The Indian state is bereft of emotion. This was made even more obvious when lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj was arrested on August 28 in connection with caste violence in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon village on New Year’s day last year. Nine other prominent human rights have been arrested for the same incident. Bharadwaj’s arrest separated her from her 21-year-old daughter Maaysha, who could not sleep or stop crying for the first 14 days.
The authorities claim that the detained activists are “urban Naxalites”, who aimed to engineer “frequent protests and chaos [which] will gradually lead to a breakdown of law and order, and this will have significant political ramification in the coming months”.
Bharadwaj was initially under house arrest but was sent to jail on October 28.
In a lengthy interview with Scroll.in, Maaysha Bharadwaj described her pain, how she has coped with it and what it is to live with an activist mother.
Is it all still very vivid for you when the police came knocking at your door – the day, the date, your feelings?
I don’t remember the date but I do the time – it was 6.45 am. Mamma woke me up and said, “Get up, police have come to search our home.”
I went out and sat in the hall, which has a bed. So did Mamma. I asked, “What is happening here?”
Mamma calmed me down saying, “Nothing. They have come to search.”
I asked mamma, “Do they have a search warrant?”
Mamma replied, “They have the first information report copy with them, but they don’t have a search warrant.”
I found that weird.
So you know the legalities?
Not really (laughs). But search warrant is necessary, that much I know. I asked mamma, “Without a warrant, why did you let them in?”
She replied, “We don’t have anything [incriminating]. Let them search.”
They were merely going through the pretence of searching our place. They took my and mamma’s phone and laptop.
They took your phone as well?
Not only phone but my iPad as well. They asked for the passwords to my email, Instagram and Snapchat accounts.
They must have checked whether the passwords worked.
Yes, they did to check whether I was lying. They were very normal with me. They would say, “Accha beta, don’t take tension.”
I was still sleepy. I often get up only in the afternoon.
That is part of the millennial lifestyle.
Ya (laughs heartily). They were video-recording the search. Mamma told them, “You haven’t given me files of what you are taking. You are using my internet account. You can insert anything into my mail.”
Mamma was angry. It took them four-five hours to prepare the files.
A little later, they said to mamma, “Madam, there is a senior officer of ours who has come to Faridabad. You have to meet him.”
I didn’t know then that they had arrested her and were taking her away.
Perhaps they didn’t spell it out because you were there?
I don’t know. I didn’t even go down to see her off. I thought she was going to return. The news of her arrest came on TV. Then, reporters came over. I was adamant about not speaking to them. That was because I had started crying.
Was it from the TV that you came to know your mother had been arrested?
One of mamma’s friends phoned me to say they were planning to take her to Pune. I was alone. I started freaking out. I was getting calls from reporters, mamma’s friends, my friends. I was just crying and crying. I was totally messed up. I thought I hadn’t even hugged mamma, not even said bye to her.
Fortunately, she was put under house arrest.
They brought her back under heavy police escort. I had an argument with one of the woman constables. She said she didn’t think I was my mamma’s daughter.
I retorted, “Yes, I am not my mother’s daughter, what about it? What do you have to do with that?”
My friend clasped my mouth shut and took me away to the bedroom.
How long did the house arrest last?
It lasted around two months. Initially, there were five woman constables guarding her round the clock. Later, there were three.
I am very particular about hygiene. I would get very angry that they were using my mamma’s toilet, her bed. They even took to switching on AC. I asked them, “Who is going to foot the electricity bill?”
Mamma said, “Let them use it, beta. We don’t have enmity with them. They are only doing their job.”
I would often restrain myself from freaking out only because I thought they would take it out on mamma.
In those two months, could your friends come over?
Could you go out?
Yes, I could. I would often go to a friend’s place because I did not like having the constables around. But mamma couldn’t even step onto the balcony.
Your mother’s house arrest ended on October 27. How did it feel when she was taken away?
I was like completely numb. They were to take her away the next morning [October 28]. I spent that night with mamma in her room. I hugged her and kept crying and crying and saying, “Don’t go, please. What will I do alone?”
In the morning, before she was taken away, mamma and I had our 10 minutes of a private moment. I again hugged her and started crying. I couldn’t say anything to her.
Your mamma didn’t cry?
No. She said to me, “It is okay. Look after yourself. Study hard. Be with your friends. Don’t stay alone.”
