‘I saw brutality, but also solidarity,’ says Sudha Bharadwaj, author of From Phansi Yard, of her days in prison

Arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, activist-lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj kept a diary of prison life. Released in 2021, she writes about her experience at Yerawada jail

October 11, 2023 05:32 pm | Updated October 16, 2023 04:36 pm IST

“My own experience with the mess workers of IIT Kanpur where I studied, and later on in the ‘labour camps’ set up during the Asiad and the textile mills of Delhi, helped me make up my mind that I wanted to work among the working class,” says Sudha Bharadwaj.

“My own experience with the mess workers of IIT Kanpur where I studied, and later on in the ‘labour camps’ set up during the Asiad and the textile mills of Delhi, helped me make up my mind that I wanted to work among the working class,” says Sudha Bharadwaj. | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

Sudha Bharadwaj, an IITian, turned her back on American citizenship and chose to work instead with the faceless multitudes of Dalli Rajhara and Bhilai. A well-known trade unionist, she has concentrated her energies for the uplift of the poor in Chhattisgarh, and taken brave positions against concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. In 2018, Bharadwaj was arrested for allegedly inciting violence in Bhima-Koregaon. She was imprisoned for a year and three months at Pune’s Yerawada jail, and for another year at Mumbai’s Byculla jail. She was released in 2021. In jail, she lived amid women, and decided to write about the life of fellow prisoners in her book, From Phansi Yard.

Excerpts from an interview:

You have always gone against the wind. You came back from the U.S., U.K. and then gave up your American citizenship. How do you explain these choices?

Well, I don’t have any credit for the first two; I was one-year-old and 11-year-old respectively when I returned from the U.S. and the U.K.! The first decision was of my parents, and the second of my mother, Professor Krishna Bharadwaj. I gave up my American citizenship when I became a major, around the age of 23, and that was my choice. My mother, who parented me since the age of 4, was a socialist, and despite her academic erudition, the epitome of simplicity and modesty. My childhood was spent on the JNU campus where students were socially aware, surrounded by my mother’s brilliant colleagues who were grappling with issues of poverty, discrimination and people-centric development. My own experience with the mess workers of IIT Kanpur where I studied, and later on in the ‘labour camps’ set up during the Asiad and the textile mills of Delhi, helped me make up my mind that I wanted to work among the working class.

The transition from Cambridge to Chhattisgarh must have been challenging?

Yes, the transition from being a single child of a single feminist mother, brought up in an academic environment, in an urban and materially comfortable household and shifting to the small mining town of Dalli Rajhara or the working class bastis of Jamul in the Bhilai Industrial Area was quite a sea change. But my complete immersion in the union’s work, the warm acceptance of comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi, the doctors of Shaheed Hospital and the karyakartas of the Chhattisgarh Mines Shamik Sangh and later the Bhilai unions, made that transition less bumpy. There were some material discomforts and a long period of trying to find my feet as a woman activist but they hardly counted in the hurly-burly of the Bhilai movement of contract workers.

Sudha Bharadwaj (standing) at a demonstration.

Sudha Bharadwaj (standing) at a demonstration. | Photo Credit: Alok Shukla

You talk of CMSS in glowing terms but unions are often beset with corruption. Do you think the faceless worker is often let down by leaders?

Comrade Niyogi, and the leaders of the unions he organised, were, and continue to be, some of the most upright leaders of the working class movement. They are always organising the most exploited of the industrial working class — the contract workers — and face attacks by goons, long jail sentences and innumerable court cases. Corruption can only be indulged in by those who are ‘close’ to the management, which we never were.

The question of being “let down” is a more complex one. Taking the right decisions in a movement — knowing when to press on, when to negotiate; coping with mass dismissals from work — these are difficult to handle. As democratic organisations, we always tried to take difficult decisions by consulting workers in the widest possible way.

A system that generates wealth with the labour of vast multitudes but fails to distribute it — is that not a recipe for a revolution?

