‘The Point Is Not to Surrender’: The Sudha Bharadwaj I Know

Sudha Bharadwaj is likely to be released from Byculla women’s jail on Thursday.

6 min read
Hindi Female

“Sudha’s got bail!” These were the three words we have been desperate to hear for over three years and for which our brilliant and committed lawyers – Adv Yug Mohit Chaudhry and his team – have left no stone unturned; news her daughter Maaysha (Anu to all of us) has agonised over and lived for the past three years. And yet, I couldn’t believe it until I spoke to the lawyers myself. For all of us, Sudha’s friends and family, it is devastating that on some technicality the other co-accused were denied default bail. It is by now clear to everyone that this is a patently false case based on dubious, fraudulent, and inadmissible evidence against the country’s foremost human rights defenders, and that the process itself is the punishment. Father Stan Swamy’s death was nothing short of execution without trial.

Of course, even now we know that the National Investigation Agency’s (NIA) resentment and frustration will not make Sudha’s release easy. But this default bail order has exposed and weakened the edifice of the entire case.


A Person of Simple Habits

They call Sudha a terrorist, an anti-national, seditious Maoist. But I have known her for almost three-and-a-half decades. You will not find a better human being or friend than her. Sudha builds friendships knowing and embracing your weaknesses and aspirations – she is very realistic and accepting in her relationships. She loves people as they are, and not some idealised version of them. She herself is a person of simple habits and needs, and pushes herself to live by her own ideals and follow the lives of those she works with – workers, peasants, Adivasi women, etc.

But she can stand in her friends’ place and see things from other perspectives. Over our friendship, I have seen her ability to both selflessly live up to her own ideals and keep in mind what I seek from life and my potential, as she tries to help me with my problems. She always gently encourages others, including me, to do the right thing by standing in their shoes. For a person who chose to live the lives of workers and Adivasis in labour camps and shanties, the absence of any airs and graces about it is amazing.

While her work did not allow her the time to pursue most of her interests, Sudha straddles many different worlds – music, literature, cinema, science, mathematics, law, politics, social sciences, and so on. And she has so many friends cutting across society.

The outpouring of love, concern, and outrage at her arrest from different quarters of society, which has not died down even after three years, is testament to these bonds, be it with old friends, young interns, or the many people she has met and worked with over the course of her life. She has the magic to make every friend feel that they have a special and exclusive bond with her.

How a single person can make so many people feel so loved and special is incredible.


Short Phone Calls, Letters That Were Too Late

I have visited every house Sudha has lived in since we met in the mid-1980s. We once shared a little unit in Kishore Bharti in Madhya Pradesh. She has never been house proud – always had a functional and detached attitude. She left her mother’s home in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to go to Chhattisgarh to work with the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. She lived in a mud hut with a well in the courtyard in a labour camp in Dalli Rajhara for several years. When she moved to Bhilai to work at the trade union there, she lived in a commune with workers in the Jamul labour camp. The house did not have a toilet, and water was brought from a handpump nearby. Once her daughter entered her teens, she insisted that the duo live in a separate home, and a young Anu set up a modest home for Sudha.

Regular meals, some spare time for each other, even a second-hand semi-functional TV set and a temporary refrigerator – this was really Sudha’s first home after she left her mother’s, and it brought a lot of peace to her. She could enjoy her favourite meal of curd rice and pickle while watching reruns of old Hindi movies on the shaky TV screen. On one of my visits, I remember drinking several cups of ginger tea while rolling over with laughter watching Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, and discussing its underlying dark cynicism late into the night.

Sudha’s imprisonment has been all the more distressing as I have watched the personal, familial and health costs pile up day after day. Throughout the imprisonment, even as there was huge public outrage and campaign against it, I saw how Sudha was always worried about Anu slipping into despair and, so, she kept up a brave front about her own situation. The same fear, that Sudha was depressed and worried, kept Anu from going off the deep end and forced her to keep her chin up. Sudha and Anu have held each other up in a way that is truly moving, despite the impossible circumstances.

Phone conversations had to pack in as much as was possible in a short time and when hearing each other was difficult, they eagerly awaited letters that took forever to reach, and then with news that was weeks old.

It has been heartbreaking to witness this parenting from prison, bolstered by reassurances from outside, all over crackling phone lines and delayed letters.


A Series of Health Ailments

One of the worst parts to witness has been Sudha’s deteriorating health in prison. She was diabetic and had hypertension, and a history of pulmonary tuberculosis even before she went to jail. In the poor living conditions in jail in terms of ventilation, nutrition and sanitation, overcrowding, and poor healthcare, she has developed rheumatoid arthritis and chronic skin infections and suffered many rounds of stomach and urinary tract infections. She has a painful dental condition that makes it difficult for her to eat and has lost a lot of weight and hair. Last year, we learned that she has developed Ischemic disease in jail. We have been extremely worried throughout the pandemic given her poor and deteriorating health and multiple comorbidities, making her extremely vulnerable to COVID-19, at the age of 60.

In April 2021, as many as 40 inmates in her Byculla jail tested positive for COVID-19 when given an antigen test. Given the virulence of the new strain and the fact that the Byculla jail is so overcrowded (306 women inmates against its sanctioned capacity of 262), it was a dangerous place for a woman with so many comorbidities.


'A Complainer': How Jail Authorities Never Understood Her

At the time, she was so frail that she was unable to wash her own clothes and needed the help of other inmates to do her personal chores. Those who know Sudha will understand how difficult it must be for her to ask for this help. She had repeatedly petitioned the jail administration about this, but the jail superintendent’s first response to a journalist was dismissive – "Sudha Bharadwaj is a big complainer!". This callous disregard for serious health issues is a hallmark of this jail administration. Those of us who know Sudha know the one thing she is not – a “complainer". I am terrified to see what physical condition she will be in on her release.

I wonder how it’s going to be when she finally steps out of prison. She will of course have to fight this case foisted upon her. That, after all, was the idea – to prevent her from doing the human rights work she did so effectively and sincerely.

I am not a lawyer but through this ordeal, I have learnt one thing about the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act: the process is the punishment. Bail and conviction are both extremely difficult. Between arrest, bail and acquittal, whole lives get crushed and people’s creativity, productivity and potential are destroyed.

Nevertheless, I am sure that this week, as I walk along the sea in Mumbai with a free Sudha, she will have the same passion and commitment she did on the day of her arrest. Her indomitable and fearless spirit will triumph over the nefarious designs of the state. Because it’s this way:

I stand in the advancing light,

my hands hungry, the world beautiful.

My eyes can't get enough of the trees—

they're so hopeful, so green.

A sunny road runs through the mulberries,

I'm at the window of the prison infirmary.

I can't smell the medicines—

carnations must be blooming nearby.

It's this way:

being captured is beside the point,

the point is not to surrender.

- Nazim Hikmet

(Smita Gupta is a Delhi-based economist and activist.)

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Topics:  Sudha Bharadwaj 

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