Chhattisgarh Diaries: Meet activist, lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj

Aditya AK April 22 2016
Sudha Bharadwaj

A ramshackle building located on the outskirts of Bilaspur houses the office of Janhit, a “group legal aid” organisation. It is a wonder as to how it has braved sun and rain and managed to stay strong after all these years. In a similar vein, once you meet Sudha Bharadwaj, you find yourself asking what keeps her going after fighting the forces of injustice for the better part of 25 years, and having lost many battles along the way.

Especially when you find out that she is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur.

“My mother was very much a socialist, and I was a single child brought up by a single parent. Even today, I proudly say that she was a Professor from JNU!(laughs) I always grew up in an environment where everyone was concerned about social issues.”

Her first taste of workers’ protests was at Unnao, in a factory where ceiling fans were made.

“There were badli workers who hadn’t been paid for months together and had gheraoed the manager’s officer. They were actually shot at; it was like another Jalianwalla Bagh. That was an incident that shook me up quite a bit.”

While that would have first awakened the activist inside, it was another incident that made her decide to wholeheartedly devote herself to the cause of workers around the country.

JNU campus

Even today, I proudly say that she was a Professor from JNU!

“I used come to Delhi during vacations and meet this interesting group of students; some were from AIIMS, some from JNU. In ’82, huge construction started taking place in Delhi, most of which was done by migrant labourers. So we used to go there and engage with them, to find out their problems.

I remember one occasion, when one of the workers was very vocal. He said that they couldn’t go home even if they wanted to, as most of them were bonded. The next day we went there, he wasn’t there. That was when the seriousness of the situation started hitting us. We might have gone there just to gather information, but our intervention might just have caused this man to lose his job, or even his life.

It is not enough to be sympathetic. If you are going to organise, which is a very tough job, people will sometimes pay a tough price for it.”

In these parts, Shankar Guha Niyogi, founder of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, is a hero of sorts, especially for the labourers. He was responsible for launching successful protests all over the state, and it was he who gave Bharadwaj’s passion direction.

“In 1986, I had decided to join this union, as a teacher. By 1990, things began stirring up at Bhilai, where a big movement of the contract workers had started. They were working for 12-14 hours a day on paltry wages, in bad conditions. Those who tried to organise face a lot of goondaism. By that time, Niyogi ji asked me to join the movement in Bhilai.”

Just when things started coming together, Niyogi was assassinated. With no one at the helm of the protests, the factories started discarding the workers. And thus began Bharadwaj’s journey as a lawyer.

“That was the time I started doing legal work for the union. I was gathering the material and running around to the lawyers, because I was one of the few people who could speak English. I spent a lot of time at the High Court and the Industrial Tribunal. There were a lot of things happening – a judicial inquiry into the 17 killings that happened, there was a big struggle to get the investigation into Niyogi’s murder handed over to the CBI.

It was a tough time, because there were a very few lawyers who were sympathetic towards us. Most of them wanted a lot of money, which we didn’t have. Many times, because the opponents were so powerful, we were left wondering whether our lawyer was on our side!

At that time, the workers said to me, ‘Why don’t you become a lawyer? Anyway you do so much work running around explaining the case to lawyers’. So I became a lawyer at the ripe old age of 40, and have been one for 16 years.”

Once she started practicing in the Chhattisgarh High Court, she found a number of draconian laws were being implemented. More specifically, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA).

“First of all, the offence under the Act is so vaguely defined. You have phrases like “tendency to oppose the government”, which are very subjective. Secondly, while you already have a central legislation like UAPA to keep unlawful activities in check, this law is much more loosely worded and has less protections than the UAPA. The mens rea element is very explicitly defined in the UAPA, wherein the aiding and abetting of an unlawful organisation has to be done knowingly and willingly. The same requirement is not present in the CSPSA.”

As a consequence of these laws, over the recent past, there has been a palpable persecution of activists, journalists and even lawyers.

And according to Bharadwaj, the judiciary has done precious little to alleviate the situation.

CG High Court (18)

"Nobody argues bail, because they never get bail, not even from the High Court."

“One tragic thing that is happening to the criminal justice system in Bastar is that the Executive is so overpowering, that the judiciary is not really able to play its own role.

The judiciary can only safeguard the rights of the people if it is able to act independently. If you see most of the small courts in Bastar, nobody argues on the charges. The charges framed are those put in by the police. Nobody argues bail, because they never get bail, not even from the High Court.

