Sudha Bharadwaj restarts law practice after 3 years in prison

Updated on Oct 21, 2022 11:24 AM IST

When she was released on conditional bail in the Bhima Koregaon case, for which she spent over three years in jail, one of the first things Sudha Bharadwaj asked her daughter to send from her home in Bilaspur were her black coat and her lawyer’s sanad.

Sudha Bharadwaj at her residence in Mumbai. (Sachin Haralkar/HT photo) PREMIUM
Sudha Bharadwaj at her residence in Mumbai. (Sachin Haralkar/HT photo)
ByGautam S. Mengle, Mumbai

Her black lawyer’s coat hangs from the back of her chair, the computer on the table has multiple windows open — the websites of various courts in Maharashtra — and a stack of handwritten letters await her attention.

When she was released on conditional bail in the Bhima Koregaon case, for which she spent over three years in jail, one of the first things Sudha Bharadwaj asked her daughter to send from her home in Bilaspur were her black coat and her lawyer’s sanad.

It hasn’t been easy getting back to practice. For one it hasn’t been easy to keep a home in Mumbai, forget an office space. Bharadwaj’s bail condition mandated that she cannot move out of the trial court’s jurisdiction until the end of trial. She has had to move three homes in the last 10 months, and also has to appear for her case hearings regularly as well as report to the police every few days.

But finally, ensconced in a one-bedroom, tiny even by Mumbai standards, flat in Andheri, Bharadwaj is back to lawyering full time. Her first clients have been the female prisoners she met at Yerwada and Byculla jails where she became popular as the ‘Arziwali didi’ (sister who writes applications). In jail Bharadwaj wrote scores of bail applications for the undertrials lodged with her. When she left prison, she made sure that the undertrials had her address in Mumbai and they could write to her for legal help. The letters arrive almost daily, each recounting a tale of helplessness and despair.

“In most cases, lawyers appointed on their behalf by the government attend hearings and file applications on their behalf but do not bother to update them. As a result, the undertrials are left in the dark. What I am trying to do is to just fill this gap, as even this makes a huge difference,” Bharadwaj says.

Earlier this year, thanks to her help, four women from Bangladesh who were arrested for entering India illegally were able return home. The solution was ridiculously simple; nobody had told the women that they just needed to plead guilty. Once they did so on Bharadwaj’s advice, they were convicted and deported. The government sent them back home by the first available train. “Their reasons for coming to India notwithstanding, the women still prefer to go back home among their loved ones instead of being in prison.”

Bharadwaj spends her days searching through court websites for orders pertaining to the undertrials who write to her and makes detailed sets of these documents which she then prints and mails to them at her own expense.

It is slow work, requiring a lot of back and forth correspondence, with long periods of silence in between while the undertrials confer with their fellow inmates and with their lawyers. Sometimes the undertrials reach out to other lawyers for second or third opinions. “This happens mostly when I tell them that their bail is going to be a remote possibility and they will have to stay in jail for a longer period of time. Out of sheer desperation, they consult others to see if the answer from them will be any different.”

While Bharadwaj consults these undertrials she doesn’t officially represent them in court as she doesn’t want her own case to cast a shadow on her clients’ cases. But there is one matter in which she is appearing formally, and that goes back to her pet cause: labour laws. Bharadwaj was recently contacted by certain faculty members of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, asking her to appear on behalf of three contract workers. The recently-retired contract workers at IIT-B approached the Assistant Labour Commissioner seeking gratuity and the ALC ruled in their favour. IIT-B, however, has approached the Deputy Labour Commissioner and appealed against the decision. Bharadwaj is representing the workers, and her next hearing is on November 23.

Bharadwaj, whose 61st birthday is next fortnight, leads a spartan life. Her tiny living room is decorated with tribal representation of birds , and above her work table is a printout of a quote from Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste exhorting people to show courage.

“Prisoners are the most secular human beings on earth. They pray to every God, asking for only one thing - freedom. The Gods, in turn, are equally secular, they listen to none of them” she breaks into infectious laughter.

But a sense of the tragic underlies the laughter. When you go to jail everything that you may have achieved in life evaporates and you’re reduced to your Qaidi (prisoner) number, she says.

But her fierce idealism wouldn’t let her sink into despondency in her years in jail. There was a fellow inmate whom she helped secure bail who offered her a big lesson. A pavement dweller was arrested for allegedly murdering her husband. “The husband was found with his head bashed in and the woman was sitting next to his body, with head injuries of her own. Despite the clear indications of the fact that she herself had been attacked, the police arrested her and she was remanded in judicial custody.”

“Often, the woman would tell us that she could see her husband sitting in front of her. She was obviously in need of psychiatric care and anyone could see that she was not capable of murder. When she did manage to secure bail, it was granted on a cash bond of 50,000. The woman, who could not even afford three square meals a day, had no access to that kind of money and continued to stay in jail.”

With Bharadwaj’s help, she got bail. “What I observed in her case was that even though prison gave her a roof over her head and timely meals every day, she only ever wanted to get out of there. It is a myth that our prisons are reformative institutions. They are more punitive than correctional and therein lies the problem.”

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