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|Occupation||Trade unionist, Activist, Lawyer|
Sudha Bharadwaj is a trade-unionist, activist and lawyer who has lived and worked in Chhattisgarh for over three decades. She is an active member of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakrta Committee)..
Sudha was born in Boston and lived in the United States and United Kingdom as a child. Sudha's mother, Krishna Bharadwaj, was a well known academic, who had founded the Centre for Economics Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her father is also an economist and an academic. At age 11, she moved with her mother to Delhi.
She joined the integrated mathematics (five year) program of IIT Kanpur in 1979. At IITK she joined NSS, teaching in the caste-ridden rural neighborhood. After finishing the program at IITK in 1984, she taught at DPS, for a couple of years in Delhi.
Activism and legal work
The Early Years in Chhattsigarh
By 1986, Sudha decided to relocate to Chhattisgarh and that is where she found her identity as a trade unionist, and later, as a lawyer. Chhattisgarh is one of the most mineral-rich regions of the world and home to corresponding mining and associated industry. By the mid 1960s and leading up to the emergency, it was also a site of mass struggles of the working class. This included not only the trade unions but also movements of contract workers which were not formally recognized by the established trade unions.
In the waning days of emergency the contract workers of captive coal mines for Bhilai steel plant at Dalli-Rajhara were restless at the partisan treatment of the central trade unions and moved away from them, inviting the charismatic Shankar Guha Niyogi for a leadership role. By mid-80s, Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS) as it was called, was an extraordinarily democratic and visionary non-violent workers’ organization in central India and attracted students, activists, and sensitive middle class from across the northern belt. Sudha was one of them.
CMSS expanded itself into Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), a remarkably democratic mass organization of workers and one not merely concerned with their working conditions alone: it founded schools and hospitals (led by the workers and not management!), worked for afforestation, encouraged savings, and engaged with cultural lives of workers and even with socio-political issues like alcohol-prohibition and gender. It is in these varied organizational roles, that Sudha trained herself. By the late eighties, CMM was already expanding and attracting contract workers of privately owned plants in Bhilai, organising several thousands of workers and their families. It was at the peak of this movement, in September 1991, that Shankar Guha Niyogi was assassinated.
In spite of losing Niyogi in the trying circumstances, the intensely democratic movement did manage to continue even though it splintered. Sudha Bhardwaj played a central role organizing the section of CMM active in and around Durg-Bhilai-Raipur, which metamorphosed into the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee). By now Sudha was already living with the workers in the basti, and she worked relentlessly towards the “twenty-four hour union”. Unlike any other trade union movement of its time, CMM under the leadership of Niyogi believed that union work should not be limited to economistic demands of better wages and working conditions alone. Women played an extremely important role, enabling the movement to grow from the work-site into the homes and houses of workers. It extended beyond trade union activities into all other areas of life. Issues of health and campaigns against alcoholism became trademarks of the movement, setting it apart from mainstream trade union politics. Sudha played an active role in working towards this vision. Around this time she adopted a daughter.
Following several repressive attempts to suppress the movement, the legal engagement of the movement also grew. There was a police firing in 1992 killing 17 workers in Bhilai who were on a protest, demanding both better conditions of work and justice for Niyogi's murder. Hundreds of workers and worker-leaders were jailed. Post liberalisation, in a primarily privatized world and with a drastic increase in contractual labour, the movement was faced with new challenges. Even the most basic demands of limiting work to eight hours, legally due minimum wages, wage slips and attendance cards, etc., were no longer tolerable demands for employers. As a consequence, fighting legal battles became, at once, more challenging and necessary. Workers who were her comrades urged Sudha to study law and take their struggles in to the courtroom.
Enrolled in Durg in 1997, by 2000 she became a lawyer, primarily to represent the union-led cases. The most significant of these cases was finally settled only in 2015.
Journey from trade unionist to a lawyer for and of the people
The murder of Niyogi marked a turning point in the working class movement in Chhattisgarh in many ways. It was not only that a vibrant movement had lost its charismatic leader, but it was also a turning point in terms of conditions of work and the beginning of new kinds of repression and violence against unions and the working class. Lakhs of workers took to the street when Niyogi was killed demanding justice. Their unflinching demand for justice created enough pressure for the Sessions Court to sentence two industrialists and their henchmen to life imprisonment. Such a judgement was historically unprecedented. Sudha played an important role as a paralegal and union worker in the trial of the murder of Shankar Guha Niyogi and the workers organization Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha was granted the status of assistance to prosecution.
