On August 28, Maharashtra police conducted a series of raids across the country. Houses of prominent activists, lawyers and writers were raided by the Pune police in Mumbai, Delhi, Ranchi, Goa and Hyderabad. By the end of the day, five prominent activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha and Arun Ferreira had been arrested by the police on a myriad of charges. Reportedly, the searches and detentions were carried out under the anti-terror Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and Sections 153A, 505(1)(b), 117, 120(b) and 34 of the Indian Penal Code.
The Supreme Court then provided a slight relief and these five people are put under house arrest as of now. However, the police did manage to confiscate their laptops, phones, pen-drives, among other belongings. They are not allowed to meet anyone except their lawyers. Apart from the punishment being meted out to them, they are also forced to live with the dystopian title of “urban naxals”. Even as several people have come out in support of the unlawful arrests and raids, there is a lot of ambiguity and half-knowledge about the background of the said persons.
“We are fighting for new Chhattisgarh”
Sudha Bharadwaj is one of the five who were detained. For a person who did not even know Hindi until she was 11, Sudha has come a long way, becoming well-recognised in Chattisgarh, spending about 29 years here and even being labelled as the “woman of people”. Apart from being an activist fighting ferociously for the rights of India’s poorest and most downtrodden lives, she is also a trade unionist and a lawyer. Not only has she founded a lawyers collective called Janhit, she is also the general secretary of Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and has also been associated with Shankar Guha Niyog-founded Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha.
Born an American citizen to parents Krishna and Ranganathan Bharadwaj who were then pursuing their PhD at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As reported by The Telegraph, Sudha has always been a prodigy, even indulging in insightful debates on logical positivism, at the age of eight!
Sudha returned to India with her mother when she was 11. Her mother taught at the Delhi University and then subsequently went on to teach at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). She found the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning there. It was this time in her childhood at JNU which shaped her political consciousness. In an earlier interview with The Wire, Sudha spoke of how intellectual debates would take place there. “The campus used to throb with debates. It was also a very safe space,” she said.
She gave up her American citizenship at the age of 18 and went on to pursue a five-year integrated course in mathematics at Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, in 1984. While studying in IIT Kanpur, she was exposed to the harsh lives and working conditions of labourers in UP, Bihar and West Bengal. In 1986, she became associated with the Niyogi’s Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. It was during this time that she ruffled several feathers in the bureaucracy and police forces alike while fearlessly demanding for the rights of mine workers and labourers. In order to facilitate her efforts better, she went to obtain a degree in law in 2000.
Recognising how the government and private entities might use unscrupulous means to obtain lands from tribals, Bharadwaj, in a 2015 interview to Livemint, said, “We are fighting for a new Chhattisgarh…a Chhattisgarh for the toilers of the state. Here is a state rich in resources. It has water, forests and land in abundance, but its people are so poor. The state is witnessing disproportionate growth and there is no equitable distribution of benefits to everyone. If I am fighting for the marginalized communities, I have no choice but to fight against those oppressing them—from corrupt politicians and forest departments to companies not giving proper wages and safety to workers.”
Activist for the world, Sudha didi for Adivasi community
For somebody who could have comfortably led a life, probably in the United States of America, whose citizenship she relinquished when she was 18, Sudha, instead chose to fight for the cause of Adivasis, minorities and the poor. Always clad in a simple saree, having a modest demeanour, Sudha, for a very long time was staying in a hut in labour colony in Bhilai, to help her accustom to their problems, issues and thinking.
The Adivasi community too has reciprocated the love and sees a well-wisher in Sudha, who commonly refer to her as didi. Bharadwaj, for a family, has a daughter, who she adopted from the Adivasi community. She made sure her daughter went to the same school as the children of workers.
Those who have known Bharadwaj and her work, swear by her undeterred commitment to the cause. Ilina Sen from Tata Institute of Social Studies (TISS) said in an earlier interview, “For the kind of work Sudha is doing, it is very easy to lose track. We all are human beings…we break down, get tired. But for some reason, she doesn’t. She is very focused.”