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Who Is Sudha Bharadwaj?

'If You Try to Be Safe and in the Middle, You Will Never Succeed'

Sudha Bharadwaj is one of India’s best known ‘people’s lawyer’. She has spent more than three decades working with the most marginalised sections of people – mostly adivasis (or India’s indigenous ‘tribal’ populations) in the mineral-rich conflict-ridden central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Away from the media glare, her ear firmly to the ground, this trade union activist and lawyer has fought numerous battles (protests, negotiations, court cases) against powerful corporate powers, and the Chhattisgarh state. Her fight has always been to defend worker rights to a living and dignified wage and conditions of work, and indigenous people’s constitutional rights to their land, and to expose the frequent (at times, endemic) atrocities (rape and sexual assault against women, murders, and pillage of entire villages) committed by unconstitutional state-sponsored armed militia against people resisting forced displacement.

On August 28, in a nationwide swoop, police raided the house of many human rights activists and lawyers including Sudha Bharadwaj and tried to take them all into custody. After being held back by the Delhi High Court which questioned the methods and the case itself, the activists were under house arrest for about a month[link]. She was sent to police custody by a special court until November 6, and was eventually transferred to a jail in November 2018 where she is being held currently. At the heart of the case is a claim by the Pune police that the arrested activists made inflammatory speeches at a momentous march by Dalits [India’s ex-untouchables] at a place called Bhima-Koregaon on January 1, 2018, that they were involved in a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister, and that some of them had supported the banned political party of Maoists. Each of these claims have been refuted. In the case of Sudha, a ‘letter’ was released to the media which purported that she had addressed someone by the name of ‘Comrade Prakash’ to create a Kashmir-like situation in Chhattisgarh, a charge that has been vehemently denied by Sudha. [link]

Below is the response of the group of lawyers (who have worked very closely with Sudha Bharadwaj) describing the context of the arrest and the dubious case against Sudha Bharadwaj and others.

           We most vehemently deny and condemn all the stories concocted by the Pune Police in the infamous letters leaked by them to several media houses, and call upon larger common sense to prevail in this matter. The entire case is based on a cloak of criminality woven out of unsigned, uncorroborated, unverified letters which are unfathomably ridiculous, substantially and otherwise. As was noted by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud in his dissenting judgement, the letter allegedly written by Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj is clearly written by someone who is a Marathi speaker, when Adv. Bharadwaj learned her Hindi in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where she has lived and worked in the last 45 years, and does not speak any Marathi! The fact that the police have themselves released these letters to the press before producing them in court clearly shows that the prosecution has little faith in its case and is falling back on petty media tactics to colour the impression of the arrestees in the general public. This has been done with brazen impunity; it is not a one-off incident of the police using the media to polarise public opinion, but is a dangerous trend in the present pattern of malicious prosecution on the part of the State where entire battles are sought to be fought on lies and deceit in the media instead of hard law in the courtrooms. [link]

Brief Biography

Born in 1961, Sudha has been associated with the trade union movement in Chhattisgarh for more than 25 years. She is the general secretary of the Chhattisgarh unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a member of Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), and a founder-member of the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers (which is affiliated to the International Association of People’s Lawyers). After living and working in Chhattisgarh for several years, Sudha had recently moved to Delhi and was teaching at the National Law University Delhi (one of India’s leading Law Universities) as a Visiting Professor, where she taught a seminar course on tribal rights and land acquisition, and a part of the regular course on law and poverty. As part of the programme of the Delhi Judicial Academy, she addressed the presiding officers of labour courts from Sri Lanka.

Bhardwaj grew up in an intellectually and politically aware environment, as her early days were spent in Jawaharlal Nehru University [JNU, India’s premier university] along with her mother, renowned academician and economist Krishna Bhardwaj. She closely witnessed the vibrant student political movements at JNU. When she went to study Mathematics at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, she became actively involved in political activities on campus, including experiencing exclusion as a woman in a largely male-dominated campus. She became a part of the National Service Scheme (an Indian government initiative for youth) and was keen on teaching. Her repeated visits to the Indian countryside through the NSS exposed her to the harsh realities of caste and rural India.

After her Master of Science (MS) in Mathematics, she decided to move to Chattisgarh and started working with mine workers. There she started organising under the banner of the trade union, ‘Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha’. Working very closely with the legendary trade unionist Shankar Guha Niyogi, Sudha organised women under the ‘Mahila Mukti Morcha’, the union’s women’s wing and struggled to bring them to the helm of the leadership within the union. The union addressed economic issues, in addition to running campaigns on  on education, health and anti-liquor campaigns.

