In memory of Ilina Sen

[ Sanjay (Xonzoi) Barbora ]

On 9 August, 2020, my colleague, friend and mentor, Prof Ilina Sen passed away in Kolkata, in the presence of her partner Dr Binayak Sen and their two daughters, Pranhita and Aparajita.

She was 69 years old, and in the space of the number of years that she was with us, Ilina taught us the value of compassion, courage and determination as weapons of resistance in the face of adversity.

I had first heard of her when I first got involved in the human rights movement in the 1990s. She and Binayak had settled in Chattisgarh, where the trade union movement led by the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha had brought together a radical, grassroots platform that included indigenous rights activists, mine workers, women’s rights advocates and others marginalized groups.

India in the 1990s was at the cusp of momentous changes. With the liberalization of the economy in the early part of the decade, the state’s lip service to welfare of workers, peasants and other oppressed groups had given way to an open alliance with capital and big business. In the process, the government’s attitude towards assertions and grievances of the poor and the marginalized was increasingly being dealt with through the use of armed force.

For those of us from the Northeast, it was only natural to look for alliances among others who were engaged in similar struggles against state violence. In those heady times, small groups of us met regularly to discuss avenues of offering solidarity to one another. Usually, this meant going to each other’s areas and offering support after a frequently occurring egregious case of state brutality. Hence, fact-finding became one of the most important ways to learn about other struggles and to stand with those who had suffered.

Ilina’s name would always be referred to respectfully while preparing for the fact-finding visits to any part of central India. Some comrade would be tasked with calling and asking for her opinion about the situation on the ground, as well as mundane logistical matters. Others would be instructed to scour the library or documentation centre for an essay that she might have written. Most of all, I recall the moment of reassurance and calm that the very mention of her name brought to our discussions spread across cities like Delhi, Hyderabad, Guwahati, Kohima, Imphal, Bombay and Bangalore.

In 2001, my partner and several activists from Assam took a train from Guwahati to Calcutta to participate in the forum of the Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), where Ilina was one of the main organizers. My partner came back with a spring in her steps and a song in her heart for having finally met ‘the’ Ilina Sen. More than a decade later, she would recount feeling just as optimistic about an uncertain future when she attended a meeting in support of political prisoners in an old church in Berkeley, where Ilina Sen shared the dais with Angela Davis.

The reason one felt optimistic around Ilina was because knowledge rested easily on her. She rarely hectored younger people, always listening to various points of view with smile on her face. However, she was also a very determined person, and this made her an amazing organiser. A forum that Ilina was instrumental in nurturing was the Indian Association of Women’s Studies, which is a unique platform for scholars, activists and even people from other professions to talk through issues of gender and focus on the condition of women in the country.

For serious university students, presenting a paper in a panel became the equivalent of finding one’s community of fellow travellers who were interested in similar research. Since the annual event was often held in smaller towns, it was also an occasion for students there to listen to people whose works they had read in class but could not imagine seeing in person. But this event meant tackling a logistical task that only a brave few would think about undertaking.

In 2014, I was among scores of other people from various educational and research institutions in Guwahati who stepped forward to help Ilina with the 14th annual conference of the IAWS that was to be held in my adopted city. By then someone had let on that she was unwell, but it did not show as we drove her around from one prospective collaborating institution to another. Eventually, she and the rest of the team managed to pull together an amazing event that was hosted by the Gauhati University, the Cotton University, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and the North East Network, and had more than a thousand participants. When the event ended, Ilina asked for a taxi and, despite the advice of her friends and well-wishers, drove up to Shillong to meet old friends and visit Pine Mount, her old school, with the glee that only an excited alumnus can muster.

It would be true to say that with Ilina’s passing, we have been left with a void that will be hard to fill. She epitomized the spirit of solidarity and compassion that are difficult to replicate. However, after we are done with grieving for her, I am sure that Ilina would want us to tackle all the other things that she has left behind for us – ideas, political projects and relationships that we need to nurture and carry forward as she would have done.

In our last meeting earlier this year, she was excited about her new research idea about the partition of Bengal during the transfer of power and how it had left such a long, bitter and misunderstood legacy that lives on today. In typical Ilina fashion, she had planned visits to border districts and promised me a longer stay in Guwahati, where she wanted to write. As I join her family, friends and comrades in mourning our loss, I remain acutely aware of every life lesson that she imparted in her time with us.

To love, listen and be compassionate about the struggles of the oppressed will always be imprinted in my plans for the future as gifts from her. As will these stanzas of an old trade union and women’s rights song that she loved to sing:

As we go marching, marching

In the beauty of the day,

A million darkened kitchens

A thousand mill lofts grey,

Are touched with all the radiance

That a sudden sun discloses,

For the people hear us singing

Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses

(The writer teaches at TISS, Guwahati)