[The firebrand trade unionist, lawyer and teacher continues to be under house arrest, charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, for merely representing the downtrodden and the vulnerable, the Dalits and their legal voices. But Sudha Bharadwaj has mentored so many wide-eyed law students and young lawyers eager to make a difference to our deeply unjust world that the tributes just keep pouring in, even as they wait for her to be exonerated in the court of law.]
Zindabaad to you and to your struggle.
It is very difficult for me to express my feelings and this letter can barely bring together everything I would want to say to you. I feel extremely proud to have worked with you, and to have seen you and known you in such close proximity. In February 2015, I first met with you in person in reference to my dissertation. Prior to meeting you, I had heard a lot about you, but when I came to meet you in your Janhit office, I was amazed to see you sitting and working with a remarkable simplicity. Perhaps you had just returned from court. Until then you were for me almost a celebrity and I had assumed that like all such big names, I would have to wait for you to get free, seek out an appointment and then maybe would be able to speak to you for 5 minutes or so. Such had been my experience of meeting people who were well-known. People from Kanpur, where I come from, also knew of you and when they would get to know that I live in Chhattisgarh, they would speak of and about you. After hearing so many stories, I always harboured a desire to work with you. When I got to know from Dr. Lakhan Singh that you are the General Secretary of Peoples Union of Civil Liberties, I was super excited. It was the icing on a cake as I was very influenced by PUCL and keen to get involved with it. To know that one would have the opportunity to work with you, I wondered how things could work out better.
I finished my law school in 2014. I had always wanted to be a lawyer ever since I used to see injustice being perpetrated inside and outside my house, when a police constable would just randomly enter into my house and abuse my parents and go away. But I actually became a lawyer and entered legal practise because of you, for it was difficult for me to study law, and even more difficult to start my legal practice. You encouraged me to practice law and planted the seed inside me to strive through adversity. To have watched you, a woman saathi traverse the legal path of struggle and to have recently watched you deploye your smile and compassion as weapons is a solemn reminder of the non-violent movement of Gandhiji.
I would just like to say that if a person like you is called and perceived as an Urban Naxal, then I am proud to call myself an Urban Naxal too. The most wondrous thing about you is that one can approach you with all entitlement at any time for any work, and you are always available.
What I will do in my legal practise, time will only tell. However, I would like to do work similar to what you have done, in a manner similar to you. I assure you, I will continue to work on Public Interest work. Please do not worry about work. I hope you will soon be out as a common person. But if this is not possible in the near future, then I am sure that wherever you are, you will carry on fighting the good fight. When the Government locks up one Sudha in prison or in house arrest, several Sudhas get ready to carry on the mantle forward, several Sudhas will get ready…
Inquilab Zindabad, Sangharsh Zindabad.
The house was never a prison
Until someone called it one
But can you ever cage freedom?
Can you ever cage a spirit?
You just have to give it a name.
If you ask me to write a few lines
I will not pretend to create magic
I will just write a single word:
Think of all the things that might offend someone
But first think of what was destroyed
And an explanation:
We promise not to give up,
Just mourn some losses.
You can raid houses and call it your duty
You can lynch them and call it virtue
You can lock them up and cite national security
But as long as you let people suffer, you cannot call it development.
Advocate, Supreme Court of India.
“Our lives are a battlefield on which is fought a continuous war between the forces that are pledged to confirm our humanity and those determined to dismantle it; those who strive to build a protective wall around it, and those who wish to pull it down…those whose aim is to open our eyes, to make us see the light and look to tomorrow, asking ourselves about the future of our children, and those who wish to lull us into closing our eyes, encouraging us to care only for our stomachs today, without thinking about the tomorrow of our country.”
- NgugiWaThiong’o, Devil on the Cross
Growing up, I was an average child who passed through school and college unnoticed and without any major achievements. My upper to middle class upbringing ensured that I had all the usual comforts and opportunities required to access quality education. After getting my law degree I went on to work for a well-known corporate law firm. But until recently all of this felt unsettling and incomplete.
Around this time I heard and read about the lawyers in Chhattisgarh and felt increasingly disillusioned with my work and existence. While in law school I was surrounded by “legal aid clinics” and women’s societies providing legal education to the security personnel – I did not see any real struggles for structural change taking place. In reading about your life and work, I understood what structural change through law could mean. I understood what a true people’s lawyer looks like.
While I have not known you closely, you have provided compassionate advice and patient hearing to me in a complicated legal matter where I had reached a dead end. People look towards those who have achieved material success in life as their heroes and role models. However, your work and dedication to the marginalised, vulnerable, and precarious persons of this country is extraordinary and noteworthy for young lawyers everywhere. You are a true inspiration.
