Ilina Sen and Kalpana Mehta: Lives spent fighting

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on August 21, 2020

Ground Work: It is in Chhattisgarh, working with mineworkers and tribespeople that Ilina Sen’s politics became both grounded and fine-tuned   -  VV KRISHNAN

Firm Stand: Kalpana Mehta, one of the founders of the non-governmental organisation Saheli, refused to be a part of the exploitative corporate regimes all along   -  Sushil Kumar Verma/ The Hindu

The feminist movement lost two stalwarts recently, and with them, the histories of battles waged for a cause

About a fortnight ago, Ilina Sen, an old friend and fellow traveller in the women’s movement, died, her body giving up after long years of struggle with cancer. The personal grief apart, for we were contemporaries in the movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s (although her experience was very different from mine), Ilina’s death is a great loss to the battle for women’s and human rights in India.

A few months before Ilina left us, the women’s movement lost another key activist, Kalpana Mehta who, too, fought long and hard against a debilitating neuron disease — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The difference of just a few years between them, Ilina and Kalpana were both stalwarts of the women’s movement, with lives that differed and overlapped in the way feminist lives often do.

The passing of someone who has been significant in the political movements that were home to people like Ilina and Kalpana is always a moment of reflection on how much a single life can hold together — history, wisdom, courage, experience, intellectual argument and so much more.

Kalpana and Ilina’s feminist lives began very differently and yet there were similarities too. For Ilina, it started at JNU where she studied, and in the early feminist involvement in campaigns against dowry and rape. These provided the first lessons in feminist and class politics. Later, it was her work in Hoshangabad with the non-governmental organisation Kishore Bharati that led her to make the decisive move to Chhattisgarh, which is where her politics became both grounded and fine-tuned.

Kalpana cut her political teeth in the same campaigns and movements in Delhi and then went on to become one of the founders of Saheli, a born-of-the-movement organisation that remains alive and vibrant today.

In Chhattisgarh, Ilina and her husband Binayak Sen founded Rupantar, an organisation that worked with men and women mineworkers and tribespeople on culture, education, music and songs. The workers and their unions became their life, and they developed close ties with Shankar Guha Niyogi, the charismatic and dynamic leader of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha.

Questions of class, identity and hierarchies were paramount to the women’s movement in those days. Within Saheli, fierce debates took place on how a feminist organisation could be inclusive, allow space for everyone, recognise inequalities not only of class and caste but also of language, of the dangers of funding, and whether or not providing counselling and legal help to individuals (a reason why the organisation was conceptualised) was more important than taking forward campaigns. Kalpana was central to these debates.

Ilina, on the other hand, became increasingly involved with women workers in Chhattisgarh. Solidarities were built around tackling the problem of alcohol: Exploitative practices led to landlords paying off their workers with liquor — the consequences of which are well known. Together, the women worked out a solution: They began to make mahua at home, this replaced the liquor handed out by landlords, it was cheap, the women could control the quantity and they were doing something that was part of their culture. A valuable lesson in finding local solutions to local problems had been learnt.

It was this that led Ilina to think of how women become aware of, and negotiated with, patriarchies within what are seen as progressive struggles, and she went on to document these in a book that we, as Kali, were lucky enough to publish. A Space within the Struggle remains an early classic of the women’s movement, testifying to the participation in and shaping of the movement by women from the grassroots.

Both women had a strong critique of the ways in which capital functioned in society and they refused to be part of exploitative corporate regimes. Kalpana’s interests drove her towards the field of health and as part of Saheli, she was instrumental in fighting both ground level and legal battles against big companies trying to use women’s bodies to experiment with invasive contraceptives. Over time, she became something of a small entrepreneur, providing local and holistic medicine, and also imported a consignment of diaphragms as safe contraceptive devices for women.

Ilina, meanwhile, found her way to understanding the ways in which the State makes enemies of its own people through the painful experience of the arrest of her husband on charges of sedition. Ilina worked tirelessly on Binayak’s case. The exhaustion of running from pillar to post in the face of a hostile State and the need to understand and reflect led her to academics and for several years she became a teacher, loved and valued by her students.

When these two different and intersecting lives ended, a whole history went with them. A history of lives dedicated to a cause, a movement, a history of political understandings and analyses, a history of what is perhaps the most important political movement of the last century.

The tragedy is that no one, other than a handful of feminists, will write this history.



Urvashi Butalia is an editor, writer and director of Zubaan; Email:

Published on August 21, 2020

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