The Directive Principles of State Policy (Part IV) of the Constitution state that policy should ensure that “the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment”, that it should be “securing and protecting a social order in which justice, social, economic and political shall inform all institutions of national life”, and be aimed at minimising “inequalities in income” and eliminating “inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities.” If that is a recipe for revolution, then our Constitution is indeed revolutionary!

Justice Krishna Iyer once famously said that comrade Niyogi lived and died trying to bring the Constitution to life for contractual miners in a remote adivasi region. In my own small way, I have tried to follow in his footsteps.

People gather at Yeshwant Stadium in Nagpur demanding the release of people accused in the Bhima Koregaon case.

People gather at Yeshwant Stadium in Nagpur demanding the release of people accused in the Bhima Koregaon case. | Photo Credit: S. Sudarshan

What actually transpired on August 28, 2018? How did the mother in you cope with the arrest in the Bhima-Koregaon case?

My bail conditions do not permit me to make any public statement about my case. Yes, the mother in me had the toughest task. My move to Delhi had been prompted by my finally acknowledging the need to give more time to my daughter. The arrest meant that she was left on her own for more than three years, coping with a hostile media trial, the absence of a bread winner, and later COVID. Though my friends and colleagues made best efforts to help, it was a traumatic experience for her, which is why my book is dedicated to her as well.

Yerawada Central Jail in Pune.

Yerawada Central Jail in Pune. | Photo Credit: PTI

Tell us about your fellow prisoners in Yerawada Jail’s Phansi Yard?

In my book there are notes about 76 prisoners/ groups of prisoners I had an opportunity to observe during my stay in Yerwada. They are just impressionistic sketches but I learned a lot about how prisoners cope in overcrowded prisons, how class and caste operate in prison, the struggles to bring up their children or maintain contact with them after they leave jail. I met women who had murdered husbands in self-defence, or who had murdered family members to escape with a lover; mothers-in-law whose daughters-in-law had died by suicide or burnt to death. Many women, particularly those who had committed murder of husbands, would be abandoned by both sides of their families.

I saw some brutality and a lot of misery, and indeed that can kill the human being inside anyone. But I also saw the most remarkable friendships and solidarity. At the Byculla barracks, I saw women clean up after a fellow inmate had fallen sick. I have seen them rescue a child being beaten by a frustrated mother, or comfort another depressed woman or share some special food from the canteen with poorer barrack mates. Despite everything, the human being survives and that is what gives hope.

Do these bonds linger after a prisoner is released? 

You would be surprised that more women are released by the help of co-prisoners than by the official legal aid system. A more resourceful prisoner — perhaps more rich, more experienced or educated — may help a poorer prisoner to contact a lawyer, may get someone to pay the lawyer’s fees or to arrange money for a cash bail or to arrange a surety for someone who does not belong to the district or the state. While the prison administration is aware of this, officially they discourage it because jail associations may lead to women remaining in the same circuits of crime. Of course, the bonds gradually fade away, once the prisoner is released. A somewhat mentally challenged beggar woman who lived on a footpath had attached herself to me in jail. My lawyers were able to help her get bail and she remained in touch for a few months. Our very different social contexts then moved us apart.

Ours is the age of conformism. Where does a person like you fit in?

Democratic systems have dissent inbuilt into them — whether it is a free press, or a parliamentary opposition, or our adversarial judicial system or consulting with a gram sabha in an adivasi area. With concentration of power and resources in the hands of crony capitalists and the distortion of democratic institutions to permit such concentration, these democratic spaces have been shrinking. We can see this in the recent crackdown on opposition politicians and the digital media. Since our Constitution protects freedom of speech, association and assembly, the only way to justify such crackdowns is to conflate dissent with criminal or terrorist activity. Yes, it looks like if one wishes to dissent, they have to be ready to brave such attacks.

From Phansi Yard; Sudha Bharadwaj, Juggernaut, ₹799.


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