An Overview of Arrest, Trial, investigation, Covid-19 & continued incarceration of Sudha Bharadwaj
On 28 August 2018, along with other lawyers, writers and activists, Sudha was arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case and put in jail under the UAPA law. Sudha Bharadwaj is a trade unionist, activist and lawyer who has lived and worked in Chhattisgarh for over three decades. She is an active member of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakrta Committee).
Pune Police and the initial arrests
On January 8, 2018, a businessman from Pune - Tushar Damgude – filed a First information report alleging that the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence was instigated by activists who had spoken at Elgar Parishad. On 28 August 2018, Sudha Bharadwaj was arrested by Pune Police allegedly claiming that some documents were recovered from her co-accused which mention her activities and prove that she is a member of CPI (Maoist). Sudha Denies the charges and raised objections regarding the documents verifiability.
On August 29, 2018, five prominent citizens – historian Romila Thapar, economists Devaki Jain and Prabhat Pattnaik, academic Satish Deshpande and Maja Daruwala – filed an urgent Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the Supreme Court challenging the arrests. The majority judgement on September 28, 2018, dismissed the plea, Justice D. Y. Chandrachud in his dissenting judgment chided the investigating agencies for disregarding procedure and law and also said that there is a “serious bone of contention regarding the authenticity of the evidence.”
Nature of evidence
The first charge sheet filed spanning 5000 pages was filed by the Pune Police on 15 November 2018 against the 6 June arrestees. On February 21, 2019, the Pune police filed a supplementary charge sheet against the 28th August arrestees and later submitted draft charges.
Appearing for Sudha, prominent Bombay High Court advocate, Dr Yug Mohit Chaudhary, argued that no incriminating evidence has been found and a host of documents inadmissible in a court of law have been submitted - something Justice Chandrachud himself pointed to in his dissenting judgement.
Further, in a recent reportage where the Caravan investigated documents and other forensic material of the case, which the Pune Police had presented to the court and supplied to the accused persons, as true copies of the purportedly incriminating files, they found many indications that the police may have used the devices while it had them in its custody, and may have edited files on them.
Trial and further investigation by the NIA
Nine months after her arrest, Sudha was among 21 women honoured by the Harvard Law School in 2019 on the occasion of International Women's Day. At the time, the Maharashtra government under Uddhav Thackeray tried to withdraw the charges against Sudha Bharadwaj but the Central Government intervened and handed the investigation to NIA. The NIA has since begun a new series of interrogations and arrests in the case.
Between April and October 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic and country-wide lockdown, the NIA arrested Hany Babu, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Kabir Kala Manch members Sagar Gorkha, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap, and Jharkhand based senior activist Fr. Stan Swamy. On 9 October 2020, the NIA filed over 10,000-page supplementary charge sheet against the recently arrested.
Covid-19 and continued incarceration
Today, Sudha remains incarcerated without a trial. Her father passed away during her time in jail. After a Covid-19 outbreak in the prisons of Maharashtra, Sudha Bharadwaj filed bail applications in front of Sessions, High Court and Supreme Court seeking interim bail on the grounds of the comorbidities she suffers from, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
It was contended that having a history of pulmonary tuberculosis, Sudha is at a higher risk of contracting the Coronavirus in prison, and this infection in her present medical condition with two severe comorbidities could be life-threatening. During the hearings, it came to light that Sudha has developed Ischemic Heart Disease.
Both the Sessions and the High Court rejected the bail applications. The Supreme Court dismissed the petition as withdrawn after asking the lawyer why Sudha needed to seek bail on medical grounds when she has “such a good case on merits.