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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 36, New Delhi, August 21, 2021

Sudha Bharadwaj Speaks | Arup Kumar Sen

Friday 20 August 2021, by Arup Kumar Sen

Very recently, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has published a book, documenting Sudha Bharadwaj’s ‘Life in Law and Activism’ (A Life in Law and Activism: Sudha Bharadwaj Speaks, January 2021). While narrating the life struggle of Bharadwaj, Arvind Narrain, the editor of the book, observed: “...Sudha Bharadwaj’s life, which combined being a lawyer, an activist and an academic, was interrupted by her arrest. She was detained on 28 August 2018, under provisions of the UAPA...and under Sections...of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). She has been in custody ever since, without a trial, and has been denied bail multiple times.”

It may be mentioned in this connection that Sudha Bharadwaj along with other human rights activists was arrested in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case. Arvind Narrain, in narrating the case, noted that after hearing the Romila Thapar and Others v. Union of India case, the Supreme Court dismissed the prayer of eminent citizens for an independent and credible investigation of the case monitored by the Supreme Court. He also quoted at length the minority opinion and dissenting note of Justice Chandrachud:

The use of the electronic media by the investigating arm of the State to influence public opinion during the pendency of an investigation subverts the fairness of the investigation...What follows is unfortunately a trial by the media. That the police should lend themselves to this process is a matter of grave concern

The most important part of the book, published by PUCL, is the interview of Sudha Bharadwaj, conducted by Darshana Mitra and Santanu Chkraborty, in 2012. We get in this interview Sudha Bharadwaj’s reflections on diverse aspects of her activist life. While narrating her initiation in the world of activism, Sudha told the interviewers:

“...I had no idea that I would become a lawyer. I basically joined a trade union, Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM). It was led by Shankar Guha Niyogi, the legendary trade unionist of Chhattisgarh. I came in about the year 1986 to join the union, and in fact, originally I had come with the idea of helping in the schools, in which the union was working. But gradually I got drawn into the organising of the movement itself, particularly when the movement in the 1990s shifted to Bhilai. After that, Niyogiji was assassinated in 1991, and there was police firing in 1992. And after that, from the 1990s onwards, there was a huge movement of the contract labour in Bhilai.

The union itself was very interesting — a very different kind of union. It was also quite a massive organisation of the contract workers...

I practically became a representative of all the workers...And then came the experience of the workers and how difficult it was to get lawyers who would represent them with honesty! It was actually the workers who told me that you’d have to run behind the lawyers and you have to pay them fees, which you can’t afford... In the year 2000, I became a lawyer at the ripe old age of 40. So, basically I became a lawyer just like that, out of necessity, and started doing the cases of the contract labourers”.

The above narrative testifies how Sudha Bharadwaj emerged as a people’s lawyer in the context of the struggle of contract workers in Bhilai.

While summarising the journey of Sudha Bharadwaj in the domain of law, Arvind Narrain stated:

“The cases that Sudhaji dealt with ranged from violations of labour law, acquisition of tribal land for industries (in violation of law), arbitrary arrests, disappearances of Adivasi activists, and brutal sexual violence against Adivasi women”.

In his Foreword, Ravi Kiran Jain, National President, PUCL, observed:

“Sudha’s arrest under the draconian UAPA only demonstrates yet again why the UAPA is at odds with the vision of a democracy founded on the basic principles of any rule of law jurisprudence”.

This reminds us of Giorgio Agamben’s argument that in a State of Exception “law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension”.

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