Sudha ji, while your struggles and the struggles of those who you have aided and supported have always met with strong resistance from the state – today, given our political circumstances it is people’s lawyers like yourself who are at the receiving end of the state’s wrath. Our letters thus, are meant to shed light on individuals like you, your life, friendships, sorrows, and dreams for the people of this country. This is our effort to act against the state’s intentions to dehumanise and demonize you. This is our form of protest.
Today, I sit in rage against this amoeba like state wanting to grab everybody in its way – wanting to convert all corners of lights and knowledge, into alleys of darkness. Wanting to humiliate the body and seize the mind and ideologies of the individuals who are not predisposed to comfortable middle class lives, but who fight on a daily basis.
However, in these times I am also comforted in the knowledge that you are one of those whose existence confirms our humanity, one of those who pushes us to keep our eyes open and think about and work towards a collective future.
Advocate. School of African and Oriental Studies.
As a student of social work with interest in labour rights, I had come across effective unionization work led by Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha for securing workers’ rights. I met advocate Sudha Bhardwaj for the first time in 2007. I was an intern then. On my first day, I followed Sudha to court. Little did I understand then what a court order was. However, I could notice the workers listening to her intently about the court proceedings, and pinning their hopes on her. At the labour camp at Jamul, Bhilai, Sudha struggled along with the workers through legal battles she raised for regularization of contractual workers. Around the same time, some villages in Rajnandgaon district had received notices under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. This meant dispossession of farmers in the exercise of State’s eminent domain for construction of a ‘food park’ (special agricultural zone). The villagers were agitated. They tried to understand why they had to be dispossessed from their agricultural and village land for transformation into a ‘food park’. When their questions remained unaddressed by their elected representatives, Sudha stood up for them. She represented them in the court as a pro bono lawyer. She restored their faith in the system by getting an immediate stay on the land acquisition drive from the High Court of Chhattisgarh.
Lawyers like Sudha Bhardwaj make justice and courts accessible to the ones otherwise ignored and rendered voiceless. Sudha’s demonstration of law as a tool for empowerment of the marginalized persuaded me to pursue an LL.B degree. This is what Sudha means to me, her students, and many other young lawyers – an inspiration to protect people’s rights through recourse to constitutional and statutory safeguards. The need for excellent lawyers like Sudha Bhardwaj is even more compelling when the deprivation of legal rights is of the gravest kind. I hope Sudha’s conviction of the rule of law and justice is vindicated, again. I hope her decades of contribution to the field of law, social justice, and human rights is not dismissed by an ex-ante declaration of her guilt in the trials conducted in the newsrooms of today.
Advocate. David W. Leebron Human Rights Fellow.
I first met Sudha ma’am at the National Law University, Delhi when I was working there as a researcher. I have known of her for a long time and really looked up to her work. As a student, I always wanted to go intern with her in Chhattisgarh, but could never build the courage to do so. During law school, as I interned with human rights lawyers and organisations across the country, I kept hearing wonderful stories of her work and life.
When I learnt that she was going to teach a seminar course at NLUD, I walked up to her one day and introduced myself as an aspiring human rights lawyer. I still remember how welcoming and warm she was when I met her for the first time. I felt like I was talking to a friend without any hesitations and nervousness. She was very approachable and I would often see her in the canteen with students. Over the course of the months, I saw how hard she worked. She would travel for almost four hours a day between home and NLUD. She would be taking care of all the appeals coming to the Supreme Court from Chhattisgarh involving multiple human rights cases. To add to this, she would be invited to conduct workshops and guest lectures on human rights across Delhi. In the midst of all this, she would take time out out to spend with her daughter. I would often wonder if she wouldn’t get tired. I have always seen her with a smile on her face as she went around teaching and working for the rights of the marginalised.
After my job ended at NLUD, I went on to assist her with all the human rights cases coming from Chhattisgarh to the Supreme Court. Despite her busy schedule, she would take time out to patiently hear all my queries and would address them with utmost patience. Sudha ma’am would go out of her way to help anyone who would approach her with a legal issue. She would give her best in offering legal and emotional support to her clients. She would respect my opinions and would always treat me like an equal.
There is so much I have learnt from you ma’am. I have learnt to be a sensitive lawyer. I have learnt patience and commitment. I have learnt hard work and dedication. After the first set of arrests were made, I have seen how you have campaigned for their rights. Speaking against injustice is not always easy, but you always done that without fear. Now, when you have been arrested, it is our responsibility to fight for you and bring you justice. You would always say that you want to go back and work with the labour unions in Chhattisgarh. I truly hope that you are able to do so very soon. Thank you for being the person you are. You are one of my biggest inspirations in life!
School of African and Oriental Studies.
