Ilina As We Knew Her: A Tribute from WSS


Shared by Laxmi Murthy

Ilina As We Knew Her:
A Tribute from WSS

August 11, 2020

Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) deeply mourns the passing away of Ilina Sen on August 9 in Kolkata. Ilina, 69, was a feminist activist, teacher, researcher and writer passionately involved with the women’s movement in India. Be it through activist work or classroom pedagogy, conferences or rallies, Ilina’s  deep engagement with women’s struggles in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and her active solidarity with women in mass movements in other states provided a crucial impetus to unraveling and resisting the combined forces of state, patriarchy and capital  in the lives of women and other marginalized communities.  Her favorite song Bread and Roses resonated this larger vision of women in struggle.

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

In the early 1980s, Ilina along with her partner Binayak Sen had moved to Chhattisgarh to work among the movements and peoples of an adivasi region inspired by Shankar Guha Niyogi. Binayak as a medical doctor worked with children and their families, and went on to work at the Shaheed Hospital, a unique institution built and run by workers of the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS). Initially, Ilina was involved with sustainable development in association with Dr RR Richcharia, ensuring the preservation of seeds and rice varieties which were in danger of dying out under the aggressive farming techniques being promoted by the state. Working in the trade union started by Shankar Guha Niyogi in Dalli Rajhara gave Ilina insights about women’s labour and their role in organizing for their rights. In the autonomous women’s movement conferences, she often would sing Chhattisgarhi songs from CMSS like “Anasuya Bai, Laal Salaam…”

ILINAIt was here that she worked on and published her important book A Space Within the Struggle (1990). This collection of essays on the less visible dimensions of women’s struggles in grass roots movements remains unsurpassed as a collection that moves away from the metropolitan movement’s primary concerns important though they were in their own right. A Space Within the Struggle chronicled the struggles of brick workers, landless labourers, fishworkers, environment protectors, segments of the population that are not visible even to women’s studies students. Among the last pieces of work she was trying to complete was to update that work, bringing in the new movements that were exploding in different parts of the country.

As we go marching, marching
We battle too for men
For they are women’s children
And we mother them again
Our lives shall not be sweated
From birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies
Give us bread, but give us roses

Unfortunately,  Ilina was diagnosed with cancer in the year 2011 immediately after the Supreme Court granted bail to her partner Binayak Sen – a leading PUCL activist from Chhattisgarh.  Together, they had also set up the NGO Rupantar in Raipur. If we look back at these recent years, we have seen Ilina paying a heavy price ever since the arrest of Binayak Sen in May 2007 under the draconian UAPA by the Chhattisgarh Police (on charges of links with Naxalites) right up to her last breath as she succumbed to cancer. Upon his arrest, Ilina went full swing, facing the processes of litigation from lower courts to the Supreme Court and left no stone unturned in leading a campaign across the country for his release, while continuing to be the rock for Binayak and their two daughters. The demand for his release also evoked vibrant solidarity and support from countries abroad.

In the process, Ilina drew many supporters and activists and brought attention to the plight of countless numbers of adivasis incarcerated in the jails of Chhattisgarh. They were the victims of the newly-formed state that was founded at the height of the rolling out of the neo-liberal economy when companies – national and global – made a beeline for the minerals and forests of the state. It is no wonder that within two years of its formation in 2000, the CRPF was deployed in Chhattisgarh permanently.  Perhaps an entire generation of political activists came up in this period following the arrest of the PUCL Vice President as they saw a ruthless state rolling out its Operation Greenhunt that targeted those who questioned the development juggernaut meant to fill the coffers of global capital.

Her lifelong efforts had been poised between women’s organizations addressing patriarchal oppression and subjugation on one hand and mass movements struggling for livelihood resources and claiming their just ownership of natural resources on the other. Therefore the formation of WSS and its first two founding meetings happening in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh had filled Ilina with much hope and good cheer. Despite the litigation processes and her teaching career keeping her on her toes, she kept in constant touch with WSS at every step in those years after attending the second convention in Raipur in December 2009. She saw myriad possibilities in WSS and continuously expressed her restless desire to be able to be more involved.

