Sudha Bharadwaj on Why She Joined the Trade Union Movement and Became a Lawyer

"We have to bring the Constitution to life. That’s where the lawyers and peoples’ organisations have to work together."

The following is an excerpt from Sudha Bharadwaj Speaks: A Life in Law and Activism published by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. Bharadwaj, a lawyer, trade unionist and rights activist, was arrested in 2018 in the Elgar Parishad case. The book is based on a long interview of Bharadwaj conducted before her arrest by two young lawyers, Santanu Chakraborty and Darshana Mitra.


Early life

Ma’am, to go further back, can you tell us how you got involved with the trade union movement in the first place, what did you study, what inspired you, and how did you get here?

Well, I was a single child living with my mother—my parents separated when I was four—and she came from a socialist background. My mother comes from the Konkan (region across the western coastline of India), and you know that Goa was liberated far, far, after the entire country was liberated. And the socialist movement was very strong there. She had a socialist bent of mind. From my childhood, I had been seeing that and then my mother was in JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) where she taught economics. So that was the kind of atmosphere in which I grew up, and at a very young age I decided, since my mother is a very well-known economist, that I should never do economics, otherwise I will never get out of the shadow of my mother.

I had very strange likes, I liked maths and history, and literature. Nobody could possibly give me such an outrageous combination (laughs). So like everybody else, I was pushed into the science stream and I took mathematics. I went to IIT Kanpur, where I did five years integrated M.Sc. (Masters in Science) in Maths. And, actually, when I went there, basically I was drawn into workers’ organisations. Particularly, the mess workers had an organisation, they had a cultural group, and I got involved with that. Then there was also a Marxist study circle, so I got involved in reading and studying.


Shankar Guha Niyogi: Bringing the Constitution to Life

In 1982, Shankar Guha Niyogi had been arrested under the NSA. And there was an agitation by the Delhi Textile Workers in his support. We went and saw that. The first time I went to Dalli Rajhara to Niyogiji’s trade union was in 1983 and it was a remarkable experience. He used to say that it is not an eight-hour trade union; it is a twenty-four hour trade union. It deals with all aspects of people’s lives.

The trade union had seventeen departments–health, education, women’s issues, and so on, and so forth. Of course, some of the departments were very successful, like the Shaheed Hospital.

The Health Department had developed into a huge hospital. They were running eleven schools and this whole concept of the redgreen flag, worker-peasant alliance. That union office was so vibrant. The union had organised peasantry from all around. That is how Dalli Rajhara90 had become symbolic of a worker’s power centre. That is how the Bhilai workers went there, and in 1990, the movement started in Bhilai.

Also read: Why the State Fears My Friend, Sudha Bharadwaj

We started going in 1983, and by 1986, I had made up my mind to go and work there. I remember my mother being very worried and saying that for a woman, it is very difficult. ‘You don’t have an identity. Why are you quitting your studies and going?’ But I was very convinced. I said, ‘Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do.’

Maybe she would have been happy now, to see me as a lawyer. Maybe she would have thought that okay you are more useful like this. But actually, it is the workers who taught me. All that experience of the trade union has been very, very important to lawyering. I remember, after Niyogiji’s assassination, Justice Krishna Iyer had delivered the first Niyogi Memorial lecture. It is still available somewhere, you might read it. He began the lecture by saying, ‘Niyogi tried to bring the Constitution to life for the Adivasi miners of Chhattisgarh.’ We have to bring the Constitution to life. That’s where the lawyers and peoples’ organisations have to work together.


Working at the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha

Can you tell us about your experience with the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), the kind of work you did?

Well, initially I was an odd jobs person. So I have done a lot of things. I have taught in the high school there. I have also taught younger children. A lot of this paralegal kind of work. Then, not very much, but a little bit of organising of women I did in that period. And later on (also) I did much more organising of women. So it was a variety of work I did.

One thing that Niyogiji taught us, was, that even the middle-class people who went (worked there), the relationship that they had with their working-class comrades was of subordinating them(selves) to their working-class comrades. It was a very important aspect of our growth. We lived there, in the basti and really, it is not as difficult as it looks…Even now, right from participating in campaigns, organizational meetings, writing up parchas (pamphlets)… So, only a part of me is a lawyer and part of me is a trade unionist. 

Becoming a lawyer

You see, the agitation in Bhilai, which was an agitation of contract workers, was for very basic things—the right to form a union, living wage, and very basic things (like) eight hours work, minimum wages, proper documentation, gate passes, hazari card, and all that kind of stuff. At that time, the movement in Bhilai covered 16 industries, and most of them belonged to five big industrial houses—Simplex Engineering and Foundry Works Pvt. Ltd., Kedia Steels, B.K., B.C., and Bhilai Wires Limited.

After this, in 1993, all these cases were referred to the Industrial Court. That is the point at which I became a sort of paralegal, because being one of the few people in the Union who could deal with lawyers and as an educated person who could document things, and so on and so forth, I was the person deputed to deal with all the lawyers for these cases.

