Ilina Sen
(January 29, 1951-August 9, 2020)

T. Vijayendra

Why do good people have to suffer? This is a question mankind has been facing for thousands of years. Our Hindu religion has the answer, ‘because of sins committed in the previous birth’. Obviously people like us can not accept this. While the news of Ilina’s death last night brought a host of memories and sadness in me, this question too haunted me.

I have not met two people nicer than Ilina Sen and her husband Binayak Sen. I have known them since the late 70s and have visited the family almost every year and spent some of my best time with the family. Through all the troubles they faced in their life, particularly in the last decade I have never seen her losing courage and her good humour. I have played with the children since they were babies and we all had a good time whenever we met. As is well known both Ilina and Binayak dedicated their lives to the miners and adivasis of Chhatisgarh. Ilina was also a scholar and her book, ‘A space within the struggle’ inspired a generation of women activists.

Ilina suffered from both breast cancer and cancer in her brain. Her pain and sufferings were immense. Nor should we forget the suffering of the caregivers – Binayak and the elder daughter Pranhita who were with her all through. While friends were always ready to help – and their friends and well wishers circle is very large – still it could not reduce the sufferings. They all bore it with patience and good humour. Ilina herself never lost her sense of her humour. A friend wrote, ‘She fought with feistiness’.

So coming back to the question I raised in the beginning, ‘why good people have to suffer’, the only answer that comes to my mind is that because they struggled for others. They had to struggle because the system is unjust and exploitative. They stood with the exploited and oppressed people because they are good people. Because their personal situation gave them the space and time they did what they felt ought to be done. And because they struggled, the system punished them. They were and are being punished like Christ, not for the crimes they did but the thoughts and practices they carried for the poor and underprivileged in a system that is unjust and exploitative.

One could ask but why cancer? No one knows the full answer about the why of cancer. That it is related to stress has been said by many authorities. Binayak’s life and Ilina’s life were one. Ilina had to go through enormous stress when Binayak was in jail and even after that. She was the main breadwinner of the family. She had to keep her job in Wardha and go every weekend to Raipur in an overnight bus to meet him in jail. Even after that she had to take up a job at TISS Bombay. Once she told me, after all, we would like to retire on a farm, reading books. But where is the choice? As the students in California in 1968 asked the psychologist, R. D. Laing, ‘How does the atrocities committed by the French Army in Algeria affect our mental health?’

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Aug 10, 2020

T. Vijayendra

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