India’s National Investigative Agency describes her as the shadowy leader of the banned Maoist party, smuggling arms, planting booby traps and guiding strategy on armed operations. That contrasts sharply with her life of public service among some of India’s most exploited people
New Delhi: In December 2019, Rajkumar Sahu, a water-treatment-plant operator at a cement factory in the central Chattisgarh town of Durg felt compelled to make a 1,000-km journey to Pune to try and meet the incarcerated lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, 59.
Explaining why he made the journey for a fleeting meeting with Bharadwaj, as the police brought her to court for a hearing, the 50-year-old blue-collar worker told Article 14, “She is not just our lawyer or union colleague. For us, Sudha didi (elder sister) is family.”
As a long-time member of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, a worker-peasant union founded by charismatic trade unionist and visionary Shankar Guha Niyogi, Sahu first encountered Bharadwaj in the late 1980s, when she was a recent mathematics graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur. Bharadwaj, then in her late 20s, had moved to the mining town of Dalli Rajhara to teach at a school for mineworkers’ children, and work with the union.
At the time, Sahu and over 500 workers worked on minimum-wage contracts, irrespective of experience, by the cement factory in Durg (then owned by Associated Cement Companies Ltd and now by the Swiss multinational LafargeHolcim). They fought to be employed as “permanent workers” on company rolls. “But we earned little and our small union could barely afford the lawyers’ fees and expenses,” Sahu said.
Bharadwaj eventually studied law, so that she could represent workers like Sahu and others in court. As she wrote in an essay, she became a lawyer in 2000 “at the ripe old age of 40”.
“Once she took over our case, she fought it for 16 long years, standing by us through hearings, hunger strikes, and negotiations,” said Sahu. Bharadwaj’s commitment, he said, eventually helped the workers secure hard-won victories, including legally mandated pay, better work terms, back wages, bonus, and safety helmets and boots.”
Workers like him who earned a monthly wage of Rs 500 when they began, said Sahu, now made over Rs 28,000.
“Contract workers like us could not dream of going up against such big companies in court if not for Sudha didi standing by us,” said Sahu. “It is hard for us to convey what she has contributed to our lives.”
Further north from Durg, in central Chhattisgarh is Raigarh district. Over the past two decades, big-ticket coal mines and thermal power plants have enriched mining corporations, while ravaging forests, farms and villages, and leaving rural communities reeling from the takeover of ancestral lands and ill health from polluted water and air.
Like Sahu, Milupara village’s Janki Sidar gets emotional at the mention of Bharadwaj. Sidar is one among scores of Adivasi farmers of Raigarh who have grappled with the fraudulent transfer of their land to middlemen, land sharks and industrial houses, despite a raft of laws and constitutional guarantees, protecting tribal land ownership as a source of Adivasi livelihood and identity.
“For several years, my case was going nowhere,” Sidar recalled, of her struggle to reclaim her 4 acres of land, which was transferred to a steel and sponge iron plant, Monnet Ispat. “It was one court date after another, and we could barely understand what was going on, until someone referred us to Sudha didi, and she took up our case.”
In 2011, Bharadwaj moved the Chhattisgarh High Court on behalf of Sidar, evoking section 170 B of the Chhattisgarh Land Revenue Code, 1959, a law that restricts the transfer of tribal land to non-tribals and allows restoration of such land transferred by fraud.
In 2014, following a favourable ruling from the high court, Sidar’s land was restored to her. It is the land she currently farms. Sidar said she was among many peasants in the region who looked up to Bharadwaj for her commitment to them.
If not for Bharadwaj’s legal assistance, Sidar said, “Hum aadivasiyon ko company paani mein bahaa deta (the company would sweep us Adivasis away).”
Multiple testimonies to Article 14 by Bharadwaj’s clients—overwhelmingly marginalised and exploited Indians, struggling over years for a hearing from courts—paint a picture of a doughty unionist and public-interest lawyer.
Bharadwaj’s sustained work over three decades for difficult causes also led to requests to legally represent government departments, such as the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, feature on a sub-committee on tribal issues for the National Advisory Council, address judges, and most recently over 2017-18, teach law students as visiting faculty at the National Law University, Delhi.
Over 2013-14, Bharadwaj was also offered a judge’s post at the Chhattisgarh High Court. She turned it down so she could continue her legal aid work for the state’s marginalised, recalled her daughter and numerous colleagues.