…I practically became a representative of all the workers who is dealing with all of this. And then came the experience of the workers and how difficult it was to get lawyers who would represent them with honesty! It was actually the workers who told me that you’d have to run behind the lawyers and you have to pay them fees, which you can’t afford. It was a contract labour union, a very poor union, and on top of that, we find that they are not doing the job properly. Many times, we find that they are being retained by the other side, and so on, and so forth.

So they (the workers) were the ones who persuaded me to become a lawyer. That was around the time that I also adopted my daughter. So, while I was at home, I decided to do a lawyer’s course and I can tell you that I did not attend more than one lecture (laughs), basically just going and giving exams. In terms of studying law, I just passed. But the real study of law came afterwards. In the year 2000, I became a lawyer, at the ripe old age of 40. So, basically I became a lawyer just like that, out of necessity, and started doing the cases of the contract labourers. Initially I was only doing our union’s cases.  Then our union’s cases came to the High Court and I came to the High Court.

Then I realised that actually all people’s movements faced the same problems as our Union faced, which was that the implementation of the laws that give people rights was very poor. They need to struggle, and struggle, and struggle for it. On the other hand, when they agitate, a lot of cases are put on them, criminal cases are put on them, and they have to defend themselves in those cases.

Actually, they don’t find lawyers who understand their viewpoint, who will also not fleece them, and won’t be too formal, and can also understand the exigencies of the movement. Above all, the fact is the legal strategy has to intertwine with the strategy of the movement. So, I think, that is something that I found was a more general thing, and that is how, slowly, slowly, we came to form this group called Janhit…


Enigmas of human rights lawyering

You were talking to us about Janhit, and explaining to us how it came about.

See, I think one of the biggest enigmas before a human rights lawyer would be, that the people who need you the most, can’t afford to pay for you. And I think this is something for which a solution needs to be found. Actually, the solution needs to be found socially or institutionally, but unfortunately, individuals are left to find for themselves a way out of this dilemma.

For example, as far as I was concerned, I was anyway a social worker, a trade unionist, and I anyway came to the profession because I wanted to work for a cause. And in that sense I did not come because law was my profession. So obviously, as far as I was concerned, I was willing to work very hard, and live very simply, try and get the best deal for my clients as possible. I did not look upon them as my clients, but more as people as I was representing in courts because I felt at one with their cause, the trade unions, the organisations.

Also read: A Letter to Sudha Bharadwaj, From the World of My Childhood

But, thing is, there are many lawyers who are not like that, who have not come from that kind of a background. And particularly, lawyers who don’t have lawyering in their family or their background otherwise, and who are not well off— such kind of people, also have to think of their bread and butter, how are they going to survive. So we have to work out some models— how are we going to solve this problem of sustaining oneself professionally, and also being able to cater to people who cannot afford payment.


Clients as heroes

One day, we had gone to the judicial academy and had seen all the portraits of the judges put up. We thought, we should have all the portraits of our petitioners, who are very remarkable people put up. Ramesh Agrawal is one of them—recently, there was an attack on Ramesh, but he escaped with his life fortunately.


Motivation for continuing in a bleak situation

So I actually want to ask you that. How is it that you, forget sustaining the interest of your petitioner, how do you sustain your own interest? With dismissal after dismissal… It sounds quite terrible having to deal with a judiciary that is patriarchal, it is oppressive, it is conservative, it is bought over by the corporates… What else? (Laughter)

Well, I think that is one thing the trade union struggle teaches you. Everybody is pitted against you, and yet you cannot give up. Wohi hain, kabbaddi ka maidan hain, chukey aa saktey ho toh chukey aa jao (As I said earlier, it’s a game of kabaddi, if you can, go touch the other side and come back). Little bit of space, which is created, that is one part. And the other part is that, each such case is… I sometimes tell my friends, that if you see this situation, it looks like nothing is moving. But if this hand wasn’t there, then this situation would be much worse. So, basically we are pushing

the parameters forwards as far as possible. It’s more of a defensive battle, it’s not like we are going to get anything. We are just trying to hang on to what is remaining.

Also read: Who Will Speak up for Maaysha, Sudha Bharadwaj’s Daughter?

And the other thing is, I think our reward is more in that in the course of this struggle, if the people are able to be strong… I think, if I was just doing it for individuals, and facing failure after failure, I would have been really depressed. But, you see, whole communities have to cope with this, na? Entire bustee locality), which was removed from the electoral rolls… How do they cope with it? They cope with it. And they also struggled, and did something, and took out so many morchas and juloos (demonstration and rallies), and finally they got it. So, maybe the remedy didn’t lie in the court.

…I still remember, when I started reading, I remember reading Nelson Mandela’s ‘A Black Man in a White Man’s Court’ (where he says that he feels like ‘a black man in a white man’s court’). Sometimes you are a black man in a white man’s court, sometimes you are a woman in a man’s court, and sometimes you are a working-class person in an industrialist’s court. This is the impression that you get. You are a people’s movement in the State’s court. Things are loaded against you, but you can’t give up, you can’t give it a walkover.