She has been accused of Maoist links, but for many, Sudha Bharadwaj is a champion of human rights.
As news spread about the Supreme Court rejecting the NIA’s plea against the bail granted to activist Sudha Bharadwaj on Tuesday, a large group of workers, draped in yellow and gray uniforms, began celebrating at Burah Pandal opposite the ACC Limited cement factory in the industrial town of Bhilai. It was not the only spontaneous gathering of workers in Chhattisgarh to acknowledge the relief granted to their beloved Sudha “didi”.
Bharadwaj was released on Thursday from Byculla jail in Mumbai after being granted default bail by the Bombay High Court on December 1. She has been in prison since August 2018﹘after she was booked by Pune police in the Koregaon Bhima case﹘and accused of Maoist links. The case was later transferred to the NIA. The trial is yet to begin.
A bail bond of Rs 50,000, one or more sureties of the same amount, a restriction against talking to the media about the case are among the bail conditions set by the Special NIA Court. Bharadwaj will also have to remain in Mumbai and cannot go to Chhattisgarh without the court’s permission.
Those who had gathered before to celebrate the bail said her “release is more important”. “Some day she is definitely going to be here and at that time we are going to give her a grand welcome,” said one of the workers on Thursday.
The agencies and sections close to the ruling BJP accuse her of being a Maoist, but one has to understand Sudha “didi’s” stature among the working class to figure out why a group of factory workers, tired from a day’s work, would spontaneously come together to raise slogans such as, “Hitlershahi haara hai, democracy jeeta hai, Sudha-ji ko laal johar, laal johar”. As news spread through social and traditional media, there were many unorganised gatherings across the state.
Bharadwaj came to Chhattisgarh in the Eighties and started working with Shankar Guha Niyogi, the founder of Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha who was seen as a legendary trade union leader. She has since been working for the rights and welfare of workers and tribals in the state. For a majority of the blue-collar workers, and socially and economically disadvantaged masses in Chhattisgarh, Bharadwaj is still a champion of human rights; one of the very few they can seek help from when faced with government apathy and neglect.
Dasmatbai Sahu, 65, said, “I am so glad that she got released. I am her old associate and have worked with her when she came here in Bhilai. I was worried about her...we were unable to understand why they arrested her...She has worked a lot for the workers and suffered a lot while fighting for them.”
Kaladas Dahariya of Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha said, “In 2015, the Bhilai steel plant had issued an order to demolish a colony of 5,000-6,000 workers. Hundreds of policemen and dozens of bulldozers were deployed...Sudha-ji confronted the authorities with the protesters and stood in front of a bulldozer. She was there on the ground and was ready to face the lathicharge...Later she approached the Bilaspur high court and got a stay order on the notice. Those workers are still living there and were very happy when they came to know about her release.”
Rajkumar Sahu, another worker, said “many in Bastar have been framed like this”. “Sudha didi is like family...I have known her since 1991...she has also worked as a lawyer for us in many cases. She helped the workers of ACC cement company to get better wages and permanent status. We were struggling a lot to get better wages but nothing happened. She represented Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh (part of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha) in the industrial court and won the case. But then the company went to high court. We won in the high court too.”
Sahu said when his firm became multinational, Bharadwaj approached the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Switzerland and a settlement took place. “Earlier our daily wages were around Rs 200...the monthly average income has now reached around Rs 27,000...only because of her.”
Ali Khan, a 39-year-old worker, said, “All of us workers are very happy because didi is out on bail. She has always fought for the cause of jal, jungle, jameen. No tribal, worker or farmer in Chhattisgarh can ever deny the work done for them by didi...We are eagerly waiting for her to come to the office of Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha at Jamul...Didi has fought on the streets and in court for the welfare of workers. We are going to give her a grand welcome.”
Amit Verma, a lawyer who went to Mumbai to receive Bharadwaj, said, “Whatever I am is because of her. I was a factory worker before, but she inspired me and motivated me to pursue legal studies. She has done selfless work for many like me in Chhattisgarh. Whether it’s creating awareness among workers, farmers, or inspiring youngsters to take up studies, she is everywhere. She has fought for the release of tribals who were falsely implicated by police in Maoist cases. She has played a very important role in making my life and I am very happy that she is being released. Many of us didn’t expect this bail, but justice cannot be denied forever and she will definitely get an acquittal sooner or later.”
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