Sudha Bharadwaj, a lawyer at the Chhattisgarh High Court, who generally keeps herself away from the media-glare and works silently for the civil rights, is now on the news; thanks to the news channel Republic TV which, on July 4 2018, told its viewers that it had uncovered a letter showing a “direct link between urban Naxals and Kashmiri separatists”. The TV channel alleged that the letter had been written by “Comrade Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj” to a Maoist – one “Comrade Prakash”– stating that a “Kashmir like situation” has to be created. However, Sudha refuted the statement and accused the anchor and MD Arnab Goswami for those “ridiculous, scurrilous, false and completely unsubstantiated allegations”. She has been also accused of having received money from Maoists. All these “malicious, motivated and fabricated attack” happened as Sudha, the Vice-President of the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL), recently addressed a press conference in Delhi to condemn the arrest of Advocate and National Secretary of IAPL Surendra Gadling and four other human rights activists. She said that IAPL had strongly taken up the issue of other lawyers such as Chandrashekhar of Bhim Army and Vachinathan who were arrested after the Sterlite firing. IAPL had also organised a fact finding into the difficulties faced by the lawyers in Kashmir recently. It is clear that the state is targeting such lawyers and other activists to deny equitable access to the legal system and to silence those who stand for the democratic and constitutional rights of citizens.
Sudha was born an American citizen, but returned to India at the age of 11 and gave up her US citizenship at the age of 18. Her mother, the economist Krishna Bharadwaj, founded JNU’s Centre for Economic Studies and Planning. Sudha joined IIT Kanpur to study mathematics and completed the five-year integrated course in 1984. In IIT, she encountered an academic world riddled with sexism and elitism. However, the experience was not entirely negative as she cut her teeth in grassroots activism during these years. She used to teach children in the nearby Kalyanpur village and began to work with the campus mess workers, addressing their problems. She also became an active member of a cultural group. In 1982, following the arrest of Shankar Guha Niyogi, the founder of Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), she went around the JNU campus, mobilising signatures. While being associated with CMM, she was exposed to the horrific working conditions of laborers in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar and fought passionately against corrupt bureaucrats to ensure proper wages were paid to the workers in the mines and plants located in Bhilai. Niyogi was assassinated in 1991 and the following year, police fired on workers in Bhillai, killing at least 15. While she was assisting the lawyers and keenly following the proceedings of the case, the government prosecutor advised her to become a lawyer. Determined to provide holistic development of the workers, Sudha got her law degree in 2000 from a college affiliated to the Pandit Ravishankar Shukla University in Raipur. After becoming a lawyer, she started fighting the cases of her own trade union and also fought the case of regularisation of contract workers. As the cases moved up to the High Court, she also began to practice there from 2007. That is when people from the vulnerable communities at large, fighting for their rights, started to approach her. Against this background, she formed a legal organisation called Janhit to help communities and groups not covered by the usual legal aid system, such as a village community fighting land acquisition or an Adivasi group struggling for forest rights and environmental issues. Till date, she continues her work in the state of Chhattisgarh, resisting the joint forces of Police and the State to fight for the rights of the locals. She made representations to the National Human Rights Commission in the defence of many human rights defenders. She was nominated by the court to be a member of the Chhattisgarh State Legal Services Authority. She is also a visiting professor at National Law University, Delhi and the general secretary of the Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
Sudha Bharadwaj is the latest human rights defender to be labeled as “Urban Naxal” who, as defined in an essay in the right-wing magazine Swarajya in May 2017, are “urban intellectuals, influencers or activists of importance” and are “the invisible enemies of India”. However, the label is being used to intimidate “anyone who dissents, irrespective of their ideological affiliations”. Any person or group of persons working for the cause of tribals is officially marked as the enemy of the State; any agitation to establish tribal rights is reckoned as insurrectionary activity. People who have been labeled “urban Naxals” are often charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) which is ambiguous enough to allow a wide array of dissidents to be arrested; as Gautam Navlakha, a human rights activist pointed out: “Bending the criminal justice system to suit the needs of the establishment is a way to divert attention from the real issues to an imagined threat.”