After three years in prison, one of India’s best-known activists is trying to set up a home in a new city and find work.
Bail conditions prohibit Sudha Bharadwaj from leaving Mumbai until the end of a trial in which she is accused of a role in a 2018 incident of caste-based violence and alleged links with Maoists. She is also not allowed to talk about the case.
Since June 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP government has jailed 16 people in connection with the violence in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra state. They include some of India’s most respected scholars, lawyers, academics, activists and an ageing radical poet. (Tribal rights activist, Stan Swamy, died last year in hospital, aged 84.) They have all been repeatedly denied bail under a sweeping anti-terror law, which many observers believe is now being mainly used to crackdown on dissent.
Ms Bharadwaj cannot return to her work as a professor of law at a leading university in the national capital, Delhi, or go home to Faridabad on the outskirts. She is unable to visit her daughter who’s studying psychology in Bhilai, more than 1,000km (620 miles) away. (The two were reunited briefly after she was freed on 10 December.)
“From a smaller jail I am now living in a bigger jail, which is Mumbai,” Sudha Bharadwaj, 60, told me on Monday in her first interview since being released.
“I have to find work, and a place I can afford,” she said. Until then she is staying with a friend.
Born in Massachusetts, Ms Bharadwaj gave up her American passport after her parents returned to India. The mathematician-turned-lawyer would eventually become a committed activist and trade unionist steadfastly fighting for the rights of the dispossessed in the mineral-rich state of Chhattisgarh, where some of India’s poorest and most exploited live.
But it was her three-decade-long work providing legal aid to the poor that made her a shining beacon of hope for many in the fight for justice.
Yet, she says her time in prison, especially during the pandemic, was an eye-opener.
“Jail conditions are no longer medieval. But the loss of dignity that you suffer the moment you go in comes as a shock,” she said.
Ms Bharadwaj was arrested on 28 October 2018 and her phone, laptops and some CDs taken away. She was denied bail on three occasions and spent time in two prisons before she was freed.
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She spent half of that time at Pune’s high-security Yerwada Central Jail, which largely houses convicted offenders, in a block of cells once reserved for death row prisoners.
A long corridor ran alongside the cells, where she could take walks in the morning and evening. But prisoners were allowed into the open yard overlooking the cell only for half an hour every day. Frequent water shortages meant that they had to carry buckets of water to the cell to bathe and drink.
Meals were made up of dal, two pieces of roti and vegetables. Inmates who could afford it could buy extra food from the jail canteen – their families were allowed to deposit a maximum of 4,500 rupees ($60) every month into their jail accounts. They rolled incense sticks, made mats and grew vegetables and paddy in a prison farm to earn some money.