Lawyer, Civil Rights Activist
Born in America, Sudha Bhardwaj is a human rights lawyer practising in the Chhattisgarh High Court. She renounced her American citizenship at the age of 18, in order to join the Indian civil liberties movement. Bhardwaj has lived in Chhattisgarh, a state with a large tribal population, for more than 29 years of her life. She has been helping tribals against the illegal acquisition of their land by the government and private companies. Her fight against the Adanis and the Birlas gained momentum after she became part of a lawyers’ collective – Janhit, for pro bono work. Her civil rights journey began as a trade unionist turned into a lawyer at 40 years old, to fight for the rights of workers of industries such as Bhilai Wires, Kedia, Simplex etc. Bhardwaj has been an advocate of free and accessible legal aid to poor Adivasi people in order to help them retain their ancestral land. She carried forward Late Shankar Guha Niyogi’s labour rights movement Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha and added another limb to it called the Mahila Mukti Morcha while continuing to fight for labourers’ rights despite there being a looming threat to her life. In addition to tribal and labour rights, Bhardwaj has been vocal against State-sponsored violence, particularly against women and also fought for their reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. On multiple instances, Bhardwaj has approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) for the cognizance of fake encounter cases, which are extremely widespread in Chhattisgarh. She is the general secretary of the Chhattisgarh Chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. She is also a Frontline Defender. Offered the position of a judge – an officer of the State, by a Chief Justice of the Chhattisgarh High Court a few years ago, it is ironic that now she is in jail for allegedly waging a war against the State.
Lawyer, Civil Rights Activist, Cartoonist
A human rights lawyer from Mumbai, Arun Ferreira’s journey as an activist began in his college canteen in Mumbai. As a student at St. Xavier’s College, he motivated and organised his college’s canteen workers to demand for better work conditions. Since then he has been involved in helping the vulnerable such as Mumbai’s slum dwellers, blind children and orphans. He has helped with the rehabilitation of slum dwellers at Dindoshi and relocation from Colaba to Goregaon. To encourage people to donate their blood, Ferreira often organised blood donation camps and made a caricature as a souvenir, of persons who donated blood. He got involved in activism after getting inspired by his uncle Father Raymond D’Silva, who was a liberation theologist. He also became a part of the All-India Catholic University Students’ Association to be able to get a closer look at social injustice and work towards its elimination. He was arrested in 2007 for allegedly attempting to hold a secret meeting at Deekshabhoomi, a Buddhist pilgrim site, at Nagpur, Maharashtra. After proving his innocence and getting released in 2011, he was re-arrested at Gadchiroli for allegedly conspiring in the Jafargarh police-naxalite encounter case. He was granted bail in 2012. While in solitary confinement in the Nagpur Jail, Ferreira sketched his experience in solitary confinement and published it as a book called Colours of the Cage (Aleph). An activist constantly involved in voicing concerns of the vulnerable, Ferreira continues to be in jail today for his alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon violence. His life has been a saga of false accusations and fabricated cases.
Born in 1940, Varavara Rao is a poet and an activist. After graduating from college, Rao briefly worked for the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting as a publication assistant. He also worked as a lecturer in private colleges in Telangana. Rao’s activism began in 1967, after the Naxalbari uprising. Through his poetry, he wanted to encourage peasants to take a stand against the State. Dissatisfied with Abhyudaya Rachiyitala Sangham (Arasam) – a literary platform of older poets, he formed Tirugubatu Kavulu (association of rebel poets) and Viplava Rachayitala Sangham (Revolutionary Writers’ Association), popularly known as Virasam, in order to support anti-establishment struggles. For him, his pen was the most powerful weapon against the State as he could write revolutionary poetry and inspire thousands to fight for their rights. Rao travelled across the state of Andhra Pradesh to understand the hardships of peasants and wrote poetry. He has 15 poetry works to his name and a literary magazine which survived for more than 20 years. He has also written multiple books giving account of his struggle against injustice and days in prison. In 2005, Rao represented the People’s War Group to broker peace between the state government and the Maoist organisation, however, after its failure, he was arrested. For his work, Rao has been unlawfully arrested under oppressive security legislations multiple times. He has always come out innocent and carried forward on his mission against State oppression with new zeal every time. However, as of now due to his worsening health and the State’s inhumane harassment which violates all his rights, he is counting his last breath in jail.