Bharadwaj’s life of public service contrasts sharply with her description today by India’s National Investigative Agency: as the shadowy leader of the banned Maoist party, smuggling arms, planting booby traps and guiding strategy on armed operations.
Two Years In Jail: No Trial, No Bail
Arrested on 28 August 2018, Bharadwaj is among 12 ‘Bhima Koregaon accused’—lawyers, human rights defenders, academics—charged under 10 sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967, whose legal processes, as a July 2020 Article 14 analysis showed, ensure that proof of innocence or guilt is essentially rendered irrelevant.
In mid-2018, when the first nine arrests took place, the police accused Bharadwaj and others of plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and delivering speeches, sending emails and circulating pamphlets that sparked violence in January 2018 against Dalits in the town of Bhima-Koregaon, 28 km northeast of Pune city. Faced with questions and criticism, the police held a press conference in September 2018 and said they had seized “thousands of letters” that implicated the activists.
Two years on, investigators (the NIA unilaterally took over the case in January 2020 from the Maharashtra police) have shed little light on the evidence leading to such serious charges. The trial has not begun. All the accused have been denied bail, including Bharadwaj, who has moved for bail four times since her arrest.
Bharadwaj’s lawyer Yug Chaudhry told Article 14 that the evidence produced so far against her “consists entirely of typed, undated, unsigned images of letters found on computers of other persons. They are impossible to prove in evidence. Nothing has been found in Sudha's house or on her devices.”
“These hold no evidentiary value whatsoever,” said Chaudhry. “But unfortunately once someone is charged under UAPA, regular rules of evidence are completely ignored because of the prejudice and bias surrounding terror charges.”
In its latest July 2020 affidavit opposing bail for Bharadwaj, the NIA said its investigation has “clearly established that Bharadwaj along with other accused involved (sic) in selecting and encouraging cadres for the recruitment in the banned organisation to go underground ‘in struggle area’ mobilizing and distributing money facilitating selection and purchasing arms deciding the rate of such arms and suggesting the routes and ways of smuggling such arms into the India for its onward distribution among the cadres.”
The NIA said its investigation had shown that “Bharadwaj along with other accused is also involved in training and laying booby traps and directional mines... in providing strategic inputs in furtherance of the objective of armed rebellion”. The NIA claimed that the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers, of which Bharadwaj was a vice-president, was a frontal organisation of the Maoist party. The affidavit said “cogent evidence had come on record that Bharadwaj was in the process of creating large-scale violence, destruction of property resulting into chaos in the society...”
It provided no evidence, stating “it was not disclosing the material facts of the investigation.” Opposing her bail, the NIA argued that “releasing Bharadwaj would hamper its investigation”.
Bharadwaj’s friend of three decades and Delhi-based economist Smita Gupta said: “If you see the seriousness of the accusations, you would imagine the state would rush to try the case. That it has not done so even after two years makes me believe that it is the state which is on trial, not Sudha.”
In a recent interview, the NIA investigator told Article 14 he could not comment on when the trial in the case might begin, and added that “investigation points are still pending”.
“They know their case is weak and will not withstand scrutiny so they are trying to get a long undertrial incarceration,” Chaudhry told Article 14. “The investigating agency has deliberately delayed and staggered the investigation and filed chargesheets and supplementary chargesheets with long gaps. This ensures that the trial is kept in suspended animation and the accused persons stay in prison for a long time.”
Chaudhry referred to the example of Delhi University Professor Hany Babu, the latest to be arrested in the case in July. “They raided Hany Babu's house in September 2019 and arrested him in July 2020 on the basis of material found way back in 2019,” said Chaudhry. “What else is this if not a deliberate delaying tactic?”
Bharadwaj’s daughter Maaysha, a college student, told Article 14: “In today’s day and age, with all kinds of technology, does it take two years to gather evidence? The way mummy continues to be victimised after years of working for the poor undermines one’s faith in the justice system.”
‘A Wider Perspective Of Life’
Bharadwaj was born in 1961 in Boston to academic parents while they were in the USA for post-doctoral studies. She grew up on Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University campus where her mother, the noted economist Krishna Bharadwaj, taught for several years on returning to India.
