Sudha Bharadwaj, an human rights activist and a lawyer who had devoted her life fighting for idgenious people in Chhattisgarh, was arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) on accusations of having links with Maoist terrorist organisations in August 2018. The activist, awaiting trial, turned 60 on November 1, 2021 at Byculla’s women’s jail.
Harsh Mander, an activist and a friend of Bhardwaj told Vibes of India, “I was posted as IAS in Chhattisgarh in the late 1980s, while Sudha was working with the workers and the indigenous communities there. She was not a lawyer, but seeing the atrocities on the people she was working for, she decided to learn law and fight the injustice meted out to them on a regular basis.”
Mander said Bharadwaj is a woman of immense idealism and it is a shame that a woman who should be revered as a role model has been put behind bars on the basis of evidence that has come out to be fabricated upon scrutiny. “It is a classic example of ‘punishment by process’.
Bharadwaj is still an undertrial in a case that was passed on to National Investigative Agency (NIA) on heels of the fall of the BJP-led government in Maharashtra last year.
Since then, the framing of charges are yet to be complete. Earlier this year, a US-based digital forensics company had revealed that a hacker had planted 22 “incriminating” files in activist Rona Wilson’s computer, another co-accused in the case, days after Bhima-Koregaon violence. Friends and family of Bharadwaj have also demanded an independent inquiry into the legitimacy of the letters allegedly recovered by the Pune police from her electric devices and later handed over to the NIA. The agency has maintained that these files are key evidence against the 16 arrested in the case so far.
Payoshi Roy, a member of Bharadwaj’s legal team apprised VoI of the latest developments of the case. “A default bail plea was argued for over three weeks and was reserved for judgement in September. We are hopeful, but no judgement has come so far. If it gets rejected, we have the option of moving the Supreme Court against the order,” she said.
When asked about the status of the trial, and if it’s likely to begin anytime soon, Roy said, “While the trial is at the stage of framing charges, we have still not been given all documents the prosecution will rely on. This is a gross violation of an accused’s rights. We have still not been given cloned copies of all the devices seized in this case when the entire case against Sudha relies on the letters found on those seized electronic devices. Without the devices, it is like fighting the trial with your hands tied behind your back. The trial cannot commence until all the accused are given a complete set of cloned copies.”
Jignesh Mewani, an independent MLA from Vadgam, said, “The charges are false and fabricated. It is a design by the state to tarnish the image of the dissenters. It is unfortunate that someone who has contributed so much for the well-being of the marginalised is being made to suffer. The best gift for her and this country would be her release.”
Meanwhile, her friend since 1984, Smita Gupta, on the eve of Bharadwaj’s birthday posted on a social media platform, “Today marks the 60th birthday of Sudha Bharadwaj, her fourth in prison. She is an undertrial in the Bhima-Koregaon case against 16 human rights defenders from different parts of the country. A prisoner of conscience, a political prisoner, held without bail or trial. In a case whose edifice is eroding day by day, as more and more expert analysts show that the evidence is dubious, inadmissible and inadequate. All because of the use and misuse of the draconian UAPA law, by the Indian state, which has made the process the punishment.
She further wrote, “We had hoped that this time she would get bail. We were hopeful all the previous times too. But more hopeful this time. However after all the arguments were over for default bail, after the judgement was reserved several months ago, we don’t have a judgment to date. For her daughter Maaysha, her friends in Chhattisgarh, her friends across the country and indeed the world, this is very painful and difficult to bear. Sudha is always worried that Maaysha may slip into depression and so puts up a brave front. The fear of her mother’s worry probably prevents Maaysha going off the deep end and forces her to keep her chin up.”
“As we watched with relief and joy the release of Shah Rukh Khan’s son, many of us wondered: can’t that galaxy of legal luminaries do our case, pro bono? But on more sober reflection we realized that they won’t, and even if they did, it would probably make no difference. We are not lacking in legal expertise,” she added.
Bhardwaj, along with Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Father Stan Swamy and Arun Ferreira, were arrested on the basis of the FIR relating to the violence which followed the Bhima-Koregaon commemorative event held in Pune on January 1, 2018. An FIR was filed in Pune alleging that banned Naxalite groups had organized the Elgaar Parishad, an evening programme organised in the city on December 31, 2017, on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. Pune police claimed that the speeches made at Elgaar Parishad were at least partly responsible for instigating violence the next day, where allegedly right-wing activists attacked Dalits while they were commemerating 200-year-old battle in which Dalit soldiers of the British army defeated the ruling upper caste Peshwas. Bhardwaj was arrested by the Pune police allegedly on being part of a banned Naxalite group.
“In the case of Sudha Bharadwaj and other political prisoners, the state wants punishment without crime, punishment without trial. And so it’s all fixed. If the media would subject the evidence in the Bhima Koregaon case to as much scrutiny as it did in the Aryan Khan case, the country would know that it is planted. The whole thing is a big conspiracy against political dissenters. Like every child in India now knows about the sham of the “conscious possession” argument….they would learn about Pegasus and malwares and the remote tampering of computers in this case to plant incriminating material,” Smita said.
But anyway, let’s not talk of responsible media, fair trials, justice and other sad things. Today let me just say happy birthday to my dear friend Sudha Bharadwaj.