Born in Kerala, Rona Wilson is based in Delhi since the time he had come to pursue his post-graduation. He did his masters at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), primarily focusing on a survey on India’s economy between 1975 to 1995. His activism began at JNU when he was part of the Defence Committee for S.A.R Geelani, who was charged for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. After his acquittal, Prof. Geelani founded the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP), to help those arrested under regressive security laws. Wilson was an integral part of CRPP and worked to uphold the objective of the UN Convention on Prisoners. He was involved in the fight against the misuse of security laws and providing legal aid to political prisoners. He is a regular author for the Economic and Political Weekly and even before his arrest, he was headed abroad to purse a Doctorate. His research particularly focused on the use of State machinery against Muslims and Kashmiris. Wilson has been involved in activism for political prisoners since the early 2000s. He was also actively involved in the struggle for the release of Delhi University Prof. G.N. Saibaba, who is 90% handicapped man convicted for having links with Maoists, now put on death row. An advocate of equal distribution of land, Wilson used to highlight the injustice done by the State by explaining the economic repercussions of law and policy.
Academic, Women’s Rights Activist
A Professor of English Literature at the Nagpur University, Shoma Sen was born in Mumbai. A bright student with the knack for activism, Sen was keen on learning about the Naxal Movement in India, since a young age. As a college student in Mumbai, she joined the Vidyarthi Pragati Sanghatana (VPS) to participate in student and worker movements. She became actively involved with the Mumbai Textile Workers’ Strike. With the desire to work for the underprivileged and downtrodden, Sen moved to Nagpur. Committed to help Dalits and Women, she joined an organisation called Stree Chetana to support domestic violence victims. She would regularly visit slum areas of Nagpur and around to increase the awareness about education and also to provide legal aid. Sen kept the doors to her house open for women in need, she had converted it into a shelter for needy women. She would also these women financially. Her academic research focused upon the intersection of women and caste. Sen is a member of Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, an organisation established post-emergency, to spread awareness about the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India. She is also the founding convener of the Committee Against Violence on Women (CAVW) which is involved in fact-finding on crimes committed on women by the armed forced protected under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). A loved teacher and a renowned academician, Shoma Sen continues to be in prison today, for her alleged involved in the Bhima Koregaon Violence.
Academic, Activist, Author
Hailing from a small village in the state of Maharashtra, Anand Teltumbde is a renowned professor and a civil rights activist. He has a post doctorate in cybernetic modelling and also a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Having worked as a professor of management for decades in the Goa Institute of Management, Teltumbde is also known for his activism and writing focusing on caste violence. He is also known for combining an Ambedkarite perspective with a Marxist understanding of political economy. Teltumbde is married to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s granddaughter. A prolific author, Teltumbde has written numerous books on the issues of Caste with special focus on the injustice caused to Dalits. He also regularly writes articles. His column ‘Margin Speak’ in the Economic and Political Weekly is particularly famous for highlighting the injustice caused to marginalised communities by the hands of the government. He is often invited to global institutions for delivering lectures. He is also a part of the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights and the All India Forum for Right to Education, and is also a Frontline Defender.
Tribal Rights Activist
The oldest person to have been arrested in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence, Father Stan Swamy is a tribal rights activist. Born into a farmer family, Father Swamy had been involved in bringing justice and upliftment to the marginalised since a young age. After finishing his own schooling, he trained the underprivileged to become leaders. He became more involved with activism when studying in the Philippines. After coming back to India, Father Swamy moved to the mineral rich state of Jharkhand which ironically is also one of the poorest states. This is because of the over-exploitation of minerals by the State as well as Corporates. He wanted to conduct empirical research in the state with respect to the snatching away of the rights of tribal people as well as their illegal detention. In two studies published, he concluded that Adivasis were falsely charged for having links with Maoists. He founded an organisation called Vistapan Virodhi Janvikash Andolan for the mobilisation of human rights (particularly Adivasi, Dalit and farmer rights) defenders. A firm critique of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), Father Swamy has been arrested in the Bhima Koregaon Matter. During his arrest neither was he told of the reason for the arrest nor was he spoken to in a comprehensible language.
Journalist, Social Worker
Born into a Dalit family in Nagpur, Sudhir Dhawale is social worker and journalist. Majorly involved with Dalit activism, Sudhir has been helping various civil society organisation in fact-finding. He is a very well Dalit name in Nagpur and Maharashtra as he was actively involved in organising protests against ever-increasing injustice against Dalits. He was also a part of the movement against the ‘institutionalised murder’ of a Dalit student, Rohit Vemula. Dhawale would bring into limelight, the systematic killings and crimes committed against Dalit people. Often such cases get lost in paperwork and cover-ups. However, Sudhir would educate people and help them raise their voice against caste-based violence. Dhawale is also interested in literary works and would often popularise Dalit literature. He is an opponent of Bramhinical literary which normalise systematic and State sponsored oppression of Dalits. He would organise Vidrohi Sahitya Sammelan to oppose Bramhinicalliterary works. Soon after, the occasional Sammelan transformed into a permanent organisation called Vidrohi Sanskrutik Movement. In order to give a boost to Dalit literature and writers, Dhawale established Vidrohi Prakashan (Publication) along with a monthly ‘Vidrohi’, of which he was the editor. He also established a cultural-political organisation called Ramabai Nagar-Khairlanji Hatyaakand Virodhi Sangarsh Samiti in 2006 following the lynching, rape and mutilation of four members of a Dalit family in Khairlanji in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. He was falsely charged charged with sedition after some of his old pictures with Maoist leaders surfaced. He remained in jail from 2011 till 2014. It is pertinent to note that when in 2014, he was set free by the Court, the judgement emphasised on how the State was using security laws to abuse power. However today, Sudhir remains to be in jail after being charged under the same security laws.
