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Tue, 06.03.1947

Mala Sen, Activist born

Mala Sen

*Mala Sen was born on this date in 1947.  She was a Bengali Indian-British writer and human rights activist.  

Born in Mussoorie in Uttarakhand, Mala Sen was the daughter of Lt-Gen Lionel Proteep Sen and Kalyani Gupta. Following her parents' divorce in 1953, she was brought up by her father.  Sen was of Bengali heritage.  After attending Welham Girls' School in Dehradun, she studied home sciences at Nirmala Niketan College in Mumbai.  In 1965 she eloped to England with Farrukh Dhondy, who had won a scholarship to Cambridge University. They married in 1968 but divorced in 1976, although they continued to maintain a friendly relationship. 

After arriving in England, Sen began working as a seamstress to help to pay the bills. Increasingly taking an interest in race relations, she fought for the rights of Indian factory workers in Leicester. Writing in the journal Race Today, she reported on how Bangladeshis in the East End of London worked in sweatshops while living in dormitories where beds were shared around the clock by shift workers. Separated from their East Indian families, they did not qualify for housing accommodation as they were listed as single.

Together with her husband and other activists, Sen founded the Bengali Housing Action Group, which led to the establishment of Brick Lane as a safe living area for the Bangladeshi community in East London.  Along with Dhondy, Sen was also an active member of the British Black Panthers movement.  She was an early member of the Race Today Collective.  Her writing is included in Here to Stay, Here to Fight – A Race Today Anthology (Pluto Press, 2019), edited by Paul Field, Robin Bunce, Leila Hassan and Margaret Peacock, which features contributions to the journal between 1973 and 1988. 

Because of her effective involvement, Sen was invited to research television documentaries. While in India, she became particularly interested in press reports about a lower-caste, poverty-stricken women called Phoolan Devi who had suffered forced marriage at 11, gang rape and kidnapping.  While investigating the background to Devi's life, Sen researched the general victimization of women in rural India where they frequently undergo such pressures that they consider themselves worthless. As a result, she published her second book, Death by Fire: Sati, Dowry Death and Female Infanticide in Modern India in 2001.  

Mala Sen who was known for her civil rights activism and race relations work in London and for her book India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi, died, aged 63, on May 21, 2011. She died at the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, after undergoing an operation for oesophageal cancer, which had been diagnosed earlier that year; at the time she had been working on a new book about women with HIV in India. A memorial event for her was held in London at the Nehru Centre in July 2011. 

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