When they were taking her out of the apartment, someone said, “Let us go outside to see her off.” There were many reporters and camerapersons. I could not give her a last-minute hug. Residents of our apartment building were supportive of us.
It must have felt bizarre to see your sad moment captured on camera.
It did. There I was hugging my mamma’s friend and howling and the cameras were all focused on me. My mamma’s friend concealed my face. Journalists were shouting, wait, wait, give us a comment. I was like no, no, and I ran into the building.
For two weeks, I felt totally, ek dam alone. I could not sleep at night, could not during the day.
But there were and are people with you?
Two. Both are mamma’s friends.
There was company but you felt desolate.
I would just keep crying and could not sleep.
Let alone in childhood, even now the first thing anxiety takes away from me is sleep.
Yes, I would take out my mamma’s photographs and try to recall events linked with them. I was totally ill. I was nauseous, had panic attacks and anxiety.
What about friends? Didn’t they come over?
But you said you would spend time at a friend’s place when your mamma was under house arrest.
Yes. But the two people who stay with me are from mamma’s union (Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha). They are very, very helpful.
But friends didn’t come over?
No. Maybe they are scared or something.
You never reached out to them?
No. Since everyone knew what happened to me they should have on their own come over to meet me.
So if they didn’t come over, they didn’t want to?
I used to spend my time alone.
The human mind is a funny place – a disturbing thought keeps spinning round and round in the head.
You are right. I still cry at times. February 21 is my birthday, and I am like, Oh! my God. I want my mamma to be there on my birthday.
Hopefully, the judges or the state will fulfil your wish.
I have written three public letters.
From the way you speak about the first 14 days, it seems things got better thereafter.
Yes, my feelings changed. I began to feel more mature and that I could handle all this.
Do you feel under pressure that you have to act beyond your age?
Yes (smiles). Everyone wants me to be a strong person.
Even when you don’t want to smile, they expect you to.
When you want to cry, they want you to keep a straight face.
Yes. Not everybody, but many say, “Don’t cry, you have to be strong.”
What is wrong with crying? It makes me feel lighter. In those 14 days, even when I wanted to stop crying, I could not.
Did the uncles staying with you figure out you were spending a lot of time crying?
It is my habit from childhood to never cry aloud.
In my childhood, I would cry into the pillow. What about you?
Same here (giggles). Or I would go into the bathroom and cry in front of the mirror.
In one of your public letters, you wrote that you did not live with your mother on a regular basis until you were in Class 6. How is the pain of the current separation from her different from what it was in your childhood?
Then I was living with a family associated with the union [Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha]. I lived in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh. I was focused on studies then, I had friends.
But, strangely, at the time of bhakti, when there was puja in the neighbourhood temple or azaan was called, the memory of my mother would haunt me. I would clutch my mother’s sari and cry. I didn’t have a photo of hers. So I tore her identity card and took out the photo. I was scolded (laughs).
But mamma would come to visit me. Besides, I had 20-25 friends. I was getting very good grades and I was totally happy. From Class 6, I started living with mamma in Bilaspur. Mamma was there but also not there. She was so deeply immersed in her work that for a month at a stretch I would be living alone. For a year, I and two children from the union lived together.
The three of you lived alone?
Yes, in a small apartment.
You got toughened early.
I never thought that way. I never thought it was a big deal to live alone. Besides, I could always reach out to mamma over the phone. I knew she would come after a certain number of days. But now, I can’t even talk to her over the phone. I don’t even know when she will return to me.
Basically, your worry arises from uncertainty about the future?
That is my problem. For one and a half years we had been staying in Faridabad. She would come late from the university [the National Law University, Delhi, where she taught], at 8 pm or 9 pm. We would be in touch over the phone. She would ring me up to inquire whether I had taken my meals, whether the didi who works at our place had come over and what she had cooked. When she went out of the city, we used to converse through video calls. It was pretty fine with me.
My feelings today are very different. What you pointed out, the uncertainty about the future, is what bothers me constantly. There is also fear of what might happen to her – and me.
In March, I have my exams. Mamma always helped me a lot with my preparation. I would tell her, “You prepare notes so well, do it for me.” After doing the university work, she would stay up through the night to prepare my notes. And I would be chilling (laughs). Mine is not a typical family, where the mother cooks meals and feeds children.
Do you have a strong bond with her?
