“The rule of law does not do away with the unequal distribution of wealth and power, but reinforces that inequality with the authority of law. It allocates wealth and poverty (through taxes and appropriations) but in such complicated and indirect ways as to leave the victim bewildered.” – Howard Zinn
Born in 1961 in USA to economist parents, Sudha Bhardwaj spent her childhood first in the multicultural atmosphere of Cambridge and later in the politically charged Delhi of the seventies. Sudha’s mother – who was an important influence in her life – was a well known academic, and founded the Centre for Economics Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her father is also an economist and an academic.
She joined the integrated mathematics (five year) program of IIT Kanpur in 1979. The institute itself – being surrounded by a sea of rural India on one end, and an industrial town on the other – is a ripe ground for exposure to the caste, class and associated power struggles. To add there was the lived experience of sexism in the male dominated institute. At IITK she joined NSS, teaching in the caste ridden rural neighborhood. Besides she was also close to the mess workers. She fondly recalls the workers’ cultural group of the institute, offshoots of which exist and organise several progressive events even today. But in her own words, her “coming of age” was in 1984 – the year of the Bhopal gas tragedy and the antiSikh riots.
After finishing the program at IITK in 1984, she taught at DPS for a couple of years in Delhi. She was further exposed to the working class struggles through involvement with the swathe of migrant workers which were brought into Delhi for the 1982 Asiad Games, an association she developed with the student groups of JNU and AIIMS.
But by 1986 she decided to relocate to Chhattisgarh and that is where she found her identity as a trade unionist, and later, as a lawyer.
Chhattisgarh is one of the most mineral rich regions of the world and home to corresponding mining and associated industry. By the mid 1960s and leading up to the emergency, it was also a site of mass struggles of the working class. This included not only the trade unions but also movements of contract workers which were not formally recognized by the established trade unions.
In the waning days of emergency the contract workers of captive coal mines for Bhilai steel plant at Dalli-Rajhara were restless at the partisan treatment of the central trade unions and moved away from them, inviting the charismatic Shankar Guha Niyogi for a leadership role. By mid 80s, Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS) as it was called, was an extraordinarily democratic and visionary non-violent workers’ organization in central India and attracted students, activists, and sensitive middle class from across the northern belt. Sudha was one of them. She moved to the region in 1986.
CMSS expanded itself into Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), a remarkably democratic mass organization of workers and one not merely concerned with their working conditions alone: it founded schools and hospitals (led by the workers and not management!), worked for afforestation, encouraged savings, and engaged with cultural lives of workers and even with socio-political issues like alcohol-prohibition and gender. It is in these varied organizational roles, that Sudha trained herself.
By the late eighties, CMM was already expanding and attracting contract workers of privately owned plants in Bhilai, organising several thousands of workers and their families. It was at the peak of this movement, in September 1991, that Shankar Guha Niyogi was assassinated.
In spite of losing Niyogi in the trying circumstances, the intensely democratic movement did manage to continue even though it splintered. Sudha Bhardwaj played a central role organizing the section of CMM active in and around Durg-Bhilai-Raipur, which metamorphosed into the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee).
By now Sudha was already living with the workers in the basti, and she worked relentlessly towards the “twenty-four hour union”. Unlike any other trade union movement of its time, CMM under the leadership of Niyogi believed that union work should not be limited to economistic demands of better wages and working conddtiond alone. Women played an extremely important role, enabling the movement to grow from the work-site into the homes and houses of workers. It extended beyond trade union activities into all other areas of life. Issues of health and campaigns against alcoholism became trademarks of the movement, setting it apart from mainstream trade union politics. Sudha played an active role in working towards this vision. Around this time she adopted a daughter.
Following several repressive attempts to suppress the movement, the legal engagement of the movement also grew. There was a police firing in 1992 killing 17 workers in Bhilai who were on a protest, demanding bothe better conditions of work and justice for Niyogi’s murder. Hundreds of workers and worker-leaders were jailed. Post liberalisation, in a primarily privatized world and with a drastic increase in contractual labour, the movement was faced with new challenges. Even the most basic demands of limiting work to eight hours, legally due minimum wages, wage slips and attendance cards etc., were no longer tolerable demands for employers. As a consequence, fighting legal battles became, at once, more challenging and necessary. Workers who were her comrades urged Sudha to study law and take their struggles in to the courtroom.
Enrolled in Durg in 1997, by 2000 she became a lawyer, primarily to represent the union led cases. The most significant of these cases was finally settled only in 2015.
As a Lawyer
By the turn of the century the politico-economic climate in the state was also changing significantly. One one hand expanding mining and industrialisation in Chhattisgarh, and consequent spree of land acquisition, was in more visible confrontation with the peasant-tribal struggles, and on the other hand it led to a large scale migration supplying cheap labour for the industrial belt in the state.
Since at CMM conversations on these issues was a norm, and in any case the individual workers migrated from the aforementioned contexts, there was a considerable sensitivity around them. Sudha, now as a lawyer, also became involved in the cases of land acquisition, community forest rights, cases of Adivasis, environmental litigation, public interest litigations, and the like. She also became involved with the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), engaging with the individual cases of police excesses, particularly in the largely tribal Chhattisgarh. After Binayak Sen was arrested on trumped up charges of sedition, she took over as the General Secretary of PUCL.
As this legal engagement grew, she moved out of the basti to Bilaspur (where the High Court bench is located), and formed a lawyer’s collective Janhit. Her small residence also served as the office of the collective. Janhit primarily represents or provides legal aid to village communities, people’s organizations and even NGOs (preferring the same over representing individuals). She continues to be an important organizer at CMM, but the democratic setup at CMM is such that it hardly depends upon her, and has a more or less independent existence. The democratic spirit CMM brought in Janhit as well, thus having it’s independent existence from Sudha. Later, when Sudha moved to Delhi, Janhit continues to function in Bilaspur.
In 2017, she moved to Delhi on a kind of sabbatical from the collective, hoping to give her daughter more time. A well known figure by now in legal circles, she started teaching at National Law School, Delhi till her arrest in August, 2018.