Sudha Bharadwaj is one Classic example of how raising a voice against an oppressive state can lead to prolonged jail terms even though politicians, the main instigators of violence & death go scot-free. In jail since 2018, Sudha Bharadwaj was granted default bail this month by the Bombay High Court, which said that a court that extended the investigation against her and prolonged her detention did not have the jurisdiction to do so.
The Koregaon-Bhima case relates to alleged inflammatory speeches delivered at an Elgar Parishad conclave held in Pune on December 31, 2017, which the police claimed triggered violence the next day near the Koregaon-Bhima war memorial located on Pune’s outskirts.
The Pune police had claimed the conclave was backed by Maoists. The probe in the case was later transferred to the NIA. Sudha Bharadwaj is the first among 16 activists and academicians arrested in the case to have been granted default bail. Poet-activist Varavara Rao is currently out on medical bail. Jesuit priest Stan Swamy died in a private hospital in the city on July 5 this year, while waiting for medical bail. The others are all in custody as under trial.
Sudha Bharadwaj is a trade unionist, activist and lawyer who has lived and worked in Chhattisgarh for over three decades. She is an active member of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee). Sudha was born in Boston and lived in the United States and the United Kingdom as a child. Sudha’s mother, Krishna Bharadwaj, was a well-known academic and economist, who had founded the Center for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University. At age 11, Sudha moved with her mother to Delhi. Since then, she has seen oppression, inequality and social stature.
A humble looking lady, in a cotton sari with a calm smile on her face, her motive is to fight for those who have lost their voices. She is alleged for spreading leftist ideology to influence the minds of people and achieve political victory through ballots. She and other activists were accused of plotting the murder of PM Modi and planning to create a Kashmir like situation in other parts of India, but this was just IT cell propaganda and nothing could be established during investigations.
Indian democracy has always been a work in progress. There is no doubt that, unlike most postcolonial democracies, the idea of representative democracy, elections, free speech, free association and rule of law took deeper root in India. But while there may be a difference in degree, there has never been a golden period where individual rights were sacrosanct and protected as rigorously as the original drafters of the Constitution had in mind.
This was signified in Jawaharlal Nehru’s push to bring in the first amendment, which restricted the scope for fundamental rights, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, Rajiv Gandhi’s attempts at bringing in the anti-defamation bill, the curtailment of individual liberty under anti-terror laws, the fact that perpetrators of even mass crimes have often got away, and the crackdown on free expression for the fear of offending sensitivities. So no regime can claim it has been truly democratic.
The action against a series of intellectuals and activists and journalists — Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde, Stan Swamy, Apoorvanand, Harsh Mander are among the better-known examples — indicates that the space for free expression and dissent is jeopardized. It gives rise to apprehensions that the political dispensation does not view criticism as an essential ingredient of democracy. It empowers the police to be vindictive rather than fair. It erodes the rule of law. And it creates fear. This is not to suggest that critics must not be held accountable for any illegal or unlawful activity; nor is it to endorse the viewpoints of many of these activists. But it does mean that the regime must revise its approach and deepen its commitment to rights.