Saurabh Sharma | Aug 28, 2018 | 7 min read
Workers in Chhattisgarh warn of full blown protests if 'Sudha didi' faces trouble at government's hands
Raipur: Sudha Bharadwaj, a trade unionist, human rights activist and lawyer who had been working in Chhattisgarh for the last three decades, is one among the seven activists whose residences were raided in relation to a case filed in the aftermath of Bhima Koregaon protests that broke out on December 31 in Maharashtra last year.
Apart from Bharadwaj, the other arrested activists include Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, Varavar Rao and Vernon Gonsalves. Father Stan Swamy’s house in Ranchi was raided and Atul Teltumbde’s Goa residence was on the search list.
Members of the Jan Mukti Morcha, a labour union in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, on Tuesday protested against the detention of Bharadwaj and raids conducted at her Faridabad house.
“This is a completely bogus charge on Sudha didi by the BJP government which is trying to frame all Union leaders and those who fight for workers’ rights,” says Ram Chand Sahu, who has known Bharadwaj as a Unionist since childhood. Listing her achievements, Sahu says Bharadwaj has been “instrumental in getting better wages and improving working conditions for the labourers in the region”. He warns that if Bharadwaj is not released soon, all the workers’ unions of Chhattisgarh will come out in protest against the treatment meted out to her by the governments.
Raj Kumar Sahu, who has been a contractual labourer at ACC Jamul Cement Works in Bhilai for last 29 years, said that Bharadwaj had helped 573 workers get justice in a case against the Cement producing company. “What is happening now is a political conspiracy by the BJP government, which was also behind the killing of Niyogi. Modi and Raman are trying to suppress the workers’ voice, but we will not let them succeed and organise wide scale protests,” says Sahu.
Dukhu Ram Sahu, a retired labourer who resides at Labour Camp in Jamul, says the allegations raised by Modi government against “Sudha didi” are baseless. “She has always fought cases as an advocate for labourers. We will protest against these absurd allegations against her and demand her release,” he says.
Born in America, worked in Bhilai
Daughter of renowned economists Ranganath Bharadwaj and Krishna Bharadwaj, Sudha was born in the US in 1961 and came to India in 1971. Her mother was instrumental in setting up the Department of Economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) where an annual lecture continues to be held in her memory. She studied at IIT Kanpur but also developed a keen interest in working for the slum dweller community of Delhi during her college days.
At the age of 18 when Bhardwaj gave up American citizenship, she had said in an interview that she never had any confusion about returning to work in her own country. “After working in poor people's settlements, I felt that if I could do anything for this deprived society, it would be worthwhile. I had to work in my own country and work among my own people,” Bharadwaj had said.
Meeting her a decade ago in her rented house in Nehru Nagar, Bilaspur, this writer found the activist living with four chairs and a cot in a 10X10 drawing room. A few books and clothes were her only belongings in the absence of any amenity such as a refrigerator, cooler or a television - far from the urban standards of living.
Sudha came in touch with Shankar Guha Niyogi, leader of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha while working in Durg district of Chhattisgarh after having completed her studies. The Morcha was involved in advocating for workers’ rights in the iron mills of Dalli Rajhara. Sudha discovered the condition of the poor in Chhattisgarh was much more grave than the urban slum-dwellers in Delhi and dedicated herself to development of the region. She was soon made secretary of the Morcha. Niyogi was shot dead on 28 September, 1991, which led to Sudha and his other colleagues spearheading the organisation for workers’ rights. The organisation stretched beyond the iron mills of Dalli Rajhara and covered entire state.
Janakram Sahu, a labourer who works at the ACC Cement in Jamul village of Durg district, credits Bharadwaj for the increased wages of workers in various cement companies operating in the region. “The exploitation of laborers in cement companies has stopped due to the battles fought in her (Bharadwaj’s) leadership,” Sahu says.
However, the rising litigation costs during the labour movement in Chhattisgarh pushed Sudha towards academics yet again when she enrolled for a degree in advocacy at the age of 40. This enabled her to provide legal advice and support to tribals, labourers and farmer in the region.
She later set up a trust called ‘Janhit’ to take up the cases of different underprivileged groups in the society for free. Janhit has contested more than 300 cases so far at all judicial levels, including the Apex Court.
Bhima Koregaon an excuse?
Social activist Soni Sori describes Bharadwaj as a motherly figure for the tribals of Bastar. "She would visit me in the jail when I was arrested in 2011 and fought all my cases from district court to the high court. She tried to provide every possible help to my family and even looked after my kids," says Sori.
Narrating that it was only Bharadwaj who would visit her in the jail, Sori says she never visited without food or clothes and counselled her to keep her fight and the belief in the Constitution going. "She was with me when my family, the system and the government were all against me," Sori adds.
Sori says Bharadwaj once got to know of a jailed teenage girl who was branded as naxal. "Didi got her details and fought her case in the court until she was freed. She also helped her like a kin and the girl lives a happily married life today," Sori says.
"We can never ever believe on the allegations that have been leveled against her. There is some conspiracy behind this," says Kaladas Bahariya, a trade union leader in Durg, Chhattisgarh, who has worked with Bharadwaj closely.
Bhardwaj has donated all her assets to the labor organisation and continues to live in a rented house. She has an ancestral house in Delhi which has been rented out. Funds from this rent go to the labor union every month.
Alok Shukla of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, a group of social organisations in Chhattisgarh, says Bharadwaj amazes people in “a society full of fabrication and drama”. The only thing (in Bharadwaj) that has changed in the last two decades is her age. Her constant struggle for human rights of the marginalised has turned her a bit older, but hasn’t weakened her spirit, Shukla says.
A section of the police and the governments, however, believe that Bharadwaj has a Maoist connection. Niyogi had also faced allegations of being Maoist supporter which he denied while alive. Sudha is the general secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a democracy rights organisation which was found by Jayaprakash Narayan in 1976. Bharadwaj has also been associated with the State Legal Services Authority and has been approached by the National Human Rights Commission in cases of fake encounters.
Bharadwaj also played a crucial role in drawing attention of the National Human Rights Commission towards the lackadaisical attitude of bureaucrats towards investigation into the killing of seven tribals and burning of their houses by Salwa Judum workers in 2007 in Kondasanwali village of Sukma district.
Shishir Dikshit, an advocate with PUCL, has told a Hindi daily in Raipur that Bhima Koregaon is just an excuse to arrest Sudha Bharadwaj as the government wants to cover up sensitive cases like Kondasanwali killings.
PUCL president Dr. Lakhan Singh says the government doesn’t shy away from declaring an activist as Maoist if they oppose their nexus with the mafia, fight for tribals’ rights or raise voice against fake encounters. “It is not difficult for the police to declare every opponent of the state as Maoists. Sudha Bhardwaj has been a victim of the same plot,” Singh says.
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