Bharadwaj’s love of mathematics took her to IIT Kanpur, where she studied from 1979 to 1984. Shobha Madan, a retired IIT professor who was a doctoral student on the campus then recalled the young Bharadwaj as “someone you could not ignore. The way she looked at the world indicated a wider perspective in life”. It was on the campus that Bharadwaj had her first exposure to issues of contract labour, forming close friendships with mess workers.
1984, the year Bharadwaj graduated, was a defining year for India. In a 2009 interview to this reporter, she recalled “life-altering events” like the anti-Sikh riots, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, and her experience of volunteering with Asiad Games construction workers in Delhi—Adivasi migrants from central India and Orissa working in conditions, which she recalled, approximated bondage.
A meeting with Niyogi led Bharadwaj to move to present-day Chhattisgarh in 1986 to work with mineworkers and teach their children at the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. Kaladas Dahariya, a union member and artist recalled that the young Bharadwaj came to be seen as one of them. “Some people make a show of being progressive—she was not that,” said Dahariya. “She identified with what the workers underwent. Money and comforts did not hold much meaning for her.”
Gupta recalled that whenever Bharadwaj came to visit her in Delhi she would always travel by train, unreserved (the least expensive mode).
“Once Sudha arrived without slippers because someone had stolen them on the train!” said Gupta. Bharadwaj’s indulgence on such visits, Gupta recalled, would be a stack of toast and marmalade, children’s books or an old film.
Her work in the union and her subsequent involvement with the CBI investigation into Niyogi’s murder in 1991 turned her into a lawyer. While Bharadwaj initially fought workers cases, from the early 2000s, Chhattisgarh’s growing resource conflicts over land, forests and mining as well as the spiralling armed conflict between the state and Maoist rebels gradually drew her into a wider ambit of lawyering and human-rights activism.
This was the period when private industry began squeezing labourers more effectively via ever-increasing informalisation, even as mining corporations enlisted State power to take over rural lands, waters and forests. Marginalised castes and Adivasis found little representation in the mainstream media, and the fates of people like Sahu and Sidar were not part of public discourse.
As a lawyer in the High Court in Bilaspur, Bharadwaj defended communities facing dispossession by a powerful state-industry nexus pushing for mines, SEZs and real estate projects. She also became the general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties at this time, drawing attention to issues of dispossession and environmental degradation, extra-judicial killings by police and paramilitary forces and Maoist violence against civilians in the conflict zone. As attacks on human rights defenders and journalists increased in the state, she helped draft a law to protect the work they do.
Ashish Beck, an Adivasi lawyer, recalled Bharadwaj as an advocate with a powerful persona and a reputation for taking on Goliaths. One of his first recollections of her is from 2011 when he had begun practising at the High Court.
“She was walking down the corridor lugging a mammoth stack of files and just stood out from her peers,” said Beck. “You will rarely see a senior lawyer in the High Court or the Supreme Court carrying their own files. Some junior is usually doing it for them.”
In 2010, Bharadwaj set up Janhit (Public Interest) to provide group legal aid to communities who struggled to access the justice system. In an interview to Newsclick a month before her arrest, she recalled its raison d'être: “All people’s movements face the same problem—they suffer for lack of committed lawyers. The people who need us the most can pay us the least. And on the other side are the corporate lawyers...”
Beck eventually accepted Bharadwaj’s offer to join Janhit and noticed she had little interest in cases which did not involve marginalised clients. “Given how well-connected senior advocates are... someone powerful’s son or relative, and (given) how few judges come from marginalised communities, the dominant view of the court remains that Adivasis who are displaced or caught up in conflicts are the collateral damage of development,” said Beck. “Given all this, the cases she took on were never easy cases to argue, or win.”
For example, among Bharadwaj’s many rural clients during this period were five women villagers from Dantewada’s conflict zone, who had testified to being gangraped by local policemen and leaders of the vigilante Salwa Judum movement in 2006. This was when the conflict between Maoists and the State was taking an average of a life a day. Bharadwaj took up the women’s cases, with few illusions about the prospect of justice.
One monsoon day in 2009, this reporter accompanied Bharadwaj as she set out at dawn from Dantewada town to the tehsil court at Konta, 150 km away, where cases had to be registered by the local magistrate.
The single-room court building was empty, and devoid of any work. The magistrate would not show up that day; nobody could say why. Bharadwaj took a fresh date, weeks away.
