Raipur: Sudha Bharadwaj, a trade unionist, human rights activist and lawyer who has been working in Chhattisgarh for the past three decades, is one of the seven activists whose homes were raided on Tuesday in connection with a case filed in the aftermath of the Bhima Koregaon violence, which broke out on New Year's Day near Pune.
Apart from Bharadwaj, the other arrested activists include Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, Varavara Rao and Vernon Gonsalves. Father Stan Swamy's house in Ranchi was also raided and Atul Teltumbde's Goa residence was on the search list of the Pune Police.
Members of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), a labour union in Bhilai that Bharadwaj has worked with for decades, protested on Tuesday against Bharadwaj's detention and the raids conducted at her house in Faridabad.
"This is a completely bogus charge on Sudha didi by the BJP government, which is trying to frame all union leaders and those who fight for workers' rights," said Ram Chand Sahu, who has known Bharadwaj as a unionist since childhood. Listing her achievements, he said Bharadwaj has been "instrumental in getting better wages and improving working conditions for labourers in the region".
He warns that if Bharadwaj is not released soon, all workers' unions of Chhattisgarh will come out in protest against the treatment meted out to her.
Raj Kumar Sahu, who has been a contractual labourer at ACC Jamul Cement Works in Bhilai for the last 29 years, said Bharadwaj had helped 573 workers get justice in a case against the cement manufacturer.
"What is happening now is a political conspiracy by the BJP government, which was also behind the killing of Niyogi," he said, referring to CMM founder Shankar Guha Niyogi, who died in 1991. "Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Raman Singh are trying to suppress the workers’ voice, but we will not let them succeed and will organise wide-scale protests."
Dukhu Ram Sahu, a retired labourer who lives at a Labour Camp in Jamul, said the allegations raised by the Modi government against "Sudha didi" are baseless. "She has always fought cases as an advocate for labourers. We will protest against these absurd allegations against her and demand her release," he asserted.
Born in America, worked in Bhilai
Daughter of renowned economists Ranganath Bharadwaj and Krishna Bharadwaj, Sudha Bharadwaj was born in the United States in 1961 and came to India in 1971. Her mother was instrumental in setting up the Department of Economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University , where an annual lecture continues to be held in her memory. The activist studied at IIT-Kanpur but also developed a keen interest in working for the slumdweller community of Delhi during her college days.
At the age of 18, when Bhardwaj gave up her American citizenship, she had said in an interview that she never had any confusion about returning to work in her own country. "After working in poor people's settlements, I felt that if I could do anything for this deprived society, it would be worthwhile. I had to work in my own country and work among my own people," Bharadwaj had said.
Meeting her a decade ago in her rented house in Nehru Nagar, Bilaspur, this writer found the activist living with four chairs and a cot in a 10x10 ft room. A few books and clothes were her only belongings in the absence of any amenities such as a refrigerator, cooler or a television — far from urban standards of living.
Bharadwaj came in touch with CMM founder Niyogi while working in Chhattisgarh's Durg district after completing her studies. The morcha was involved in advocating workers' rights in the iron mills of Dalli Rajhara. The activist discovered that the condition of the poor in Chhattisgarh was much more grave than that of the urban slum-dwellers of Delhi. She then dedicated herself to the development of the region and was soon made secretary of the CMM.
Niyogi was shot dead on 28 September, 1991, which led to Bharadwaj and his other colleagues spearheading the organisation for workers' rights. The organisation then stretched beyond the iron mills of Dalli Rajhara and covered entire state.
Janakram Sahu, a labourer who works at the ACC Cement factory in Durg district's Jamul village, gives Bharadwaj the credit for the increased wages of workers in the cement companies that operate in the region. "The exploitation of laborers by cement companies has stopped due to the battles fought under her (Bharadwaj's) leadership," he said.
However, the rising litigation costs during the labour movement in Chhattisgarh pushed Bharadwaj towards academics yet again. She enrolled for a degree in advocacy at the age of 40, which enabled her to provide legal advice and support to tribals, labourers and farmers in the region.
The activist later set up a trust called Janhit to take up the cases of various underprivileged groups in the society for free. Janhit has contested more than 300 cases so far at all judicial levels, including at the Supreme Court.
Bhima Koregaon an excuse?
Social activist Soni Sori describes Bharadwaj as a motherly figure for the tribals of Bastar.
"She would visit me in jail when I was arrested in 2011 and fought all my cases from a district court to the high court. She tried to provide every possible help to my family and even looked after my kids," Sori said.
Narrating that it was only Bharadwaj who would visit her in the jail, Sori said she never visited without food or clothes and counselled her to keep her fight and belief in the Constitution going. "She was with me when my family, the system and the government were all against me," she said.
Bharadwaj once got to know of a jailed teenage girl who was branded a Naxal, Sori said. "Didi got her details and fought her case in court until she was freed. She also helped her like a kin, and the girl lives a happily married life today."
Kaladas Bahariya, a trade union leader in Durg, Chhattisgarh, who has worked with Bharadwaj closely, said: "We can never ever believe the allegations that have been levelled against her. There is some conspiracy behind this."
Bhardwaj has donated all her assets to the labor organisation and continues to live in a rented house. She has an ancestral home in Delhi, which has been rented out. Funds from this rent go to the CMM every month.
Alok Shukla of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, a group of social organisations in the state, said Bharadwaj amazes people in "a society full of fabrication and drama". "The only thing (in Bharadwaj) that has changed in the last two decades is her age. Her constant struggle for the human rights of the marginalised has turned her a bit older, but it has not weakened her spirit," Shukla added.
A section of the police and governments, however, believe that the 57-year-old has a Maoist connection. Niyogi had also faced allegations of being a Maoist supporter, which he denied till death.
Bharadwaj is the general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a democracy rights organisation founded by activist Jayaprakash Narayan in 1976. She has also been associated with the State Legal Services Authority and has been approached by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in cases related to fake encounters.
She has also played a crucial role in drawing the attention of the NHRC towards the lackadaisical attitude of bureaucrats towards the investigation into the killing of seven tribals and arson of their houses by Salwa Judum workers in 2007 in Sukma district's Kondasanwali village.
Shishir Dikshit, an advocate with PUCL, has told a Hindi daily in Raipur that the Bhima Koregaon investigation was just being used as an excuse to arrest Bharadwaj, as the government wants to cover up sensitive cases like the Kondasanwali killings.
State council member of the PUCL Priyanka Shukla said: "Because Bharadwaj was actively involved in the Sarkeguda probe commission and advocated cases like the killing of tribals in Kondasanwali and the fake encounter of Meena Khalkho, the bureaucracy and government are not quite comfortable with her presence. Targeting her at this hour is nothing but initiating a propaganda to distract people from the real issues in the run-up to several crucial elections."
PUCL president Dr Lakhan Singh said the government does not shy away from declaring an activist a Maoist if they oppose their nexus with the mafia, fight for tribals' rights or raise their voice against fake encounters. "It is not difficult for the police to declare every opponent of the State a Maoists. Sudha Bharadwaj is a victim of the same plot," he added.
With inputs from Saurabh Sharma and Tameshwar Sinha
The authors are freelance writers and members of 101reporters.com
Updated Date: Aug 29, 2018 22:34 PM