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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 42, New Delhi, October 3, 2020

Why A Public-Spirited Lawyer Like Sudha Bhardwaj Who Protected Rights of the Poor is Under Attack | Bharat Dogra

Friday 2 October 2020, by Bharat Dogra


In recent months many socially committed lawyers committed to serving the poor and other people who stand for justice and human rights, in India as well as abroad, have been distressed at the imprisonment of a public-spirited lawyer Sudha Bhardwaj with a lifelong record of standing up for justice for the poor. Both as a socially committed lawyer and as a teacher of law and legal issues she emerged as an inspiration for young law students who wanted to help the poor and they have been very appreciative of her as a teacher.

On September 24 2020 the Supreme Court while hearing a bail application for her asked her lawyer Vrinda Grover, who also is known for taking up several cases on behalf of the poor and victims of injustice, to explain more about her client. Ms. Grover replied that Sudha Bhardwaj was globally known for her work on justice-related legal work and she had taught at the National Law University. Ms. Grover informed that her client had never abused the process of law. Following this the judges of the apex court responded Ms. Grover, in the context of the bail application, that her client has “such a good case on merits”( as reported in the Hindu dated 25 September 2020 in news report titled ‘Sudha Bhardwaj can seek bail on merits: SC). This comment of the learned Supreme Court judges has given a lot of hope to the many friends and admirers of the imprisoned famous lawyer.

As a recent press statement issued on behalf of friends and family of Sudha Bhardwaj dated 25 September has pointed out, Sudha has dedicated her life to protecting the rights of the weaker sections enshrined in the Constitution of India and is counted among one among the six RBGs across the world, an honour given after the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a feminist jurist who served on the American Supreme Court.

In this press note issued on behalf of family and friends attention has been drawn to the serious medical problems faced by Sudha Bhardwaj. Vrinda Grover said in the Supreme Court on September 24 that her client’s serious medical problems made her more prone to COVID-19.

 Time and again many statements are made by senior political leaders, senior judges and scholars that the judicial system in a country like India has to make special efforts to ensure that justice should reach the poor. Some public-spirited lawyers are actually working very hard to achieve this. Their task is not easy as there are several structural biases and problems due to which it is not easy to secure justice for the poor, particularly when they are struggling against very powerful forces. The innocent poor who are trapped in false cases are unable to pay even the most basic expenses of fighting a legal case, not to talk of paying a reasonable fee to lawyers. In such a situation the lawyers who have been devoting themselves to fighting the cases of the poor year after year in very difficult conditions deserve wide appreciation of all people who value justice. Unfortunately in recent times some of these lawyers have themselves come under attack or faced very adverse situations.

Sudha Bhardwaj is one such lawyer. The efforts to implicate her in false allegations first started with sections of media and this was opposed by several senior academics, lawyers and human rights activists who were familiar with her peaceful efforts over the years to bring justice to workers, displaced villagers and other vulnerable people. Unfortunately despite the clear expression of such widespread support for her repression was again unleashed against her .

There have been several efforts in recent times to redefine the left agenda in keeping with the real needs of India. Sudha Bhardwaj was associated with such efforts from a young age . Her parents had won worldwide fame for their brilliant academic work but leaving behind the certainty of a comfortable life in big cities she went to work with one such effort which was led by the legendary activist Shankar Guha Niyogi in Chattisgarh. This effort inspired a large number of activists and people and left a lasting impact despite the fact that Niyogi was killed at a young age when he still had so much more to contribute. His death anniversary was recently observed on September 28 by his countless admirers.

Niyogi combined several aspects of left movements with several aspects of constructive activities with a distinct Gandhian orientation as seen in the struggles against liquor and against unnecessary mechanization. He and his movement were also careful to avoid violence as much as possible and despite being provoked on many occasions the numerous struggles of the iron ore miners of Dalli Rajhara as well as other struggles of this movement remained peaceful to a remarkable extent.

 The struggles brought prosperity to a large number of workers as well as to the industrial townships where they lived. Local bank managers, public sector company managers, shopkeepers also praised the efforts of Niyogi Ji and his comrades because the prosperity of the workers as well as the much reduced consumption of liquor by them was reflected in prosperity of the region which benefited all.

Despite this there were powerful forces which just could not tolerate the growing strength of his movement as this clashed with their agenda of exploitation and loot and these forces were behind the killing of Niyogi. As it was later revealed the same forces were involved in big scams as well.

Another aspect of these remarkable efforts was that these attracted several talented and committed youth, who were looking for a place where they could honestly and sincerely contribute to workers’ struggles with their various kinds of skills. Some of them worked as doctors or nurses, some as artists and writers, and they not only made a contribution to the movement but also went on to do important work in medicine, arts, writing and other areas.

Sudha Bhardawaj was one such well educated socially committed youth who came here and started living a very simple life as an ordinary worker of the movement. After the death of Niyogi Ji she went on to make a very important contribution as a lawyer who was always willing to come to the help of workers, peasants threatened with displacement and all others in need of such help. As a Visiting Professor at the National Law University Delhi she became an inspiration for those students who want to make a contribution to the legal needs of poor and oppressed people. As a general secretary of the PUCL in Chattisgarh she reached out to a much larger number of people whose civil liberties and democratic rights were threatened. These many-sided contributions were rudely interrupted when she was imprisoned.

While Shankar Guha Niyogi was such a great source of inspiration for people committed to justice, in his lifetime he had to repeatedly face false allegations . All that he was trying to do was to make democracy more meaningful for the poorest people whose democratic rights had been crushed for too long. Several years later a woman who learnt her first lessons of such activism under Niyogi is again facing repression for the same reason—that she has tried to protect democratic rights of the poorest.

Bharat Dogra is author of recent books Man Over Machine ( Gandhian thinking for modern times) and co-author of When the Two Streams Met ( freedom movement of India).

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