 As we go marching, marching
Unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing
Their ancient call for bread
Smart art and love, and beauty
Their drudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for
But we fight for roses, too

From the year 2004, Ilina came in close touch with a generation of young students and researchers studying gender when she began taking classes in the Mahtama Gandhi Antarashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalya in Wardha. She joined as faculty in the year 2007 and after spending a few dedicated years,  Ilina moved to TISS in Mumbai. While at Wardha, she was the organizing secretary of the IAWS conference in 2011 and her presence and creativity made the Wardha conference among the most memorable of the IAWS conferences in recent decades. Again in the IAWS conference in Guwahati in February, 2014, Ilina sang to an entire audience:

Iraade Kar Buland Tu
Kahna shuroo karti to acha thaa
Tu sahna chod  kar kahna shuroo karti to achha thaa…
Tere maathe pe yeh aanchal, bahut hi khoob hai lekin
Bahut hi khoob hai lekin
Tu is aanchal ka ek parcham bana leti to accha thaa
Tu sahna chod  kar kahna shuroo karti to achha thaa…
Iraade Kar Buland Tu…

Her knowledge and the insights that came from her political involvement with the lived realities of struggles – collective and individual — breathed life into the curriculum wherever she taught. Even as she inspired many young minds, she was eager to pursue her own core research interests. As a Senior Fellow in the Nehru Memorial Library from July 2013 to July 2015, Ilina tried to collate her insights and ideas of women in mass movements along with coping with her illness and its therapy. She also collected narratives of partition refugees in Dandakaranya and was much worried about leaving these pieces of work incomplete as both projects were very close to her heart.

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From her activism to her writing and from petitioning the courts to interacting with young scholars, Ilina was filled with a zest for life to integrate a holistic view where the expression of the individual is inextricably an expression of the social and the political. It is no wonder that while travelling across the country with heavy bags of legal documents and then facing the diagnosis of cancer, she could so easily pen down Inside Chhattisgarh – A Political Memoir, a memorable record of her work with Binayak and the bitter court battle to counter the arrest and incarceration of a partner and fellow comrade.

Through all her travails, Ilina’s hearty laugh and keen sense of humour never waned, her vivacious interest and deep engagement with individual lives and political struggles did not falter. It is this tenacity that ensures that Ilina Sen leaves an indelible mark on women’s struggles and workers’ struggles in India.

As we go marching, marching, we’re standing proud and tall
The rising of the women means the rising of us all
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses!!


Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) is a non funded grassroots effort started in November 2009, to put an end to the violence being perpetrated upon our bodies and societies. We are a nationwide network of women from diverse political and social movements from women’s organizations, mass organizations, civil liberty organizations, student and youth organizations and mass movements and also from many different walks of life. We unequivocally condemn state repression and sexual violence on women and girls by any perpetrator(s).







Writing about Kalpana, writing about the times


By Ranjana Padhi and Laxmi Murthy*

*Ranjana Padhi and Laxmi Murthy have been associated with the autonomous women’s movement since the mid-1980s and were active in Saheli from around 1986-2006. Saheli was founded on August 9, 1981. 

Cross-posted from The Prajnya Archives 

There is no cure against mortality, yet there is a lingering sadness and a sense of loss at the passing away of a fellow-traveler, a saheli and a comrade. Any reflection of such lives becomes a reflection of the times. The times when we as women, and as feminist collectives, dared to go against the grain.  The early years of the women’s movement were vastly different from the present reality where much is taken for granted and often celebrated ahistorically as individual achievement. The struggles of the 1980s made strident inroads into challenging the bastions of patriarchy in the form of collective resistance.  Making that vital link in what is a virtually unknown history for an entire generation of young women might help to make sense of the present. Because Kalpana was active to the end, commenting – and raving – even about recent events, through the lens of a sharp feminist politics.

Kalpana Mehta 1Kalpana Mehta, 67, a feminist activist of the autonomous women’s movement in India, breathed her last on May 27, 2020 at her residence in Indore, Madhya Pradesh.  Kalpana was diagnosed of the neuron disease called Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in mid 2017.  She gradually lost speech as well as mobility. Even then, she was tuned in to all events through the daily newspaper and communicated her thoughts and ideas through the application Tobii with friends who visited her during this time. Remaining engaged with news and sharing her political concerns and reflections helped her bravely cope with the symptoms of ALS. Also, her characteristic humor and witty rebukes directed at the powers that be were intact to her last breath.

Kalpana was a co-founder of Saheli Women’s Resource Centre that was set up in 1981 in New Delhi. She was one among the most active in shaping Saheli’s politics and equally, shaped by the collective. Saheli emerged out of Stri Sangharsh, a coalition of women’s groups in Delhi that led the campaign against wife murder or “dowry death” as it was euphemistically termed during the late 1970s. Saheli, a crisis response centre, was set up in 1981 to prevent such deaths, intervene in cases of domestic violence and provide a safe space for women in distress to talk, laugh, heal and fight back.