When the BJP Government of Sunderlal Patwa fell in MP, the Congress referred 16 cases of industrial disputes of the Bhilai contract workers movement to the Industrial Court. Sudha took upon the task of assisting the labour lawyers – preparing statements of the workers and collecting documentary evidence. In 1996 the Industrial Court held that dismissals of workers were illegal and directed compensation in lieu of reinstatement. Watching her growing familiarity and proficience in labour law, workers of the movement requested Sudha to pursue law, given that they could neither shell out large sums of money to pay lawyers not trust most lawyers to stand up against large corporations and industrialists.
Once Sudha began practising at the Chhattisgarh High Court, very soon she earned a reputation of the one lawyer who always spoke up for the oppressed. People from all corners from Chhattisgarh would make their way to her, whether to fight against the wrongful acquisition of their land by large companies or their unfair retrenchment from the factory.
In ten years of practice at the Chhattisgarh High Court, Sudha fought scores of cases. Some of the notable ones were several illegal land acquisition and surface rights cases by Jindal Power and Jindal Steel in the coal lands of North Chhattisgarh. In the same region she also fought against the fraudulent land registration by Monnet Steel. She took on cases against some of the largest mining corporations who were forcibly vying for the mineral rich land in Chhattisgarh; the cancellation of community rights to facilitate Adani's mining operations, serious environmental violations by Vandana Vidyut company, efforts to forcibly convert Gram Panchayats to Nagar Panchayats in the Scheduled areas to foster industrialization and mine the Rowghat hills held sacred by the Nureti Gond community in Kanker were just a few in a long list. In 2020, the Central Government launched an online auction for the commercial mining of 41 blocks of coal. In Chhattisgarh, where Sudha led the legal fight against Adani's coal mines, around 9 blocks were put up for auction despite opposition from the State Government. Prime minister Modi himself launched the auction.
In the industrial belt of Raipur and Bhilai, she fought several cases for workers – cases of dismissals, compensations for injuries, and criminal cases against trade unionists. Notably, she fought along with the safai karmacharis in Bilaspur and Bhilai to resist the efforts to resist efforts of the Government to systematically contractualise them and deprive them of housing to benefit crony contractors. Another memorable case was that of the women workers of Kedia Distilleries. She not only won a case for them in the High Court, but also sat with them on hunger strike when they were laid off.
Sudha fought a variety of other cases - she sided with the farmers in and around Raipur when their lands were being indiscriminately taken under the Naya Rajdhani Project of the Chhattisgarh Government. She had also taken up the case of corruption in the selection of judges involving the High Court itself, and the illegal termination of a dalit judge for his outspokenness against judicial corruption.
She was one of the handful lawyers who were courageous enough to take up was cases relating to the false implication of adivasis in criminal cases in Bastar, and those killed by the police and security forces in fake encounters. She even appeared as a lawyer in the judicial enquiry into the alleged encounter that took place in 2012 in Sarkeguda in which 17 villagers (seven of them minors) were killed by security forces. The enquiry commission headed by Justice V.K. Agrawal finally released its report in December 2019, clearly stating that “there is no evidence to suggest those killed or injured in the alleged encounter between the security forces and so-called Maoists.”
Sudha was part of a small but dynamic collective of lawyers known as Janhit. The group consisted of lawyers based out of Bilaspur, the High Court capital of the State of Chhattisgarh. The collective has been instrumental in asserting the rights of people laid out in various enabling laws setback due to poor implementation. The Janhit team has handled more than two hundred legal cases which include cases of industrial workers, land acquisition matters, false criminal cases against activists and people's movements, forest rights cases, environmental cases, and habeas corpus and police atrocity cases. In 2017, she moved to Delhi on a kind of sabbatical from the collective, hoping to give her daughter more time. A well known figure by now in legal circles, she started teaching at National Law School, Delhi till her arrest in August 2018.
