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India: Ilina Sen: Trying To Make Sense

Aug 06, 2012

Ilina Sen, wife of Dr Binayak Sen, teaches women’s studies at the Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University in Wardha, Maharashtra. Here is an excerpt from her book "Ilina Sen: Trying To Make Sense". According to her, as she puts it in this excerpt, her “first brush with the state’s archaic and police systems”.

We spent the decade of the Nineties around Raipur, which today is busy transforming itself into a glitzy copy of Mumbai, but which at the time was an old world commercial town catering to a large hinterland in Chhattisgarh as well as western Orissa. Binayak and I tried our hand at replicating some of the social experiments in Dalli with the forest based, dam-displaced people of the upper Mahanadi around Dhamtari. They too belonged to an old socialist organisational tradition, but their objective situation was very different. I spent time with migrant workers, trying to understand how women coped with the dislocation of migration and displacement. I have written about this, but it was only much later that I understood that the questions of rootedness, transplantation and relocation embedded in the migrant experience were also my questions.

It was during this period that developments leading to the creation of the new state of Chhattisgarh, accompanied by the finance-capital driven jargon of mega development, gained ground. The workers’ movement in Dalli-Rajhara had placed the Chhattisgarhi identity issue upfront, and had tried to theorise on the kind of livelihood-based development that would be in the interests of the region’s roiling masses. In the Nineties, the issue of small states and accessible governance came up again, and by the end of that decade the three new states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand had been created. From a situation where, when I tried to explain to outsiders where I lived, no one had heard of Chhattisgarh, I suddenly foumd myself in a changed scenario – every incoming flight now carried potential investors, some brown, some white and some yellow. In the Nineties, I had been invited to draft the women’s policy for Madhya Pradesh, and in 2001 I did the same for the new state of Chhattisgarh. However, the situation on the ground was changing rapidly. Statehood had brought formal structures of appropriation much closer to the people than at any time in the remembered part. Land acquisition and the privatisation of natural resources gathered speed, as did resistance to them. The new state showed scant regard for differences in views, for dissent and protest, tarred all dissenters with same brush and was quick to characterise all of us mavericks as anti-social.

I retreated into full-time academics in 2007, teaching women’s studies at the Hindi University in Wardha. Along with many others in the movement, I had participated in building this new course for a new generation of students and had been teaching segments of it since 2004. In its own way, internalising the tenets of feminist thought in Hindi was a challenging exercise and, despite some hiccups, we did manage to put the course on a sound footing. Given the situation in Chhattisgarh this seemed like a good option, as Wardha would provide a different locale for working yet not be too far from Chhattisgarh, which we had made our home.

Binayak’s arrest in 2007 on trumped-up charges of sedition came as a rude shock. It was my first brush with the state’s archaic legal and police systems. For a person of my generation and education, it was hard to believe that the constitutional promises of freedom of thought and expression, of being innocent till proven guilty, were so fragile. The biggest sense of loss, however, was in coming to terms with the sudden withdrawal of all public recognition following the virulent media trial that was unleashed by the press in Raipur, happily lapping up police press releases. Even as middle class civil society crumbled under pressures, workers and their families from Bhilai, as well as adivasis from Dhamtari, among whom Binayak had practised health care, remained close to us and sustained our spirit much before the national and international campaigns for Binayak’s release gathered momentum. My young daughters showed remarkable courage and maturity under stress, and my colleagues and students at Wardha were extremely supportive. Through this period of enormous stress and tension we nevertheless managed to build up our teaching department, and I am genuinely proud of the research work done by some of my students.

This is where I find myself today – somewhere on the road to a destination still unknown. I continue to teach at Wardha, even as Binayak’s trial continues in Raipur. I still love going back to Chhattisgarh, although the police phone-taps and surveillance are a constant irritant. The women’s movement, the strength I have drawn from it and from my women friends, have been a great resource all my life, so that even in my worst moments, I have never walked alone.

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