Journalist, Civil Rights Activist
A resident of New Delhi, Gautam Navlakha is a human rights defender, a journalist and an author. Since the 1970s, Navlakha has been the writer and editor of Economic and Political Weekly, a reputed periodical with global academic recognition. Navlakha is a firm criticiser of militarisation and has been involved in evidence gathering on the negative impacts and brutal acts caused due to militarisation. He has been associated with People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) for the same. He has also served as the secretary of PUDR. His primary focus has been the regions of Kashmir, the North Eastern States and the state of Chhattisgarh. He favours the view that for de-militarisation of Kashmir, a referendum should be held. Navlakha has extensively written for national and international forums, covering the topics of Kashmir, democracy, the ill effects of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 (AFSPA) etc. The AFSPA grants impunity to the armed forces even from heinous crimes such as rape, murder and torture, in the name of national interest. For the International Peoples’ Tribunal for Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir, Navlakha served as a convenor and submitted a report titled Illeged perpetrators: Stories of impunity in Jammu and Kashmir, which was a result of years of fieldwork. Having spent most years in Kashmir, Navlakha was denied entry in Srinagar in 2011 on the grounds of defying Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. He has been recognised as a Frontline Defender for his years of activism. On negligible evidence and a concocted story, Navlakha was first put under house arrest in 2018 for his alleged links with the Bhima Koregaon violence. In May 2020, he was moved to Taloja Jail in Mumbai. It was recently reported that Navlakha who is nearly blind, was denied spectacles by the Jail authorities.
Journalist, Civil Rights Activist
Born and brought up in South Bombay, Vernon Gonsalves is an academic, author and Dalit rights’ activist. He started his career with pursuing the highest degree in business management from Mumbai University and then working as a professor in Mumbai’s HR College of Commerce and Economics and Akbar Peerbhoy College of Commerce and Economics. He also worked as a trainee in Siemens AG. Soon after, Gonsalves started working in Chandrapur and Gadchiroli in order to help tribal communities. Gonsalves has regularly written for Economic and Political Weekly and the DailyO, among others. He is an advocate for prisoner’s rights and has researched on the inhuman prison conditions, the abuse of draconian national security laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), as well as fake encounters. He has been a warrior of Dalit and Adivasi rights and was anguished after the Maharashtra Police killed about 40 Adivasi people in Gadchiroli. For his work, he has been recognised as a Frontline Defender. Gonsalves was arrested in 2007 along with Arun Ferreira and others under the UAPA and the Arms Act. The case was based on fabricated story and planted evidence. While being charged in more than 20 cases, Gonsalves was convicted in only one of them. The Court ruled a lack of evidence in the remaining cases. This clearly shows how ‘anti-terror’ legislations are constantly used to harass those who raise a voice against injustice. Today, Gonsalves is locked in jail after being charged under the UAPA again. An activist who protested against the misuse of ‘anti-terror’ law is a victim of the same.
Academic, Anti-Caste Activist
An assistant professor of linguistics in Delhi University, Hany Babu is a Dalit rights activist and a critic of the caste system. He belongs to the Muslim OBC community in Kerala and is a supporter of OBC reservations. With the aim of understanding the role of language in policy-making and politics, Babu specialised in the area of syntax and semantics of natural languages. A respectable professor, Babu used to mentor Dalit and underprivileged students in acquiring a seat in the world-renowned Delhi University. He was also a part of the defending committee formed to support Delhi University’s arrested professor G.N. Saibaba. In multiple articles authored by him, he has explained the power play existing in Indian society which continues to further the oppressive caste structure even today. He also remarked that in the suicide of a Dalit student, Rohith Vemula, the dominant structures and institutions of the society has a major role to play. In 2019, in an interview, Babu had asked “what is the definition of it [anti-national]?” While the question remains unanswered even today, Babu is locked up in jail on the basis of the same un-defined word.