Human rights and the broader people's movement in Chhattisgarh
Sudha's work, however, was not merely limited to the courtroom. She was a central part of the larger civil society and human rights movement in both Chhattsigarh and the country at large. She contributed actively to building an anti-displacement movement in Chhattisgarh. She was the General Secretary of Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) Chhattisgarh, a member of the Indian Association of Peoples Lawyers (IAPL), and a founding member of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (CBA). She was part of women groups such as the Mahila Mukti Morcha that led the anti-liquor campaign in Chhattisgarh, the Chhattisgarh Mahila Adhikar Manch that took on the issue of deaths caused by the forced sterilisation of Adivasi women by the State, and Women against Sexual Violence and State repression (WSS) that spoke out against the mass rapes and sexual violence inflicted on Adivasi women by the police and security forces among many other issues. She would tirelessly labour late into the night, collecting news reports of violence against adivasis and workers, writing press statements and flyers for various movement groups, editing reports published by Human Rights groups that highlighted and spoke out against a wide range of issues from the hounding of journalists to the persecution of religious minorities by Hindu right wing groups.
Pune Police and the initial arrests
On January 8, 2018 a businessman from Pune - Tushar Damgude – filed an First information report alleging that the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence was instigated by activists who had spoken at Elgar Parishad. On 28 August 2018, Sudha Bharadwaj was arrested by Pune Police allegedly claiming that some documents were recovered from her co-accused which mention her activities and prove that she is a member of CPI (Maoist). Sudha Denies the charges and raised objections regarding the documents verifiability. On August 29, 2018, five prominent citizens – historian Romila Thapar, economists Devaki Jain and Prabhat Pattnaik, academic Satish Deshpande and Maja Daruwala – filed an urgent Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the Supreme Court challenging the arrests. The majority judgement on September 28, 2018 dismissed the plea, Justice D. Y. Chandrachud in his dissenting judgment chided the investigating agencies for disregarding procedure and law and also said that there is a “serious bone of contention regarding the authenticity of the evidence.”
Nature of evidence
The first chargesheet filed spanning 5000 pages was filed by the Pune Police on 15 November 2018 against the 6 June arrestees. On February 21, 2019, the Pune police filed a supplementary chargesheet against the 28th August arrestees, and later submitted draft charges. Appearing for Sudha, prominent Bombay High Court advocate, Dr. Yug Mohit Chaudhary, argued that no incriminating evidence has been found and a host of documents inadmissible in a court of law have been submitted - something Justice Chandrachud himself pointed to in his dissenting judgement. Further, in a recent reportage where the Caravan investigated documents and other forensic material of the case, which the Pune Police had presented to the court and supplied to the accused persons, as true copies of the purportedly incriminating files, they found many indications that the police may have used the devices while it had them in its custody, and may have edited files on them.
Trial and further investigation by the NIA
Nine months after her arrest, Sudha was among 21 women honoured by the Harvard Law School in 2019 on the occasion of International Women's Day. At the time, the Maharashtra government under Uddhav Thackeray tried to withdraw the charges against Sudha Bharadwaj but the Central Government intervened and handed the investigation to NIA. The NIA has since begun a new series of interrogations and arrests in the case. Between April and October 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic and country-wide lockdown, the NIA arrested Hany Babu, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Kabir Kala Manch members Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap, and Jharkhand based senior activist Fr. Stan Swamy. On 9 October 2020, the NIA filed over 10,000 page supplementary chargesheet against the recently arrested.
Covid-19 and continued incarceration
Today, Sudha remains incarcerated without a trial. Her father passed away during her time in jail. After a Covid-19 outbreak in the prisons of Maharashtra, Sudha Bharadwaj filed bail applications in front of Sessions, High Court and Supreme Court seeking interim bail on the grounds the comorbidities she suffers from, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. It was contended that having a history of pulmonary tuberculosis, Sudha is at a higher risk of contracting the Coronavirus in prison, and this infection in her present medical condition with two severe comorbidities could be life threatening. During the hearings, it came to light that Sudha has developed Ischemic Heart Disease. Both the Sessions and the High Court rejected the bail applications. The Supreme Court dismissed the petition as withdrawn after asking the lawyer why Sudha needed to seek bail on medical grounds when she has “such a good case on merits'.
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