Beyond the 24-hour news cycles, beyond the drawing rooms of the ruling elite, and the homes of the newly minted middle class, lies an India that is very different from our reality. We often idealise it in movies and shows, but the reality is starkly different. It is a world where inequality and inequity is stark. And, those who fight against the disparity are few. Sudha Bharadwaj has spent the last three decades of her life fighting for the poorest communities in Chhattisgarh. As a lawyer, and as a human rights activist she has taken on the land mafia, giant mining corporations, and the Government in her tenacious drive to protect those who need it the most. Yesterday she, along with a number of other left wing activists got arrested from various parts of the country.

She is currently under house arrest. But she hasn’t been arrested for either her union work, or her work in the area of rights. Her arrest is specifically linked to the Bhima Koregaon violence that took place in Maharashtra in the new year.

Sudha Bharadwaj could have been living the life of relative luxury in a first world country, succeeding in whatever line she chose to adopt. Born in the US, to academics finishing their PhD, Bharadwaj had an automatic right to US citizenship. At age 18, when many of her contemporaries looked westwards for fame and glory, Bharadwaj gave up her American citizenship, and went to study at IIT Kanpur.

A mathematician by training, she first became aware of labour rights as a student who lived in a Kanpur that was booming and attracted migrant labour from all over. This awareness of exploitation possibly changed her life’s direction, and she moved to working for the rights of the marginalised and dispossessed

At that time iron mine workers in Chattisgarh were coming together under the leadership of Union Leader Shankar Guha Niyogi, to fight for better wages, and working conditions. These were primarily tribal contract workers, who had none of the benefits that regular workers had. Niyogi was arrested by the Government during Emergency, for union activities.

In 1986, Bharadwaj joined the Niyogi run Chhatisgarh Mukti Morcha, to work for the rights of tribal workers who were not given their due. And, her love for Chhatisgarh and her people began. As she began working with the Union to fight for union rights, it was but natural that she would end up studying law. It was this knowledge of law that enabled her to work smarter in defending the rights of workers.

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The body of Indian law is tilted towards the protection of rights of the weakest in society. However, the system favours the privileged. It is Bharadwaj’s knowledge of the law, English, and the way privilege works – that enabled her to fight for rights. Along the way, she moved from fighting for the rights of iron ore miners to fighting for the rights of the poor and marginalised in the state.

Sudha Bharadwaj has been a thorn in the side of administration for quite some time. Anyone who takes on the combined power of the state and organised business, or organised mafia, is going to feel the heat of their actions sooner rather than later. People like her who hold the state to account when there are rights violations, keep the system honest

There has been a massive propaganda movement against people like her. The term Naxal has been bandied, to describe Bharadwaj and her associates, almost Mccarthyisque in its shrillness. You almost expect a chorus of “better dead than red” to follow. You don’t have to agree with the politics of Bharadwaj, and I don’t, to believe they play a vital role in ensuring that those who are powerful and avaricious do not trample on the rights of the marginalised.

People like Bharadwaj watch those who have power, and by their doggedness in holding a magnifying glass to the actions of the powerful, and the law of the land, ensure that constitutional rights are upheld. One way to ensure that people like Bharadwaj do not have their day in the limelight, is to ensure only two things – the first is good governance, and the second is speedy delivery of justice. Until that happens, the system needs people like Bharadwaj to ensure that the poor are not pulverised under the weight of the state, and big business.

Harini Calamur is a filmmaker and former journalist.

The views expressed are the author’s own.

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