Land and Tribal Rights Activist
The youngest of the Bhima Koregaon accused, Mahesh Raut is a social worker from Maharashtra’s Chandrapur District, based in Gadchiroli. After studying in Vidarbha in his initial years, Raut went to Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai to study social work. He received the Prime Minister’s Rural Development (PMRD) Fellowship after college and got the opportunity to work on forest and land rights of Adivasi communities. He would go to villages with government officials and note down the grievances of Adivasis, while instantly working on resolving them. He worked for the protection of Adivasis from being exploited by big corporations who were after their cultivation of tendu leaves – the indigenous tobacco. He helping these Adivasis get better prices for their product and also educated them about their rights. Raut also worked with many village administrative agencies called gram sabhas. He would regularly redress the grievances of Adivasis and help them know their rights under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act and Forest Rights Act. He worked for the cause for more than six years. He was also involved in the fight against Mining Companies in the region which wanted to occupy Tribal land. He also became a part of Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vilas Andolan which is a national organisation that works for the betterment of displaced and marginalised communities. Further, he also became a member of a human rights NGO called Bharat Jan Andolan. His work in Gadchiroli has gained appreciation from officials all over Maharashtra. After his arrest, more than 300 gram sabhas issued a joint resolution to support Mahesh Raut. He also garnered support from about 80 of his former PMRD fellows. Further, former Rural Development Minister, Mr. Jairam Ramesh has also extended his support to Raut.
Human Rights Lawyer
A human rights lawyer and the General Secretary of the Indian Association of Peoples’ Lawyers, Surendra Gadling is a resident of Nagpur. He sought the help of cultural evenings and events to spread awareness about the rights and oppression of Dalits. He along with two activist friends, one of whom was Vilas Ghogre who died by suicide in protest of the Khairlanji lynching and rape of a Dalit family, founded Awhan Natya Manch. Through art and theatre, he would empower Dalits. His career as a lawyer started with defending the human rights of people. He would visit places like Kashmir and Gadchiroli to carry out fact-finding and take into account the actual human rights violations. He has also been extremely vocal about the incessant abuse of security legislations like the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1985 and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967. Gadling also represented Arun Ferreira in his 2008 arrest, where he successfully defended Ferreira leading to his acquittal. Gadling is also Prof. G.N. Saibaba’s lawyer. From defending those who had been arrested by the State’s abusive machinery, today, Surenda Gadling is himself suffering in jail, charged for the Bhima Koregaon violence.
Born and brought up in the suburbs of Pune, Sagar Gorkhe belongs from a poor Dalit family. Despite working odd jobs such as construction workers, security guards and domestic workers, Gorkhe’s parents were adamant on not compromising on his education. He studied sociology in Pune’s Babasaheb Ambedkar College. As a college student, in order to aid his own education, Gorkhe worked as a sweeper and cleaner. He later joined the Kabir Kala Manch full-time. His interest in music and theatre grew after he joined the Kabir Kala Manch as he would use art to highlight the societal injustice and criticise oppressive policies against lower castes. He was arrested in 2013 for allegedly having Maoist links but released in 2017, only to be arrested again in 2018. His mother, who is currently working as a maid in a hospital believes that her son would get justice. However, considering the grim circumstances and the State’s agenda, Sagar’s mother’s hope has a long way to go.
Hailing from Pune, Jyoti Jagtap joined the Kabir Kala Manch in 2007. While studying psychology at Waghire College in Saswad town close to Pune, Jagtap was actively involved in social justice issues particularly focusing on women. Describes as a ‘strong leader’ by one of her friends, Jagtap got involved in Kabir Kala Manch soon after moving to Pune from Saswad to pursue her masters. She was involved in planning protests, street shows and writing plays. However, after her colleagues got arrested in 2013, Jagtap also took over the stage. While she had been working with Kabir Kala Manch, Jagtap also planned on founding another organisation for helping teens. She was also planning on pursuing a course on clinical psychology as she wanted to open her own counselling centre. Jagtap sang against casteism, inequality and Hindutva nationalism.
Coming from a lower-class family in Pune, Ramesh Gaichor joined the Kabir Kala Manch as a founding member. Right from his days in Wadia College, Gaichor was actively involved in social work and activism. A ‘smart student’, as described by his father, Gaichor was interested in play writing and other cultural activities. The fact that art could be used to raise a voice against social issues fascinated him and thus birthed the idea of a cultural social organisation. Deeply saddened by the 2002 Gujarat riots, Gaichor with another artist Amarnath Chautaliya founded the Kabir Kala Manch. The Manch’s work became more streamlines towards caste activism after the 2006 Khairlanji Massacre. He continued writing songs and plays as well as worked as a hospital clerk and a lecturer to support his family. He did this until he was arrested in 2013 along with his colleague, Sagar Gorkhe over alleged Maoist links. Today, him and his wife, Jyoti Jagtap continue to be the victims of draconian security legislations.
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