Till some time back Sudha Bharadwaj was known to many friends and admirers as a public interest lawyer who had protected many vulnerable and poor persons, particularly workers from injustice. She also taught law at prestigious institutions and was a source of inspiration for many of her students.
How have conditions changed? Now her only daughter Maaysha has been moving from pillar to post in efforts to obtain justice for her imprisoned mother. As several eminent persons known for their commitment to justice and peace have argued in recent months, there appears to have been some serious misunderstanding as Sudha Bharadwaj was committed to peaceful and legal methods of obtaining justice and had never been involved in any violence. As reported in the Indian Express ( dated September 28 2020), the Chattisgarh state government had nominated her to serve as a member of the Chattisgarh State Legal Services Authority for the period 2015 to 2017.
This month ( May 2021) Maaysha Singh filed a writ plea in the Bombay High Court seeking her mother’s release on bail for an initial period of six months or till the COVID-19 spread is contained. This plea has also sought urgent interim bail for her mother on medical grounds. This plea was heard on May 13. Advocate Yug Mohit Chaudhry, appearing for Maaysha, said that 60-year old Sudha Bhardwaj, who is in Byculla Women’s Prison, is incarcerated in highly unsanitary conditions without any possibility of social distancing. ( As reported in the Indian Express, Chandigarh edition, May 14). The hearing will continue .
Here it may be pointed out that in previous cases several senior judges have expressed serious concerns about the impact of such conditions in jail. In India as well as in other countries release of many prisoners has been ordered time and again in Covid times, and here it is the context of a senior public interest lawyer and law teacher whose selfless service has been recognized by many eminent persons.
Sudha is known to suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure and has suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis in the past. According to Maaysha, after her arrest she also developed a heart ailment from the stresses of prison life (reported in Indian Express ).
As is evident from several statements issue in the past, several eminent persons known for their commitment to peace and justice, , in India as well as abroad, have expressed their distress at the imprisonment of this public-spirited lawyer. Sudha Bharadwaj has a lifelong record of standing up for justice for the poor. Both as a socially committed lawyer and as a teacher of law and legal issues she emerged as an inspiration for young law students who wanted to help the poor and they have been very appreciative of her as a teacher.
On September 24 2020 the Supreme Court while hearing a bail application for her asked her lawyer Vrinda Grover, who also is known for taking up several cases on behalf of the poor and victims of injustice, to explain more about her client. Ms. Grover replied that Sudha Bharadwaj was globally known for her work on justice-related legal work and she had taught at the National Law University. Ms. Grover informed that her client had never abused the process of law. Following this the judges of the apex court responded to Ms. Grover, in the context of the bail application, that her client has “such a good case on merits”( as reported in the Hindu dated 25 September 2020 in news report titled ‘Sudha Bhardwaj can seek bail on merits: SC).
This comment of the learned Supreme Court judges has given a lot of hope to the many friends and admirers of the imprisoned famous lawyer that she will get bail now at least , keeping in view also the overall worsening Covid situation as well as the health stress suffered by Sudha Bharadwaj at personal level after her imprisonment, as she suffers from several ailments.
As a press statement issued on behalf of friends and family of Sudha Bhardwaj has pointed out, Sudha has dedicated her life to protecting the rights of the weaker sections enshrined in the Constitution of India and is counted among one among the six RBGs across the world, an honour given after the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a feminist jurist who served on the American Supreme Court.
Vrinda Grover said in the Supreme Court on September 24 that her client’s serious medical problems made her more prone to COVID-19.
Public interest lawyers in India who toil for the poor often work in very difficult conditions. Their task is not easy as there are several structural biases and problems due to which it is not easy to secure justice for the poor, particularly when they are struggling against very powerful forces. The innocent poor who are trapped in false cases are unable to pay even the most basic expenses of fighting a legal case, not to talk of paying a reasonable fee to lawyers.
In such a situation the lawyers who have been devoting themselves to fighting the cases of the poor year after year in very difficult conditions deserve wide appreciation of all people who value justice. Unfortunately in recent times some of these lawyers have themselves come under attack or faced very adverse situations.
Sudha Bharadwaj is one such lawyer. The efforts to implicate her in false allegations first started with sections of media and this was opposed by several senior academics, lawyers and human rights activists who were familiar with her peaceful efforts over the years to bring justice to workers, displaced villagers and other vulnerable people. Unfortunately despite the clear expression of such widespread support for her repression was again unleashed against her .
There have been some pioneering efforts in India to bring justice to the most oppressed and exploited sections of people in very creative and peaceful ways. Sudha Bharadwaj was associated with such efforts from a young age . Her parents had won worldwide fame for their brilliant academic work and she too with her educational achievements and background had a bright career ahead of her in Delhi. But leaving behind the certainty of a comfortable life in big cities she went to work with one such pioneering effort which was led by the legendary activist Shankar Guha Niyogi in Chattisgarh.
Niyogi combined several aspects of struggle against exploitation with several aspects of constructive activities with a distinct Gandhian orientation as seen in the struggles against liquor and against unnecessary mechanization. He and his movement were also careful to avoid violence and despite being provoked on many occasions the numerous struggles of the iron ore miners of Dalli Rajhara as well as other struggles of this movement remained peaceful to a remarkable extent.
The struggles brought prosperity to a large number of workers as well as to the industrial townships where they lived . Local bank managers, public sector company managers, shopkeepers also praised the efforts of Niyogi Ji and his colleagues because the prosperity of the workers as well as the much reduced consumption of liquor by them was reflected in prosperity of the region which benefited all.
Despite this there were powerful forces which just could not tolerate the growing strength of his movement as this clashed with their agenda of exploitation and loot and these forces were behind the killing of Niyogi. As it was later revealed the same forces were involved in big scams as well.
Several doctors, artists and writers also made a contribution to this widely admired movement and then went on to do important work in medicine, arts, writing and other areas. Sudha Bharadawaj was one such well educated socially committed youth who came here and made an important contribution.
After the death of Niyogi Ji she went on to make a very important contribution as a lawyer who was always willing to come to the help of workers , peasants threatened with displacement and all others in need of such help. As a Visiting Professor at the National Law University Delhi she became an inspiration for those students who want to make a contribution to the legal needs of poor and oppressed people. As a general secretary of the PUCL in Chattisgarh she reached out to a much larger number of people whose civil liberties and democratic rights were threatened. These many sided contributions were rudely interrupted when she was imprisoned.
Shankar Guha Niyogi was trying to make democracy more meaningful for the poorest people whose democratic rights had been crushed for too long. He was killed in a conspiracy hatched by some of the richest persons of the area who, as was later clearly seen, were also involved in big scams and corruption.
Several years later a woman who learnt her first lessons of such activism under Niyogi is again facing repression for the same reason—that she has tried to protect democratic rights of the poorest. Should she not get justice? In fact there is a strong case not just for her bail but in fact for her unconditional release. Maaysha, the daughter struggling for the release of her mother for many months, should be happy. The many academics, lawyers, activists, other eminent persons, speaking for justice to Sudha Bharadwaj, will be happy to know that their plea for justice has been heard at last.
Bharat Dogra is a veteran journalist and author. His work has been recognized in the form of several prestigious journalism awards. His recent books include Man Over Machine ( Gandhian ideas for our times) and When the Two Streams Met ( freedom movement of India ).