Politicizing the personal

Kalpana believed passionately in the slogan “personal is political” through consciousness raising circles, supporting individual women in distress and attempting to build solidarities among women who had experienced violence and politicise their personal struggles for justice. For her, women were not “cases”, and her allergy to the term in vogue, ‘case work’ was legendary. The debate about whether or not to continue individual support work raged on for a few years in Saheli, with Kalpana steadfastly on the side of wanting to not only continue extending support to women in distress but infuse new life into it by reviving “direct action” strategies: storming into matrimonial homes, accompanying women to claim their “stri dhan’ or even clothes and certificates; intervening in custody battles or exploitation by employers.

The inevitable burnout and inability to respond vigorously to the growing numbers of women approaching Saheli for help meant that there was more reliance on institutions that were patriarchal and strung with red tape. Yet, stopping ‘case work’ to focus more on campaigns directed at structural changes was not an option for Kalpana, who led the initiative to form ‘mutual support groups’ or women who had experienced violence and marital distress. After much leg work and emotional investment, the difficult realization that the common experience of violence could not be a binding political force hit Kalpana hard. The ideological underpinning of understanding domestic violence and discrimination within the family and marriage, also forged a robust critique of religious personal laws and their stranglehold on the dailiness of women’s lives. Thanks to Kalpana’s constant connections with crucial political work of individual support, it was not an abstract theoretical discussion about personal laws or uniform civil code. It was getting into the nitty gritty of individual women’s marital problems that brought a rich and nuanced understanding to personal law reform, and later, with growing Hindu fundamentalism, that made women’s groups articulate the demand for a “Uniform” Civil Code which by the 1990s became a right wing agenda, to an Egalitarian Civil Code, a core feminist demand.

Women and Health

Saheli was one of the pioneers of taking on the government, medical establishment and research agencies, in building one of the earliest and sharpest critiques of hazardous contraceptives pushed on women as part of the population control programme. The public interest litigation (PIL) filed in the Supreme Court by Saheli along with other women’s organisations against the introduction of the hazardous injectable contraceptive Net En, was an outcome of field investigations by Hyderabad-based Stri Shakti Sangathana, and research by feminist activists, not all of them doctors. From leg work at the National Medical Library where we sneaked in in the guise of medical students (pre-Google research was a different animal!); to innumerable trips to the lawyers, attending court hearings, bringing out publicity material, writing pamphlets, protests, demonstrations and meetings with the ICMR and government, Kalpana was in the thick of things. Gate-crashing, vaulting over walls and barging into a meeting called by a private pharma company bidding for the government contract to market a long-acting injectable contraceptive was a characteristically Kalpana-style guerilla action which got front-page attention.

Writing a street-play raising awareness about Norplant, a long-acting contraceptive implant, was an outlet for Kalpana’s creative spirit. Energetically directing rehearsals in a public park, oblivious to gaping bystanders, she managed to coalesce an innovative way of outreach, communicating complex medical concepts, ethics of research and a critique of the population control program in 20 brief minutes. The play, witty and irreverent and politically hard-hitting,  was performed on the streets of Delhi and outside ministries along with leafletting.

Going beyond the critique of hazardous contraceptives, Kalpana began to get deeply involved in developing options for safe contraception and alternatives to allopathic interventions in women’s health. Through international networks painstakingly built over the years through International Women’s Health Conferences, correspondence with activists at the Boston Women’s Health Collective among others, the idea of ‘Paridhi’ was born. Paridhi, a group set up by Kalpana, began to import the diaphragm, a safe, reversible, inexpensive and woman-controlled contraceptive, conduct workshops on self-awareness and women’s health and popularize its use. The diaphragm was imported in bulk from a feminist collective in Brazil! Around the same time, shifting to Indore as primary caregiver to her ailing parents, she set up Manasi, a women’s health clinic. Along with a small team, she used homeopathy, acupuncture and other methods of holistic healing for women’s health problems. The clinic grew as a drop-in place for women to unwind, chat about their lives and seek support, in much the same way as Saheli had grown.

Her critique of the medical establishment and government did not wane, though. The hysteria orchestrated around research on vaccines to prevent cervical cancer had led to the introduction of the HPV vaccine.  Clinical trials were reported being conducted on young adivasi girls from Khammam in Andhra Pradesh and Baroda in Gujarat. Over 23,000 girls were reported to have been used for testing. Six girls had died in these trials. Women’s organizations campaigned to raise the question in the parliament until the trials had to be stopped. The trials were being conducted on two unproven vaccines, gardasil and cervarix.  Kalpana Mehta filed two PILs in the Supreme Court in 2012  and 2013 along with the women’s organization Sama in Delhi and feminist activists Nalini Bhanot and Rukmini Rao demanding the revoking of the license given to the pharmaceutical companies.  As had been the practice since the early years of Saheli’s work in challenging long acting hormonal contraceptives,  the vaccine to prevent cervical cancer also propelled Kalpana into painstaking hard work, reading and  research to challenge what the medical establishment was professing while bringing in these companies, namely Glaxo Smithkline and MSD Pharmaceuticals Pvt Ltd.  In 2018, a significant judgement in the Supreme Court set a significant precedent: the admissibility of Parliamentary Standing Committee reports as evidence and overruled the counsel of the pharmaceutical companies. As NB Sarojini, co-petitioner in the case writes, the court decision forced pharmaceutical companies to increase transparency and accountability in larger public interest.

Power and its malcontents

000 question authorityBWAs with all feminist collectives of the time, Saheli had consciously eschewed not only donor funding but also adopted a form of organisation that refused to accept formal hierarchies, designations and authority. Decisions were taken collectively, and an attempt to reach consensus and accommodate personal experience and minority points of view. For more about the collective journey understanding power and hierarchy, read this write up from the souvenir marking 25 years of Saheli. The uneasy relationship of feminists with power affected everyone, but arguably, it forced the more dominant members to engage more intensely, especially on organizational matters. This was seen in uncomfortable forms in what came to be called the “Saheli split” in 1986 following which some highly active members who were also founding members left the organisation.

In one long meeting in 1990 to discuss organizational issues, Kalpana said, “The form of organisation closest to my ideal would be democratic centralism. I am torn between the two – collective decision making, for which I have theoretical commitment, but feel democratic centralism is better. In democratic centralism, all have rights but not opinions, to exercise rights in different avenues. There is no negation of hierarchy, but everyone has a chance to move up. With the practice of collective decision-making, the leadership has not felt a responsibility to the rank and file. In the name of “Collective” if we come minus preparation then it is a loose ineffective structure. For a Collective to work there has to be some common minimum ideological understanding.” Such an insight encapsulates the organizational predicament and challenges experienced by many collective political formations till date.

During intense arguments about the importance of process, with some of us insisting to prioritise the manner of decision making over the decision or activity itself, Kalpana’s frustration would show, “How can we have a perfect process in an imperfect society. That’s probably why I’m willing to compromise on both. If we concentrate so much on process – this paralyses the group. In the history of every organisation there are times when you can afford to spend more time discussing process. If we’re not able to accept the alienation that is occurring, how can we address it?  I’m at a stage of life where I’m not willing to wait only for process. We need a minimum common understanding.”

Despite being one of the most visible Sahelis, central to all activities and decision making within the organisation, Kalpana deeply believed that “the essence of Saheli is the possibility of equal participation”. There was a recognition of hierarchies of various kinds from age, class, caste, language skills and articulation. Certain levellers were attempted: decisions were taken at collective meetings; there were no secret documents ; everyone got a key and equal access to the office; there was an effort not to project leadership outside by sharing  representation in public; full timers had equal salary and everyone had equal access to fulltimery, core group membership and decision making. The attempt to improve these aspects was ongoing throughout. “We need to solve some practical problems. We don’t kill ourselves because society is imperfect. We don’t leave marriages which are not perfect. So why do we expect so much from Saheli – that if there’s  not perfect democracy, why do we think of leaving it?” she once asked at another meeting.

Work distribution in Saheli not only knocked off the chip from many shoulders but also became a leveller in many ways. From keeping the office open and functioning to handling accounts and getting them audited, from leaflet writing to perspective papers based on endless collective discussions and drafts, from counselling women in distress to talking to authorities, Saheli equipped all volunteers with multiple skills to last more than a lifetime. Kalpana did it all with elan and grace – more often making each onerous task a fun-filled activity. Sale of Saheli literature and fund raising for Saheli was part of the collective identity we wore with pride and conviction as the aim was public outreach. No task ever was mechanical; each and every act was based on an ideological and political belief of how we organize ourselves vis a vis the world outside.

Like many competent feminists who found themselves in leadership roles, and shouldered major responsibility for the most part without complaint, she had remarked that people within organisations with more power also had it because others put them in the position of more responsibility. She quipped, “I am tired of doing all the work and then making others feel that we have all done it together.” Her vexed relationship with Saheli, an inextricable mix of a deep sense of belonging, and identification with autonomous politics, laced with frustration, disappointment and a sense of alienation was one some of us who had been very active in Saheli, could relate to. But unlike many feminists who left women’s groups to pursue careers or got absorbed in family life, Kalpana turned her inexorable energy to broader organising.

Widening the base

After more than three decades steeped in autonomous feminist politics, Kalpana’s urge to connect with grassroots struggles led her to forge solidarities with people’s movements. In an article in the 2008 issue of Seminar, she wrote, “”Disappointed with the left and the NGOs, the women’s movement has to broaden its own base. The opportunities are plenty. Lakhs of women have been enrolled in panchayati raj institutions as elected representatives on reserved seats, another lot is women of self-help groups. In other words it is probably time to wrest back the co-option benefits being enjoyed by the state in the name of women’s empowerment. It is also important to intensify our participation in the mass struggles now that we are accepted as equal partners with thirty years of history behind us. It is vital to fight the forces of communalism and to get the right to protest which is threatening to undermine our strength in times to come.”

It was this urge that led to her active involvement in the pan-India network Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS). Kalpana found a fresh lease of life when she together with a group of other activists set up WSS.  Sexual violence by Sulwa-Judum forces  on adivasi women were failing to draw any protests by women’s organizations.  This trend was becoming more prominent. Anti-displacement struggles had become widespread across Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and other states. On one hand, balancing solidarity work for these movements and giving dedicated time to your organizational tasks became more difficult. On the other, as continuous state repression on these movements became the modus operandi for state governments to coercively acquire lands, mountains, forests and water bodies, the lack of response from the broader women’s movement began to become more and more discerning.   Years of presence of Indian security forces in Kashmir and states of the North-East had led to aggravated sexual violence on women among many other daily acts of repression on entire communities. WSS was set up in response to specifically focus on the growing incidence of sexual violence on women resisting land grab and state repression. By bringing to light the violence inflicted on women by military and paramilitary forces, WSS became an extension of the same feminist politics. Its analysis and actions attempted to keep step with the turbulent socio-economic-political scenario emerging all around us.

After one full year of the CBI giving a report covering up the crimes of rape and murder of two young women,  Asifa and Nilofer in Shopian in Kashmir, WSS organized an unique protest in New Delhi outside the staff quarters.  On December 13, 2010, over a hundred women and men brought loads of bed sheets to gift to the CBI to cover up their crimes. He bedsheets were sprawled with messages like: GIFT FOR YOUR NEXT COVER-UP! CBI INVESTIGATE YOURSELF! JUSTICE FOR ASIYA AND NILOFER! COVER-UP BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION NOT CENTRAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION!

There’s strong recollection of women’s groups storming into the office of the National Commission on Women on 10th October, 2012 and demanding justice for Soni Sori who had undergone severe torture and sexual violence at the hands of the Chhattisgarh police and repeatedly humiliated since one long year. The NCW had ordered an enquiry but the files had not yet moved. The NCW member who met the group said that the NCW had closed the case considering the matter to be subjudice. Women’s groups demanded the reopening of the case.

These are all collective actions. But friends remember Kalpana as the one putting herself entirely into such an idea and seeing it to completion. She was ever willing to initiate protest actions, symbolic or real.

Adieu, friend and comrade, adieu Kalpana! You will be remembered as a tireless foot soldier, a leader and a visionary. A fighter to the end, you infused everyone with your dreams and determination.


It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

who don’t sell our lives
who don’t bow our heads
who don’t fold our hands together.

It is we sinful women
while those who sell the harvests of our bodies
become exalted
become distinguished
become the just princes of the material world.

It is we sinful women
who come out raising the banner of truth
up against barricades of lies on the highways
who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold
who find that tongues which could speak have been severed.

It is we sinful women.
Now, even if the night gives chase
these eyes shall not be put out.
For the wall which has been razed
don’t insist now on raising it again.

It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

who don’t sell our lives
who don’t bow our heads
who don’t fold our hands together.

(by Ruksana Ahmad)