Obituary: Ilina Sen, the light I shall forever hold

Sen, remembered for the cause of mineworkers in Chhattisgarh, passed away on Sunday at the age of 69.

Credit : File

-Ashmita Sharma


Renowned Feminist and Civil Rights Activist, Maya Angelou had once famously said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. These words ring so clearly and poignantly in my heart today more than ever. They will for a lifetime I know. As I sit to write this piece, I realise that, every once in a while, there emerges a person in one’s life who is a guardian angel. Who holds you and embraces you with compassion and love so pure that it enables you to forever stand on your feet steadfast and sturdy.  

Professor Ilina Sen was my guardian angel. She will forever be. She showed me the light, she showed me the path. She bestowed upon me the courage and showed me how to keep my head held high even under the most trying circumstances. Ilina Sen was and will forever be my Iron Lady. She made me feel wanted, valued and precious. No, not by mollycoddling me, but by radiating her confidence, compassion and love to me. That is what she was and that is how she will always be remembered. She was one of the humblest of souls with a heart so rich that she could absorb so much and yet exude love beyond a normal human being’s capabilities. 

As I look back and remember, my memories swerve to my days as a student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), I was struggling to find a foothold at a fellowship. I managed to secure a NET in Sociology, but my aspiration for a Junior Research Fellowship appeared to be a far-fetched dream. I was dejected, disheartened and felt as though my world came crashing down. It is in this state of mind that my feet dragged me to the chambers of Professor Sen. That day, I saw the silver lining in my cloud and have never looked back since. She sat me down, lent me her ears, smiled at me and immediately took me on board to work with her on a new research project that she had just signed up for with the Institute. 

Thus, began my journey with Professor Sen. A journey that till today resonates in my heart and a journey that has had a profound and a hugely positive effect on me. The study documented the livelihoods, organizational spaces, culture, and democratic consciousness among three generations of women that encompassed the former textile mill worker families of Mumbai. This study formed a part of a larger design of revisiting the relationship between women’s participation in mass movements and their overall democratic consciousness that began in the 1990s with the publication of ‘A Space within the Struggle’, a volume that Prof. Sen herself conceptualized and edited. 

This study not only helped me develop my own consciousness through serious dialogue, but it brought me closer to Professor Sen in more ways than one, both academically and personally. Throughout the period of the research, I was never made to feel that she was my project director and me only a research assistant. She knew how to and ensured that she dismantled the chains of hierarchy, giving me my space and treating me as her equal. Through this, she allowed me the opportunity to express myself, listened to my points of view and guided me in the most alluring manner where a change of direction was hardly ever felt. 

She never dictated but made sure that the methodology and work plan was jointly discussed and charted. There were days when I would feel throttled in articulating my field experiences to her. I would feel bogged down if I did not get the desired results. But she had such an easy and comforting way of talking to me that she lightened me and my countenance. She infused enthusiasm in me. There were many a time that her ill-health would not permit her to come all the way to the office, but she was never incapacitated in spirit. She would call me home and our field discussions would take place over a cup of tea. 

With Ilina Sen, I had the eye-opening opportunity to visit several settlements across Mumbai-Parel, Worli, Byculla, Lalbag, Sewri, among others and met scores of women, their daughters, granddaughters, all of whom were active participants in the agitation for their rights in the textile mills. She taught me that blending theory and practice was the cornerstone of the feminist movement. She said that the purpose of the entire mill workers’ project was to draw conclusions and lessons for the working-class movement and the women’s movement in India; thereby juxtaposing working-class solidarity and feminist consciousness as the essence of social change.

A firm critic of human rights violations and one of the pioneer feminists of South Asia, Ilina Sen actually personified a lady of complete astute and grace. Her life revolved around the upliftment of the most downtrodden and as an academic, she instilled a sense of ‘wanting to do something for society’ in all of us. A face of the public health movement Ilina Sen demonstrated qualities that we all yearn for. It is rare that we come upon someone who demonstrated so much of courage, empathy, humility and selflessness without ever looking for anything in return. She connected with every individual she met as though her soul was already intertwined with the person. Her actions and the immense impact that she had amongst the marginalised can never ever be forgotten. 

Along with her husband Dr. Binayak Sen, Ilina founded and ran the NGO Rupantar in Chhattisgarh, extending medical aid among other services to mineworkers and their families and to all those who were in distress. She opened the eyes of the world to the lives of the people in Chhattisgarh and has authored renowned publications on the plight of the Adivasis of this region- ‘Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir’ and ‘Sukhvasin: The Migrant woman of Chhattisgarh’ are perhaps some of her most acclaimed publications. But lest it be forgotten, Ilina published numerous other articles, books and papers in the languages of the land enabling common folks like me fall in love with not only the lady behind these publications but also helping us see our life’s path clearly and thereafter chart it. 

I vividly remember listening to her address as the President of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies (IAWS) in February 2014 in Guwahati. She was in acute pain. Cancer ravaged her body. Yet, my Iron Lady stood firm and tall and when she broke into the song ‘Bread and Roses’, I wasn’t the only one with eyes streaming tears. That is the respect and love she commanded. She will forever be the ideal soul of my life. My candle in the wind in the darkness I experience from the loss of her. I know that my soul will always be intertwined in hers with love, respect and gratitude that words cannot describe. 

Dr. Ilina Sen, my professor, my mentor and a phenomenal woman will forever keep the torch of my heart burning and I, in turn, shall ensure that the light of her legacy never flames out. Goodbye, my dearest professor, friend and mentor. I shall forever remember you with the fondest of love. I shall neither forget your smile nor your healing touch. I shall forever remember your words. They will forever remain my gospel. 


The author is a PhD candidate at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS)