[Book Review] Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir

By Mahtab Alam,

In the last few years, many books have been written on Chhattisgarh in the form of reportage, academic writing and travelogue. But there has hardly been any book which provides a broader perspective about the state, its past, socio-economic and political scenario, its people and their struggles. Ilina Sen, a well-known rights activist, academician and researcher, whose work on the issues of women and tribal rights have both an academic as well as a practical significance, fills that gap in her latest book, Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir.

Ilina Sen
Publisher: Penguin; Paperback: 320 pages; Price: Rs. 399/-


Currently a senior fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi, and Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, she was a full time activist and researcher who worked at the grassroots in Chhattisgarh until a few years back. Along with her husband, co-worker, well known pediatrician and human rights activist, Dr. Binayak Sen, she worked on the issues of alternative paradigms of development, health, education, gender, food security and bio-diversity conservation through her organization, Rupantar. She had also worked with the legendary trade union, Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS), led by the iconic and organic activist, Shankar Guha Niyogi.

In the wake of the arrest of Dr. Binayak Sen (2007), followed by two terms of horrifying imprisonment, prejudicial trial and life term conviction in a totally concocted and politically motivated case, she and her family were virtually forced to leave the state.  But Chhattisgarh, as Ilina writes, was not just another place of work for them.  “Chhattisgarh, for me, has always been much more than a place of work. Our engagement with the land and its people goes beyond that. It has been our home; its people have been our own; it lies at the root of our sense of belonging there.” During the last 7-8 years, they have gone through a lot, both personally as well politically. However, she is quick to note that, “The trauma we experienced following the (Binayak) case can in no way wipe out those rich memories.”

In this work of hers, she puts together all these rich memories, right from their arrival in the state to their painful exit. Though the happenings around the author’s life anchor the book, using narratives about her own journey, work and learnings over the three decades spent in the state, she has focused more on the socio-political and cultural realities of Chhattisgarh.  In doing so, the author has put together an engaging narrative about different regions of the state, its people and their struggles. Based on extensive documentation, the book is divided into four broad sections and further classified into 18 chapters, along with a short appendix of documents. The first and shortest section is based on Binayak Sen’s case, the second covers the author’s first phase in Chhattisgarh when she and Binayak used to work with the legendry trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi. This is one the most powerful and defining sections of the book as it details the unique political experiments of CMSS, its ideology—Sangharsh aur Nirman (Struggle and Constructive Work), the man Shankar Guha Niyogi and above all the people of Dalli Rajhara.  The next section covers topics like local heroes, rituals, music and other practices in the village lives of Chhattisgarh. The Fourth and concluding part of the book entails to the struggles for creation of a new state, its birth and its current state of affairs.

In short, the book is not just a personal memoir. It is rather a political biography of Chhattisgarh. It will interest all those who are keen to develop a better understanding about the state, its contemporary history and politics, socio-cultural dynamics, issues of ‘development’ and displacement leading to further marginalization and insurgency.

First published in Hardnews Magazine, February 2015.  

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