On Monday, November 1, Chhattisgarh celebrated 21 years of its statehood. On November 1, 2000, the state was carved out of Madhya Pradesh. It was a result of longstanding demand and sustained struggles of local organisations and the population. One of the organisations which played a key role in the formation of the new state is Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) or Chhattisgarh Liberation Front. The CMM was formed in the early 1980s under the charismatic leadership of trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi. He was murdered in September 1991. And one of those who decided to carry forward the unfinished work of Niyogi is his fellow comrade from early years of activism – Sudha Bharadwaj, a trade union activist, lawyer and teacher.
Incidentally, Sudha Bharadwaj’s birthday coincides with the Chhattisgarh state formation day on November 1. This Monday, November 1, when the state celebrated Chhattisgarh Rajyotsava amid much fanfare, Bharadwaj was lodged in Byculla (Mumbai) jail – her fourth birthday in prison since her detention in August 2018. She continues to be incarcerated without a trial.
Sudha Bharadwaj turned 60 yesterday. pic.twitter.com/SaCiLO9O55
— PenPencilDraw (@penpencildraw) November 2, 2021
While the trial in her case is yet to start, she has been continuously denied bail despite suffering from medical issues and the pathetic conditions in the prison, where she is lodged. A little over a month ago, her daughter and friends issued a statement expressing concern about congestion in prisons in the state and a possible outbreak of the pandemic as several cases of Coronavirus were reported amongst the inmates.
Nondoctrinaire and practical
Sudha didi or Sudha ji as she is called by most is best known for her trade union activism and long years of struggle to undo the injustices meted out to Adivasi and other marginalised communities in Chhattisgarh. However, there are several aspects of her life and work which are less discussed, if not totally unknown.
She has been equally concerned about the rights of religious minorities, educational empowerment of marginalised communities, including the urban poor, and their health rights. She has been, perhaps, not just the truest believer in Niyogi’s ideology — Sangharsh Aur Nirman (struggle and construct) — but also its ardent practitioner.
Moreover, like Niyogi, she believes in building larger solidarities. She once told this writer that things like sectarianism or fighting over small ideological matters only elite people (mostly urban intelligentsia and armchair activists) can afford. Those fighting on the ground neither have time nor luxury for all this. On the ground, it is a matter of survival. Hence, we have to build larger solidarities and see who can walk with us, and how far.
Does this mean Sudha ji is devoid of ideology and her only concern is mere upliftment of the marginalised? No, that’s not true. She can hardly stand things like communalism, casteism, corporatisation, among others. But she is not dogmatic in her fight against all these, unlike most of the right thinking and committed workers and lawyers often are.
I must confess that in my nearly two decades of activism and subsequent journalism, I must have met hundreds of activists, lawyers and trade union workers across the country, but none like Sudha ji. The most remarkable trait about Sudha ji is her non-sectarianism. In a ‘civil society’ like ours, where each one of us leaves no stone unturned to prove ourselves as holier than thou, she exemplifies a rare combination of commitment, articulation and humility.
Sudha ji would often talk about the importance of sadak ki ladai (fight on the ground), as she believes, and rightly so, things are not going to change just by approaching courts.
According to her, “There are two types of fight: kagaz ki ladai (fight on the paper) and sadak ki ladai (fight on the ground). If you only rely on paper, it is not going to work; you have to agitate on the ground level as well. 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.”
It is pitiable that she is in jail, that too for an alleged crime, she never committed. And her continued incarceration is made possible by draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act [UAPA].
Sudha ji always knew the dangerous nature of these laws, warned people about and tried to fight against them, both through kagaz (paper) as well sadak ki ladai (fight on the ground). I clearly remember Sudha ji vehemently arguing against the stringent amendments in UAPA law in 2012 during the national conference of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) at Jaipur.
Ravi Kiran Jain, national president of PUCL in his foreword to the book, A Life in Law and Activism: Sudha Bharadwaj Speaks (2020), rightly notes, “Sudha’s arrest under the draconian UAPA only demonstrates yet again why the UAPA is at odds with the vision of a democracy founded on the basic principles of any rule of law jurisprudence: namely, that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, that when the liberty of the individual is at stake the trial must be conducted expeditiously, and that the state must not use the criminal justice machinery in a vindictive manner.”
Hence, “the struggle against the UAPA is not just for the release of the many detained but is really a struggle for the protection of the right to dissent. The protection of the right to dissent is at its heart a call to defend the values of the freedom struggle, which stand embodied in the Constitution”.
It is high time we demand the immediate and unconditional release of Sudha Bharadwaj, her co-accused in the Elgar Parishad/Bhima Koregaon case and all the others implicated and charged under UAPA. There must also be a sustained and nationwide campaign against UAPA and other draconian laws. This is because as long as these laws are part of our statute books, Sudha Bharadwajs will be put behind bars for no crime.
Moreover, not just that these laws should be summarily revoked but also it should be ensured that no such law is passed in the future. If that is not done, the cycle of structural violence will go on, as it has been happening because of the enactment of one law after the repeal of another — UAPA after the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), POTA after the repeal of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act (TADA) and so on.
Note: In a previous version of this article, the headline erroneously said Sudha Bharadwaj has been in jail for four years.