In the few months that Professor SudhaBharadwaj taught the Law and Poverty course at National Law University, Delhi, she not only imparted knowledge with such acuity that induced pin-drop silence in room full of 80 restless 20-year-olds, but also left an indelible mark on my heart. She invoked awe and reverence as a woman who toiled amongst the most socially turbulent parts of the country with quiet strength and navigated the corridors of power with the claims of the powerless, all while exuding an air of warmth and dignity.
Because of her vast experience as a renowned trade unionist and lawyer at the Bilaspur High Court, Professor Sudha would often lace the teaching of laws such as the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition Act) or the Land Acquisition Act, with anecdotes of her own experiences working with these laws. The practical knowledge that law students desire the most, but receive the least, would be doled out in plenty. Her own life and work evoked reverence and inspiration among even the most cynical of us. As young people standing at the crossroads of our lives, the choices Prof SudhaBharadwaj made when she was about our age came across as deeply moving.
Born to parents pursuing their PhDs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she gave up her American citizenship at age of 18 and after witnessing the abysmal working conditions of labourers around her during her time as a student at IIT Kanpur, she decided to pursue a life dedicated to mobilising and unionising workers to achieve the rights and benefits that only exist on pieces of paper, fighting for tribal rights, and people’s lawyering.
What was most striking about her teaching and her ideologies was the passion with which she would speak out the myriad ways the weakest sections of society are continuously dominated by the powerful, and the same passion and faith with which she would speak about the Constitution and pursuing their rights within the framework and legal procedures provided by it. A deep-seated love for the Indian nation was clear to see as the driving force behind her uphill battles for the rights of its most deprived masses.
Witnessing her arrest under the same Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, the draconian provisions of which she fought against, has not only left us worried sick for the teacher we deeply cherish, who is nearly 60 years of age, but also alarmed at the shrinking space of voices of dissent, especially in universities. The Pune Police’s statements on the arrest of SudhaBharadwaj and four other activists showing ‘intolerance towards the political system’ betray the worrying trend of attempting to clamp down on free speech and attempting to muzzle the voices that question those in power.
Even in the midst of this turmoil, the biggest source of my strength is the smile and dignified poise Professor Sudha still exudes. As I hear Justice Chandrachud call dissent the “safety valve of democracy”, I feel reassured that the Constitution she holds sacred and the rights she fought for valiantly will not fail the defender of the defenceless, SudhaBharadwaj.