To have had the opportunity to work beside you and to have one’s association carved with you in perpetuity, is and will always be an honour! If I am able to embody even a fraction of your grit, determination, compassion and political clarity, in the political which is also the personal, then I would have considered myself to have lived a full life. I have been fortunate to have witnessed your shining eyes, your remarkable sense of humour and your almost childish charm. I have been blessed beyond imagination to have more than anything else learnt and grown in your mentorship, under your influence and beside you, comrade-in-arms!
Over the course of knowing you, I have been overwhelmed by your immense dedication to the politics of care, your sharp eye and attention to detail. I think of your warm hugs, strong booming voice, both soft in concern, witty in your remarks and when required firm while chastising. How many pages could one fill Sudha writing about the many things one has learnt from you? The value of walking together, hand in hand, despite differences, political and personal, towards a better society, discussing, arguing, engaging and bearing the humility to learn and accept mistakes is what you have taught me. To engage in joviality and in hurt, pain and anger; to always legitimise, never dismiss, never trivialise and most importantly to never ignore—to iron out differences without ironing out subjectivities is what brings people together. Things Sudha Bharadwaj has taught me!
There remains so much unspoken about the struggles of a 25 year old Sudha who abandoned her pair of trousers donned on a cotton sari and sat around in the CMM Union office, sweeping the floors and writing a parcha here and there, her mind brimming with ideas, eating her words, waiting, while simultaneously creating her own revolution—a space for women, from and outside Chhattisgarh to work, engage and argue, with each other, with the men, and with you. You created a platform for all of us and we hope to push the boundaries of these spaces further in love and in comradeship. For as Riche writes, “The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.”
As a lawyer you have taught me the value of the work we do and the professionalism that one must embody in the court room, whether it is in dress (as Nandita Haksar has taught you) as it is in ethic. The only case we worked in together was the Podiyam Muiye case, I still remember this moment when we all went to court together, our hearts beating while we waited for Panda to be produced and you tried to lighten us up by an anecdote—the saree you wore was a gift from Shalini’s mother, a lucky charm. I have also borne witness to and as a spillover enjoyed the immense respect you garner from the courts and bar. The urban legend that you were once offered a position as a Judge. The ferocity of your arguments and the many nights you barely slept preparing for matters, working the extra mile one finds so lacking in legal practise today.
The practice of mentoring is a goliath task. I dont understand how you do it. How do you know exactly how to validate a young woman scarred by her own history to work and feel appreciated while never letting it get to her? While holding so many spaces and people together how do you carry the humility and the self-reflexivity to apologize for a minor outburst, first thing we meet? How do you carry on, everyday, with a smile in your step, a tiredness in your eyes and a sense of humour through both mental and physical health issues? There remains so much to learn from you Sudha.
As we all stand together in judgement, I wish I could find the time and opportunity to bake you the perfect cake which we could all guiltlessly (Madam is Diabetic) eat. Also to apologise for the many times I have been a cause of concern, irritation even. Most importantly, I wish I could invoke the spirit of the whole of Chhattisgarh which raises its fist in the air and shouts in protest today. We will fight this together, until the very end.
In spirit, solidarity, struggle and love,
Your comrade, friend and student,
I heard of Sudhaji for the first time from Sailji and from members of Insaaf. Ever since, I had wanted to meet with her. After the High Court was built in Bilaspur I spoke to her over the phone for some work.
One evening it was pouring cats and dogs, perhaps it was in the year 2003 or before that, it was raining profusely and Sudhaji had some matter listed in the High Court (at that time, she was staying in Bhilai), and she had come to Bilaspur for her case. In that pouring rain, I met with her. She had come with a worker, today I cannot recall his name, it was a simple case going on in the District Court. Sudhaji stayed in my house that day for a long period of time, and in the first meeting itself she had made an impression on me, she told me about herself, where she was from, where she had finished her studies. When she came to my house then the road outside was flooded and it was dark but she managed to make her way to my house.
That day, there was no arrangements made for her stay in Bilaspur and she stayed at my place. In one day, she managed to mingle with everyone in my family it felt like she was a part of the family. She became family. Very happy, she sat on my kitchen countertop chatting away with my sister-in-law and my sisters and brothers. All my family members spoke about her humility and compassion and praised her a lot. She refused to be treated like a guest in her simplicity and did not allow us to do anything that usually is done in an Indian household when a guest arrives to stay. She ate with us and appreciated the food and spoke personally to my sisters.
After this, there were several instances where I sought her advice on case of violence against women, I took her the women survivors to her and she would meet with the women with compassion and kindness and these women would also be all praises about how much she had an impact on them.
Sudha in her simplicity, her compassion and her humility would make everyone her own.
She gets sad in others’ sadness, is full of motherly affection and I send her my best wishes.
Advocate, Chhattisgarh High Court.