Sudha Bharadwaj interview: ‘I hope I can begin practising in Mumbai’

By Sadaf Modak / Indian Express

Arrested by the Pune Police in August 2018 on allegations of being an active member of the banned CPI (Maoist), as part of its probe into the Elgar Parishad case, trade unionist and human rights lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj was released on bail last month, on December 9, on jurisdictional grounds. She was the first of the 16 accused arrested in the case to get bail. While Varavara Rao was earlier given interim bail on medical grounds, Jesuit priest Stan Swamy died in custody.

Among the conditions set for Bharadwaj’s bail was that the 60-year-old would not make any statement on the proceedings of the case. Recently, she got permission to leave Mumbai limits for Thane.

Excerpts from an interview:

* Can you tell us about finding yourself in jail, first in the Yerwada Central Prison in Pune and then the Byculla Women’s Prison?

The first experience is quite frightening. It is an immediate loss of dignity, privacy and identity. I remember when I reached Yerwada jail, it was late in the evening. I was asked to strip for a search… The constables then sift through your luggage.

I was first kept in the hospital yard, and then taken to a separate yard, called the phansi yard (for death row prisoners). I was told it was because of charges under the UAPA against me… The yard is a series of cells and a corridor, enclosed like a cage. I and Dr Shoma Sen (also an accused in the Elgar Parishad case) were kept in separate cells in the yard. There were two death row convicts next to our cells. We were told not to interact with others. We were let out only when the other inmates were in their barracks.

At Byculla, we were kept in the common barracks, with everyone. It was overcrowded. There would be an absolute rush in the morning as there were four bathrooms and around 56 people.

Both the prisons also faced water cuts. There was queuing for everything — water, food, medicines, and during Covid-19 restrictions, for phone calls.

At Byculla, when undertrials came to know I was a lawyer, many began seeking my help. I may have written hundreds of bail applications. The jail was proactive in sending them (to court) as they wanted to decongest the overcrowded prisons.

* As a lawyer, how was it finding yourself on the other side?

When you are giving legal aid, you sort of concentrate on the case. But when you see it from the inside, you see how cut off the prisoner is from legal remedies… particularly under Covid restrictions. I wrote a letter to the DLSA (District Legal Services Authority) about inmates who signed vakalatnama but did not know names or contacts of their lawyers… even after the chargesheet was filed. They are not even aware of the evidence produced against them. It is a constitutional mandate to have legal representation. Having worked with the Chhattisgarh Legal Services Authority, I am aware that the remuneration given to lawyers on the legal aid panel is not sufficient. I suggested there should be some allowance or increase in the remuneration in exchange for mandatory legal interviews with undertrials… In response to the suggestions, I got a reply from the DLSA asking me if I wanted a legal aid lawyer!

I need to discuss it with lawyers, civil liberty organisations. I am seriously contemplating filing a PIL on improvement of legal aid…

* In your experience, are the poor and marginalised overrepresented in prisons?

Yes, the poor, the Muslims, are definitely overrepresented. Two other groups who face discrimination are Pardhis, a denotified tribe … Those from Bangladesh too. They are not treated at par with Indian citizens or other foreigners, finding themselves facing the worst of both the worlds. Many end up being considered cheap labour in jails.

* Given your bail conditions, you may not be able to immediately return to your work in Chhattisgarh. with trade unions, peasants, Adivasis. Have you thought of what you could do in Mumbai?

I feel I am in exile because I cannot go to Chhattisgarh and meet my people there. That is very painful. In my life, there are two things. One is my legal work and the other my work with the people. I used to call it kaagaz ki ladaai (legal fight) and sadak ki ladaai (street demonstrations)… So, now just being a lawyer is strange for me.

When I was arrested, I was teaching. I doubt I can do that now. I would also like to provide legal aid to prisoners and workers. I still need a permanent address. I hope that sometime in March I can begin practising in Mumbai.

* How was your relationship with the other inmates?

The incredible thing about prisons is that while there are fights among inmates, there are also strange friendships. Actually, I do not think anyone can survive without friendships in jail. You are just thrown together, you do not know each other. People from different backgrounds, different temperaments. Friendships sustain you. When somebody is unhappy, everyone will gather around, they will persuade the person to eat. People help each other in contacting families, lending money, clothes during court visits and video mulaqats. My despair too would get weaved in with others. I felt that I could at least do something helpful with legal aid…

Jyoti Jagtap (her co-accused, a member of the cultural group Kabir Kala Manch) would take literacy classes, which were much sought after… Women would make Ludo boards, Jyoti even shaped chess pawns out of prison soap… They made greeting cards for my birthday…

In the outside world, we refuse to see the inequality by maintaining walls. In prison, there is no wall… you have to look inequality in the eye. How can you possibly eat chicken, when the person next to you does not have it? When someone is leaving on bail or being acquitted, there is a lot of cheering, clapping. There is also an interesting superstition that you should never take anything out of jail, you should leave it here. I am glad because that helps those who do not have access to basic requirements like clothes.

When I was leaving jail, one of the staff asked me, ‘Madam, aap koi bade ho kya (Are you famous)?’. They did not understand why there was so much media outside. I got a lot of hugs, legal aid requests… They would say, ‘Aunty, aap toh humaare ghar ke lawyer ho (you are our in-house lawyer)’.

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