She worried that the absence was deliberate, to ensure that the case languished, crucial days in which the women villagers might face threats, or be intimidated to retract complaints. “The women are brave, but I fear for their lives,” she said.
Faced with disinterested courts and state hostility, the women retracted their complaints in 2016. The alleged rapes never went to trial, mirroring the fate of numerous such complaints from the conflict, listed in a petition in the Supreme Court, which in a 2011 Salwa Judum verdict, asked the state government to probe criminal complaints against the vigilante group.
The work of Bharadwaj and her colleagues also led to rare admissions of atrocities against Adivasi communities. For example, over the night of 28-29 June 2012, in Bijapur’s Sarkeguda village, paramilitary troops shot dead 15 Adivasis and injured several others, terming all Maoists.
The villagers said people from three villages had gathered to celebrate a seed festival the night when they were fired upon by troops. A judicial commission of enquiry by retired high court justice V K Agarwal ruled after seven years that there was no evidence that the killed villagers were Naxals.
The inquiry said that some of the villagers had bullet injuries on top of their head, torso and back inflicted from close quarters, and wounds from physical assaults with blunt objects like the butt of a gun—injuries, which the troops could not explain.
Sarkeguda resident and government health worker Kamala Kaka who was among those who deposed before the commission said Bharadwaj offered villagers legal support, explaining to them how the commission would work and helping them file their affidavits before the commission. “When we felt despondent as the years passed, she would give us hope,” Kaka told Article 14.
“When the commission’s report came out last year, we welcomed the fact that our truth was finally vindicated,” said Kaka. “But we felt such sadness that the lawyer who had helped us over the years in such difficult times is now in prison.”
A Void Hard To Fill
Bharadwaj’s incarceration, her colleagues and clients said, has left a void that is hard to fill.
“When she was with us, we had this confidence that we can approach the courts any time,” said Alok Shukla, a Raipur-based environmental defender and member of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, a state-wide anti-displacement and environmental movement that Bharadwaj was also associated with.
Shukla offered the example of Ghatbarra village in the Hasdeo Arand forests in north Chhattisgarh. The village of Gond Adivasis found its community forest rights title under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, cancelled by authorities in 2013, for coal-mining by the Rajasthan state power utility and Adani Enterprises Limited.
“The cancellation is entirely illegal and Bharadwaj moved the High Court on the villagers’ behalf,” said Shukla. “With her not here, this and many other legal efforts are suffering.”
Mayshaa said she felt Bharadwaj’s absence in myriad ways. “My mother is the only family I have. There are so many small and big things which happen every day which make me miss her.”
Allowed occasional brief phone calls to Bharadwaj, Mayshaa said, “She has always been a strong person but such an experience of being targeted for so long, and with no legal recourse to the truth can affect anyone.” She added that Bharadwaj’s ailments—diabetes and a history of TB—make her vulnerable if she contracts Covid-19 in the overcrowded Byculla prison.
On 25 August, Bharadwaj’s daughter and friends issued a renewed appeal that she be granted bail, stating that her recent jail medical report also indicates that Bharadwaj has developed ischemic disease (a heart ailment).
Yet bail is hard to come by because of UAPA provisions invoked against Bharadwaj and her co-accused. “Under UAPA, the burden of proof is completely shifted. The prosecution evidence is considered sacrosanct at the stage of bail even if it is eventually inadmissible,” said her lawyer, Chaudhry, echoing frequent criticism of the law (here, here and here). “This is grossly unfair and illogical and it creates a structure that supports long under trial incarceration, which is contrary to the spirit of our system.”
Long-time associates like Kaka, Sahu, Sidar and Dahariya called the government’s charges against Bharadwaj “farzi (concocted)”.
“For years, she has fought for the people of this country and stood with them,” said Dahariya. “If the government says she is a Naxali, by that logic, the people are Naxalis.”
The thought of Bharadwaj in prison for two years pained Sidar in central Chhattisgarh, prompting her to speculate that the lawyer had been put away because she helped Adivasi communities like hers stand up to powerful economic interests.
“Woh vakeel hai bhai, desh drohi nahi (She is our lawyer, not a traitor),” said Sidar. “Why does the government lock up those who help us Adivasis? Why does it never hold our oppressors to account?”
(Chitrangada Choudhury is an award-winning journalist and member of the Article 14 editorial board. She works on issues related to the environment, indigenous and rural communities)
Previously on Article 14: