CALLING the experience of being in jail an eyeopener, trade unionist and human rights lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj has said she hopes to work to improve legal aid for prisoners.
In an interview to The Indian Express, Bharadwaj, who was released on December 9 on bail, said she was considering filing a PIL on the matter. Recounting how prisoners approached her to write bail applications when she was in jail, and how she wrote hundreds of them, she said: “When you see it from the inside, you see how cut off the prisoner is from legal remedies… I wrote a letter to the DLSA (District Legal Services Authority) about inmates who signed vakalatnama but did not know names or contacts of their lawyers… even after the chargesheet was filed… I am seriously contemplating filing a PIL.”
Bharadwaj said one reason was that the remuneration given to lawyers on the legal aid panel was not sufficient. “I suggested there should be some allowance or increase… in exchange for mandatory legal interviews with undertrials… In response to the suggestions, I got a reply from the DLSA asking me if I wanted a legal aid lawyer!”
Admitting she missed the work she did in Chhattisgarh, both legal and with people, Bharadwaj, who was arrested in the Elgar Parishad case in August 2018, said she hoped to get back to it to some extent in Mumbai, where she is confined as per her bail condition. “I still need a permanent address. I hope that sometime in March I can begin practising in Mumbai.” When she was leaving the jail, she recalls, “I got a lot of hugs, legal aid requests… The prisoners told me, ‘Aunty, aap toh humaare ghar ke lawyer ho (you are our in-house lawyer)’.”
Bharadwaj was the first of the 16 arrested in the Elgar Parishad case to get bail. While Varavara Rao was earlier given interim bail on medical grounds, Jesuit priest Stan Swamy died in custody.
Talking about her first impression of jail, she said it was “quite frightening”. Apart from “the immediate loss of dignity, privacy and identity”, there was the overcrowding, resulting in “queuing for everything — water, food, medicines, and during Covid-19 restrictions, for phone calls”.
The marginalised formed an undue share of the prisoners, Bharadwaj said, including the poor and Muslims. “Those from Bangladesh too. They are not treated at par with Indian citizens or other foreigners, finding themselves facing the worst of both worlds.”
The prison experience, Bharadwaj added, was made bearable by the “strange friendships” forged among people “thrown together”. “When somebody is unhappy, everyone will gather around, they will persuade the person to eat. People help each other in contacting families, lending money, clothes during court visits and video mulaqats… Jyoti Jagtap (her co-accused, a member of the cultural group Kabir Kala Manch) would take literacy classes… Women would make Ludo boards, Jyoti even shaped chess pawns out of prison soap.”