When Rinchin, a convener for Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), received a call about the raids at Sudha Bharadwaj’s residence on Tuesday, her initial reaction was that of shock. But there was also a realisation that something like this was bound to happen.
“On one hand there was shock; on the other, there was a sense of preparedness. We knew people like Sudha will be targeted, especially in the current environment. This is the price for the work we do,” she said.
At first light on Tuesday, Pune police launched a nationwide operation, raiding residences of human rights activists, writers, lawyers and journalists in Delhi, Mumbai, Ranchi, Goa and Hyderabad and arrested Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves.
Police also questioned several others and seized documents and electronic equipment from their houses. The operation, described by police as part of its probe into the violent clashes that took place in Bhima Koregaon, a village near Pune in January, has been called an “emergency-like” attack on free speech and dissent in India by activists and civil society.
“This is not just disturbing and upsetting to us but a blow to the marginalized communities, for whom Sudha and others have worked tirelessly for decades,” Rinchin said, adding, “They have targeted those who have supported the ones oppressed by the state.”
Rinchin, who has known Bharadwaj for 20 years and has worked with her closely in Chhattisgarh, spoke to News18 about how the activists In Chhattisgarh have found themselves in the state’s cross hairs over the years.
“Sudha’s work speaks for itself. She has fought for the rights of the weakest of communities in India. She has given them legal assistance when other lawyers refused. She represented them in courts and fought their cases. She put them within the framework of the justice system,” Rinchin said.
“They say she is helping Naxalites. We know who she is helping. She is helping people who do not even know the legal system. It is clear who the government is trying to suppress. If someone like Sudha can be targeted this way, the state’s intention is clear.”
Bharadwaj, who was arrested from her Faridabad residence on Tuesday, has worked extensively in Chhattisgarh as a tribal rights activist against illegal land acquisition for almost three decades; she has worked with the WSS as a member and a legal advisor and sought justice for victims of sexual violence. She is the general secretary for the Chhattisgarh chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL); has worked as a trade unionist for years; worked as a lawyer representing the unrepresented and fought for the communities left in the wake of illegal mining and land grabbing.
Bharadwaj is currently under house arrest at her residence after the Punjab and Haryana High Court stayed her transit remand late Tuesday night and ordered police to not take her to Pune until the next hearing on August 30.
“Last time I spoke to her was on July 31. We talked about a case where companies, including Jindal, HECL had flouted environmental regulations in the Raigarh belt, they had not adhered to environmental laws while mining in the area. On the same day, the National Green Tribunal upheld our 2014 petition and ordered the companies to rectify the damages. They set up a two-member committee to execute the orders. Sudha was the lawyer on record and legal advisor in the case,” said Rinchin.
The WSS released a statement Tuesday, saying the police “essentially crushed the judicial process and further vitiated the environment of fear”. Working with the WSS, Bharadwaj has legally represented several women who were victims of sexual violence, many of which were perpetrated by security forces themselves.
“Sudha was part of the legal process on judicial inquiry into the rape and fake encounter of Mina Khalko and many others. She has stood by victims over the years. She has been a very important member of the WSS,” Rinchin said.
After Bharadwaj took up legal practice, she founded a lawyers’ collective called ‘Janhit’ to fight pro bono for the rights of the marginalised in Chhattisgarh.
“No lawyer was ready to come work here, so she studied law and did it herself,” Rinchin said. Shishir Dikshit, a member of Janhit since 2010 and a lawyer in Chhattisgarh High Court in Bilaspur, also spoke to News18 and maintained that the charges against Bharadwaj and others are false and fabricated.
“Sudhaji wasn’t even working on anything specific at the moment. She had taken a break and gone to Delhi to teach. We often consulted her on ongoing cases and were in regular contact. Lawyers have petitioned the Supreme Court and now we’re waiting to see what happens,” said Dikshit.
“There is no case here. It’s a targeted attack to suppress human rights activists and lawyers,” he added.
Chhattisgarh, a mineral rich state, has always been ripe for corporate picking and has seen numerous cases of illegal tribal land acquisition, human rights violations and sexual violence over the years. It is also a place that is said be to be dangerous for activists, lawyers and journalists, many of whom have had to face retaliatory police action. “We all know how the environment is, we know the threat. Voices are being suppressed. Even though we know that there is concern about personal safety, Sudha and I mostly talked about work,” Rinchin said.
Chhattisgarh PUCL president, Dr Lakhan Singh, also talked to News18 and maintained the same. “Ek dar ka mahaul banaaya ja raha hai (an atmosphere of fear is being created). Those who are fighting for the rights of tribals, Dalits, marginalized, are being hounded. The government is trying to scare them, because the state itself is scared of them. Sudha has worked here for thirty years. She has been involved in fact-finding and recently she contributed to a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) report, which implicated several IPS officers of human rights violations. The police action against her is in retaliation,” Singh said.
Prabhat Singh, a journalist based in Chhattisgarh, who himself was arrested by the police in 2016, also spoke to News18 and said that activists and journalists have long been targets of the state. “Whoever tries to bring light to the issues of tribal and marginalized communities in Chhattisgarh, becomes a target. This was bound to happen. Everyone knows that the evidence is cooked up and unverified. Sudhaji has worked here since the time of Niyogiji (the late Shankar Guha Niyogi, founder of Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha) and her work is exemplary,” Singh said.
“She was even responsible for drafting a PUCL legal document calling for a law for safety of journalists. Three years have passed, around 150 journalists in Chhattisgarh have been attacked, but government has not acted on it,” he added.
Rinchin and Singh maintain that the fight will go on. “She is not alone. The communities she works for, know what the truth is and they will stand with her. There were protests in Raipur yesterday. There’s anger among the villagers. There will be more protests,” Rinchin said.
Singh said that there is a big protest planned in Raipur on September 1 too. “Hume dabaa nahi sakte,” he added. Meanwhile, the work that Bharadwaj and many like her have been doing will continue. According to Rinchin, there are more pressing matters at hand. “Kaam chalta rahega. Ladai bhi chalti rahegi,” she said.