‘If You Try to Be Safe and in the Middle, You Will Never Succeed’ – Sudha Bharadwaj
Journey from Trade Unionist to Lawyer
The murder of Niyogi marked a turning point in the working class movement in Chhattisgarh in many ways. It was not only that a vibrant movement had lost its charismatic leader, but it was also a turning point in terms of conditions of work and the begninning of new kinds of repression and vioelnce against unions and the working class. Lakhs of workers took to the street when Niyogi was killed demanding justice. Their unflinching demand for justice created enough pressure for the Sessions Court to sentence two industrialists and their henchmen to life imprisonment. Such a judgement was historically unprecedented. Sudha played an important role as a paralegal and union worker in the trial of the murder of Shankar Guha Niyogi and the workers organization Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha was granted the status of assistance to prosecution.
When the BJP Government of Sunderlal Patwa fell in MP, the Congress referred 16 cases of industrial disputes of the Bhilai contract workers movement to the Industrial Court. Sudha took upon the task of assisting the labour lawyers – preparing statements of the workers and collecting documentary evidence. In 1996 the Industrial Court held that dismissals of workers were illegal and directed compensation in lieu of reinstatement. Watching her growing familiarity and proficience in labour law, workers of the movement requested Sudha to pursue law, given that they could neither shell out large sums of money to pay lawyers not trust most lawyers to stand up against large corporations and industrialists.
As a unionist, one of the longer struggles she fought alongside workers was for the regularization of contract workers of the ACC cement company in Bhilai. This turned into a 25 year long battle turning from a High Court case into a union negotiation stretching from Switzerland to Jamul Labour Camp in Bhilai as ACC was taken over by Lafarge and Holcim. The negotiations culminated in an unprecedented settlement with these large multinational corporations. Sudha recalls the struggle here.
A People’s Lawyer
Once Sudha began practising at the Chhattisgarh High Court, very soon she earned a reputation of the one lawyer who always spoke up for the oppressed. Anti-caste activist and leader Lakhan Subodh writes of his memory of his first encounter with Sudha at the Bilaspur High Court). People from all corners from Chhattisgarh would make their way to her, whether to fight against the wrongful acquisition of their land by large companies or their unfair retrenchment from the factory.
In ten years of practice at the Chhattisgarh High Court, Sudha fought scores of cases. Some of the notable ones were several illegal land acquisition and surface rights cases by Jindal Power and Jindal Steel in the coal lands of North Chhattisgarh. In the same region she also fought against the fraudulent land registration by Monnet Steel. (Janki Sidar, whose land had been taken, speaks beautifully about her struggle and of Sudha’s role as a lawyer. She took on cases against some of the largest mining corporations who were forcibly vying for the mineral rich land in Chhattisgarh; the cancellation of community rights to facilitate Adani’s mining operations, serious environmental violations by Vandana Vidyut company, efforts to forcibly convert Gram Panchayats to Nagar Panchayats in the Scheduled areas to foster industrialization and mine the Rowghat hills held sacred by the Nureti Gond community in Kanker were just a few in a long list. In 2020, the Central Government launched an online auction for the commercial mining of 41 blocks of coal. In Chattisgarh, where Sudha led the legal fight against Adani’s coal mines, around 9 blocks were put up for auction despite opposition from the State Government. Prime minister Modi himself launched the auction.
In the industrial belt of Raipur and Bhilai, she fought several cases for workers – cases of dismissals, compensations for injuries, and criminal cases against trade unionists. Bhagirathi Verma, a worker from Urla in Raipur who was wrongfully retrenched, speaks of the case Sudha fought for ten full years, until he was finally reinstated! Notably, she fought along with the safai karmacharis in Bilaspur and Bhilai to resist the efforts to resist efforts of the Government to systematically contractualise them and deprive them of housing to benefit crony contractors. Another memorable case was that of the women workers of Kedia Distilleries. She not only won a case for them in the Hight Court, but also sat with them on hunger strike when they were laid off. Dasmat Sahu, one of the workers, recalls how Sudha sat with them for days in the rain.
Sudha fought a variety of other cases. She sided with the farmers in and around Raipur when their lands were being indiscriminately taken under the Naya Rajdhani Project of the Chhattisgarh Government. She had also taken up the case of corruption in the selection of judges involving the High Court itself, and the illegal termination of a dalit judge for his outspokenness against judicial corruption.
She was one of the handful lawyers who were courageous enough to take up was cases relating to the false implication of adivasis in criminal cases in Bastar, and those killed by the police and securty forces in fake encounters. She even appeared as a lawyer in the judicial enquiry into the alleged encounter that took place in 2012 in Sarkeguda in which 17 villagers (seven of them minors) were killed by security forces. The enquiry commission headed by Justice V.K. Agrawal finally released its report in December 2019, clearly stating that “there is no evidence to suggest those killed or injured in the alleged encounter between the security forces and so-called Maoists.”
Sudha was part of a small but dynamic collective of lawyers known as Janhit. The group consisted of lawyers based out of Bilaspur, the High Court capital of the State of Chhattisgarh. The collective has been instrumental in asserting the rights of people laid out in various enabling laws setback due to poor implementation. The Janhit team has handled more than two hundred legal cases which include cases of industrial workers, land acquisition matters, false criminal cases against activists and people’s movements, forest rights cases, environmental cases, and habeas corpus and police atrocity cases.
Human Rights and the Broader People’s Movement in Chhattisgarh
Sudha’s work however, was not merely limited to the courtroom. She was a central part of the larger civil society and Human Rights movement in both Chhattsigarh and the country at large. She contributed actively to building an anti-displacement movement in Chhattisgarh. She was the General Secretary of Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) Chhattisgarh, a member of the Indian Association of Peoples Lawyers (IAPL), and a founding member of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (CBA). She was part of women groups such as the Mahila Mukti Morcha that led the anti-liqour campain in Chhattsigarh, the Chhattisgarh Mahila Adhikar Manch that took on the issue of deaths caused by the forced sterilisation of adivasi women by the State, and Women against Sexual violence and State repression (WSS) that spoke out against the mass rapes and sexual violence inflicted on adivasi women by the police and security forces among many other issues. She would tirelessly labour late into the night, collecting news reports of violence against adivasis and workers, writing press statements and flyers for various movement groups, editing reports published by Human Rights groups that highlighted and spoke out against a wide range of issues from the hounding of journalists to the persecution of religious minorities by Hindu right wing groups.