There are cases where people have gone to jail for 3-4 years without their name being anywhere on the chargesheet. Naxal ka ‘na’ shabd sunte hi, everything gets rejected (The "na" in Naxal is enough to get your bail rejected). The problem is that if there are ordinary people caught up in that, what are you going to do about it? 

This state of affairs makes the Adivasis feel that they have nowhere to go. After a point, people feel like they have no recourse. It is a very serious situation.”

It is not only the judiciary she is critical of; some lawyers in the Bastar area have not been helping things either. A few months ago, the Bar Association of Bastar had virtually driven out Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLag), lawyers who had been sympathising with the Adivasi cause.

She paints a picture of how things work in the troubled district, and things are not too pretty.

“A professional lawyer in the Bastar courts appears between the chargesheet and the acquittal/ conviction. Usually, they don’t go to the jail to meet their clients. A lot of the atrocities happen pre-trial; people are detained and tortured, where the lawyers are not before the court, but before the police, and nobody wants to take on the police. When they file FIRs in torture cases and try to find the whereabouts of detainees, they are harassed. The Bastar police does not want lawyers to do this work.


Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Clinic

Initially, the local lawyers were saying that we (members of JagLag) were farzi vakils. But I went to the SP and showed him their credentials. So, ultimately it is the police who are putting the pressure, and some members of the bar seemed to have succumbed to it. They have become part of the Samajik Ekta Manch, which is a motley organisation against Naxalism, which is fine. But they are not allowing anybody to raise issues about the excesses of the police at all.”

The Samajik Ekta Manch is now defunct, after reports alleged the state police’s involvement in their activities. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Midway through the interview, she stops to address a client’s doubts. His land has just been illegally seized by the state government under the guise of “development”.

The Naya Raipur Development Authority (NRDA), formed right after the creation of Chhattisgarh, is an elaborate plan to construct a new capital city that would rival any in the country. Bharadwaj reveals that there are presently 120 land acquisitions going on in 41 villages towards this end. And the villagers’ land is not being acquired by the book.

“First of all, the plan itself is flawed, because they are forcibly urbanising the rural areas. Development of the rural areas is viable only if the people are also getting developed. But, they are taking away land by the acre and selling it by the square foot. They are basically converting rural land into real estate and minting money.

Sudha Office 2

Sudha Bharadwaj takes a moment to go through her client's land acquisition case

They are giving this land to private societies, who are making golf courses, five-star hotels, and bungalows for ministers. All these are being built under ‘public purpose’. After the introduction of Part IX-A of the Constitution, you need to have popular representation to acquire land. But there is no representation here.”

To circumvent the process envisaged, the state government has resorted to extraneous means.

“In 2002, they froze the private sale and purchase of land in that area. You could only sell your land to NRDA. They have arm-twisted the natives by using Section 17 of the Panchayat Act as an emergency clause. In that hurry, they have done away with Section 5a, which prescribes hearing of objections. It is a mania of forcible urbanisation and converting agricultural land into real estate.”

She reveals the gravity of these transgressions, and how they are violative of the Constiution.

“The people of this state are commonly referred to as ameer dharthi ke gareeb log. You have to think about why that dichotomy exists. 60% of Chhattisgarh is Scheduled Area, so, for a change, why can’t we strongly implement the laws in favour of the adivasis and the workers? For example, the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act is being violated all over the state.

Constitution of India

"There is a constitutional obstacle; you cannot create municipalities in scheduled areas."

If you look at 243ZC of the Constitution, it says that nothing in Part IX-A will apply to Scheduled Areas until Parliament passes a law. There was the Municipalities (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Bill, which was passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2001, but lapsed in the Lok Sabha. So there is a constitutional obstacle; you cannot create municipalities in scheduled areas. If you decide it can happen despite this, where is the Constitution?

You are giving Vedanta, a company which is a company which is in default of 1.5 lakh crores, a gold mine here. At the same time, a farmer who is in Rs. 40,000 debt is killing himself.”

Despite all the odds, despite the rampant injustices, there is something in Sudha Bhardwaj’s words and actions indicative of pure, unadulterated defiance.

She is cynical, after being on the frontlines all this while. But at the same time, she is hopeful.

“To be very frank, it is not my law practice that gives me hope, it is the people who are fighting. There are two types of fight – kagaz ki ladai and sadak ki ladai. If you only rely on paper, it is not going to work; you have to agitate on the ground level. What keeps me going is the hope that our legal strategy can be enmeshed with people’s struggles. I don’t think that things are going to change just by going to court.”