephens College. Panelists Diti Lekha Sharma, Pavel Sagolsem and Dona Marwein spoke with Gertrude Lamare and video and written coverage of the event is up. The next ‘Cultures of Peace’ event will take place on 14th October at the Asian Confluence in Shillong. We are also organizing events at TISS Guwahati on 12th and 13th October. Keep an eye on our Facebook page for more details. Our E-essays project released three sets of essays this month – on violence against women, health, and trauma. This month our book club discussed a TV show for the first time – “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” by Issa Rae. In our next meeting we will be discussing “Women Without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran” by Shahrnush Parsipur.

#THROWBACKTHURSDAY| A Life in Trans Activism

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Welcome to #ThrowbackThursday, a new series where we will revisit backlist titles one Thursday every month. This July, we’re looking at A Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi.


About the book

A Life in Trans ActivismIn A. Revathi's first memoir, The Truth About Me (2011), readers learned of her childhood unease with her male body, her escape from her birth family to a house of hijras, and her eventual transition to being the woman she always she knew was.

This book charts Revathi’s remarkable journey from relative obscurity to becoming India’s leading spokesperson for transgender rights and an inspiration to thousands. It describes her life as an activist, theatre person, actor and writer. Revathi also offers the reader insight into one of the least talked about experiences on the gender trajectory—those of trans men.

An unforgettable book, A Life in Trans Activism will leave the reader questioning the ‘safe’ and ‘comfortable’ binaries of male/female that so many of us take for granted.


 About the author 

A. Revathi is an activist working for the rights of sexual minorities, and an author. Her autobiography The Truth About Me (2011) is one of the few autobiographies written by a member of the hijra community. Further, her prose and poetry has been translated into Kannada, English and Hindi. She was also the director of Sangama, a minority rights NGO. Revathi is also an actor—she made her debut in the Tamil film Thenavattu in 2008.


 Quotes from readers 

Her latest volume, A Life in Trans Activism (Zubaan, 2016) is an unflinching account of her journey towards accepting herself and, in the process, convincing society to accept her as well. Whether she is describing her apprenticeship as a hijra through the abusive guru process; her family’s violent rejection of her identity; or her complex relationship with elite, urban sexual and gender minority rights activists, Revathi is frank and compassionate, even to those who have wronged her. Her honest descriptions make even the most mundane parts of her life, such as her attempts to procure the proper government ID reflecting her new gender, fascinating and heartbreaking. [...]Stories like Revathi’s are vital because they make space for other women to feel comfortable in their own skin. - Open Magazine

 

A Life in Trans Activism is a story that makes you sit up straight and think hard and strong over the years, how we have treated transgenders among ourselves and how much our leaders have done for them. [...] So, today I ask you to pick up A Life in Trans Activism and read. Read it for a better world, to open our mind and heart towards fellow human beings whom we have ignored and despised for too long. Their anatomy may seem complicated to you, but once you read about it, you will be one of the many who would have taken a step towards making a country that doesn’t just think in black and white, but also in color." - Shabd Studio

Zubaan's Poster Women Archive and International Museum Day

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In 2006, Zubaan embarked on a journey to visually map the trajectories of Indian women's movements. We collected over 1500 posters and various paintings from women’s groups all over the country, each representative of a different issue and perspective. The culmination of this journey is our thematically organized Poster Women archive.

Zubaan’s engagement with the idea of women’s museums grew out of its involvement with Poster Women. Over 200 posters from the archive were a part of an exhibition that travelled all over the country and beyond. This raised larger questions of whether creating a museum to house these and other artefacts from women’s movements was possible. In 2013, with the support of the Ford Foundation, Zubaan created a proposal that looked at the possibility of setting up a women’s museum in India, one that would showcase women's struggles, provide educational material, run workshops etc. While some may question the existence of a separate women’s museum, we think that it is important. Women’s histories and struggles have been left out of the dominant narrative, reinforcing the imbalances that patriarchy produces. Creating a space that acknowledges and appreciates the achievements of women thus becomes important.

The International Association of Women's Museums (IAWM) was founded in 2008 to bring women's museums all over the world together, and to work towards providing them with more visibility and public acceptance. May 18th is celebrated around the world as International Museum Day, and since this year's theme was “Museums and contested histories: Saying the unspeakable in museums”, we collaborated with the IAWM and participated in a global social media campaign to show that by speaking the unspeakable, women’s museums make women’s histories visible.

Traditionally, a museum is an entity that occupies a physical space. However, the existence of technology has now made it possible for historical objects to be displayed in the digital space, a space that transcends borders and boundaries. Physically, no such space dedicated to women’s histories exists in India, but in cyberspace, the Poster Women archive serves that purpose. Indian women’s movements have grappled with several issues since their inceptions, and the archive thus acts as a resource that people can access to see what topics these movements have engaged with over the years, and how the movements have perpetuated and represented themselves through the images they produce.

The following posters have been selected from the archive, and the asterisked (*) posts were published on our social media pages for the IAWM campaign. To view more posters and paintings, visit here.

 1. Domestic Violence: Swayam, Kolkata*

Titled 'In Our Community', this poster highlights the need to combat domestic violence collectively and through communities. These campaigns use the recurring image of the home not as a haven or shelter, but a silencing prison faced regularly by women. This reveals violence within the house as not a personal or family matter, but a systemic problem demanding public attention and policy intervention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 2. Religion: ‘Do Not Speak’ & ‘Stranglehold of Religion’ by Sheba Chhachhi and Jogi Panghaal, Lifetools, for Saheli*

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Indian family law, or personal law, is codified separately for four communities – Hindus (including Sikhs and Jains), Muslims, Christians and Parsis. Taken once to be a symbol of the Indian state’s commitment to minority rights, personal law nonetheless continues to be incredibly discriminatory towards women and their rights. This has been an important point around which Indian women’s movements have organized.

 

 

3. Environment: UBING, Dhaka (Created during a workshop in India with Kamla Bhasin)

‘We sow seeds, so there is life’-Women have always been an intrinsic part of the ecological movement due to the larger threat environmental degradation poses to their habitats and source of livelihood. This poster is reflective of how women come together as a driving force against various state and non state actors to protect their means of survival—the environment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Dowry Deaths: Roopa, Bihar*

 "Could This Be Your Daughter?"-This emotive poster depicts a young bride, blindfolded and muzzled by news headlines of dowry-related deaths. In the 1980s, the women’s movement in Delhi led protests and campaigns to reform the anti-dowry law (amended in 1984 and 1986).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Sexuality: Vikalp, Gujarat

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Same sex couples in India have had to grapple with being called ‘abnormal’ and ‘unusual’. Their sexuality is seen as a deviance from traditional Indian culture as well as a result of the ‘bad’ influence of Western culture. This poster asserts that being Indian and being homosexual are not mutually exclusive. Further, by virtue of being human, homosexuals deserve certain human rights.

 

 

 

 

6. Labour: Kamla Bhasin, Kali For Women*

This poster says ‘My wife does not work’ and then goes on to name the many tasks that ‘housewives’ traditionally juggle: cleaning, cooking food, washing clothes, giving birth and raising children, taking care of the sick and elderly, and more. Domestic work and care giving remains unrecognized and undervalued as labour, and, consequently, often goes unpaid. The many-armed working woman, in this image, is reminiscent of traditional images of the goddess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Reproduction: Voluntary Health Association, Orissa

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When it comes to the sex of a baby, many Indian families prefer sons. Thus, women who bear daughters are often subjected to taunting, social boycott, battering, desertion and even murder. This poster which says ‘Men determine the sex of the child’ is an example of one of many posters that were created by groups to dispel myths about reproduction and reduce harassment against women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 8. Education: Akshara Vijaya, Karnataka

‘Education for every house, a light for every home’: In 1974, a report released by the Committee on the Status of Women in India revealed that in spheres like education, employment and legal access, the condition of women had worsened. The report both shocked and inspired—women’s groups all over the country conducted campaigns, seminars and workshops to address this gap. This Telugu poster shows a woman from the Lambadi nomadic tribe learning how to write. It was originally made for the Sampurna Saksharta Andolan (Total Literacy Campaign).

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Text for all the captions posted above has been adapted from 'Our Pictures, Our Words', eds. Laxmi Murthy & Rajashri Dasgupta]

 

"ONE HAD TO CRITIQUE": AN INTERVIEW WITH ILINA SEN

September 2015: Ilina Sen. Photograph by Moulshri Mohan.

September 2015: Ilina Sen. Photograph by Moulshri Mohan.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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