In 1986, Sudha moved to Chhatisgarh in order to be better able to fully participate in the struggles that she so clearly believed in. Taking a leaf from Niyogi and others, she believed that one did not just work with the workers, but had to be involved in all aspects of their lives. It was here that she clearly saw how women experienced different kinds of issues that were not adequately addressed, nor discussed by the more conventional unions. For instance, some women’s husbands would refuse to use contraceptives, leading to unwanted pregnancies or abortions. Most of them would be over-burdened with housework. All this allowed Sudha to integrate issues of gender and community along with work and labor struggles, and emphasise the role of the women workers in the movement. 

After the assassination of Niyogi in 1991, Sudha continued to work with the organization that had been carefully built over the years. Later, in 2000, Sudha completed her law degree and started representing the workers herself. The first cases she fought were those of the workers and she practiced in lower courts between 2000 and 2006. [see here. Also here]

While working for trade unions, and later, after becoming a lawyer, she realised not just the workers, but the farmers also required legal representation, given the cases of land acquisition. It was then that she thought of setting up the group Janhit [People’s Good], to fight for community forests rights, for Adivasis, in cases of Public Interest Litigations (PIL), environmental cases, and the like.

Detailing the enormously valuable work done by Sudha would not be possible in a short space. Some major highlights of her work include her crucial role in the Commission of Inquiries of the Sterilization incident where 13 women died on account of Government negligence, her relentless fighting of court cases on matters of the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh [Progressive Cement Workers’ Collective] for wages and dignity, her sharp representation of marginalized farmers and adivasi groups in various cases challenging land grab for “development”, her appointment as a member of the Chhattisgarh Legal Service Authority by the Chief Justice of Chhattisgarh. All this in addition to her being a trade unionist associated with Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha [Chhattisgarh Liberation Front], the General Secretary of the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties [India’s oldest and best-known civil liberties organization], Vice President of Indian Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL), and member of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan [Save Chhattisgarh Movement – a civil society movement]. Sudha was also a firm voice, supporter, and organiser in the aftermath of the infamous arrest of Dr. Binayak Sen who was the President of PUCL. As a member of the PUCL she spoke strongly against the human rights violations that were brought on by the Salwa Judum [state-sponsored vigilante militia that was banned by the Indian Supreme Court through a public interest litigation] and as a lawyer she represented the victim-survivors in the Samsetti [village name] rapes by the Salwa Judum activists and SPOs [Special Police Officers].

When asked about the extent to which the law could provide justice in a state that was anti-poor, anti-tribal, anti women and the like, she responded,

“See actually we shouldn’t look at it as just laws, right? There are two kinds of law, one kind of law is the law which we have struggled to create, to represent our aspirations, whether it is labour law, whether forests rights law… we have struggled to create it. It was a response to movements. It was a response to the push which came from below…But there is another kind of law, which is the status quo law which is to preserve law and order.” [link]

As a human rights lawyer she appeared in cases of habeas corpus and fake encounters of Adivasis in the Chhattisgarh High Court, and also approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in the defence of many other human rights defenders. Here is Sudha in her own words,

“I joined the union movement over twenty years ago, and it was the union that made me a lawyer. They felt that workers needed a good lawyer in their fight with the corporations. Our union is one of contract workers and has been striving to overcome divisions in the working-class. Here, workers have a close connection with the peasants. So, we believe that working with the peasants is part of unionism. When I got to the High Court, I found that all the people’s organizations were in a similar situation. The laws that give you rights are poorly implemented. When you fight, the status quo has many legal weapons, launches malicious litigation, etc. So we have a group of lawyers now (Janhit), and we work on group legal aid, not individual legal aid. The idea is that if you help a group, that can bring about some kind of change, create some space.” [link]

When asked to reflect upon her journey in light of her recent arrest and especially whether she could have chosen a different, less risky and tough life, Sudha’s response resoundingly highlights the personal integrity and conviction with which she has through her work become a beacon for many others who believe in social justice.

“If you try to be safe and be in the middle, you will never succeed. I think physically, those of us who took the plunge learn to swim. Many people did that, we weren’t the only ones.” [link]

Indian Civil Watch International (ICWI) is a non-sectarian left diasporic membership-based organization that represents the diversity of India’s people and anchors a transnational network to building radical democracy in India.