Very strong, but the sense of loneliness was also there. I always wanted her for myself all the time. During her house arrest, I would tease her, “You had wheels under your feet, like a morni [pea-fowl] you roamed around. Now you can’t. Just stay at home.”
During the house arrest, she was there for me 24 hours.
How was it living with your mother in Faridabad?
When we shifted from Chhattisgarh to Faridabad, we did up our house – put in the sofas and the dining table. In Bilaspur, we just had two beds in two rooms and there was the kitchen. My mamma is of the kind who does not mind sleeping on the floor. I am not like that. I like to fill in the empty spaces around me with stuff.
Since shifting to Faridabad, our lifestyle had started to resemble that of other people. Mamma would go to the university, come home, and we would watch a film on Netflix or TV. At times, we would go to the theatre with others. We had started to bond as we had never before.
Suddenly, it all vanished.
It has happened not on account of your mother or you but because of a third party.
What I tell everyone is that when someone helps Adivasis, they are called Naxalite. When you help Muslims, you are called terrorist. Would a doctor deny treatment to a person who is an Adivasi or Muslim? My mamma is a lawyer. She has to do cases for all. She can’t refuse help out of the fear of what might happen to her.
Mamma was never like that. I had started to write a book…
On mamma’s life. She was helping me with it. She gave me the names of her friends at Cambridge University and told me to contact them. We searched for them on the internet. I mailed some. Her life at Cambridge seems like a film to me. When I was very young, she would sketch parts of Cambridge for me.
I like going into the psychology of a person. I told mamma, “I’m a student of psychology. What are your feelings? So mom, tell me about your mental condition.”
She replied, “I am afraid. I have worked so much for people but I fear all that work might go waste.”
She wasn’t afraid for herself?
No. I don’t feel guilty saying that mamma has given more time to others than she has to me. In fact, we shifted to Faridabad because she said she wanted to focus on me now. I feel terrible even this has been interrupted.
A third party chose to come in between. So, whom do you blame for taking away your mother from you?
Have you thought of writing to the prime minister and MPs?
No, they are not sensitive people. I don’t like insensitive people.
Getting back to the initial days, what did you do after crying through 14 days?
I went to Bhilai, which is where the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha is based. I lived in the labour camp with a family which is very fond of mamma. I also spent time with another family there. They took great care of me. They were very sweet. I derived another kind of energy from them. I enjoyed, there were children of my age. There were also moments when we cried together thinking of mamma. In fact, I went there after meeting mamma in Pune.
Where did you meet her? Court, jail?
I met her first when she was in police custody. I started crying on seeing her. She looked tired. She asked me how I was.
This meeting was when?
I think 15 days after they took her to Pune. I met her in a room. Outside, there were others who had been arrested along with her. Mamma pointed to a bespectacled person and said, “He is Arun Ferreira. He was slapped around.”
I was petrified. I asked Mamma, “Did they beat you? Tell me and I will beat the person.”
But she said, no, they were taking good care of her. I met her for about 10 minutes.
Then you met her in the court, didn’t you?
It was a horrifying sight for me. When I was a child, I would accompany mamma to court, sit in someone’s lap and see her arguing the case before the judge. It was just the reverse: they announced her name, Sudha Bharadwaj. It was a terrible blow for me. Someone who had fought for workers all her life had been turned into a criminal.
How was it meeting her in jail?
There was a glass wall separating her from me. There was a phone and a constable on either side.
You didn’t feel like breaking the glass wall and hugging your mother?
It felt bad not to touch her. I put my palm on the glass and she did the same from the other side. Palm on palm, with the glass in between, we talked.
There have been two other meetings with her in jail. The last meeting was a bit trying. I hadn’t carried my Aadhaar card. I had my school ID. But that wasn’t enough for them. I couldn’t meet her in the morning. I also fell sick because I have motion sickness. I vomited twice; I hadn’t had lunch. It was only after the lunch break I was allowed to meet her after a true copy of Aadhaar was made.
When I saw mummy, I broke down thinking I might not have had that chance to meet her.
I could not talk to her much. Only for about nine minutes.
She said, “Don’t take tension.” And I was like, “How is that possible?”
Your mother seems alright to you?
Yes. But, you see, I have seen her breaking down only once. That was when her maternal uncle died. I was very small then. After that, never.
Are you able to handle your sorrow better now?
Yes, I try to. I slip sometimes. At times, without mamma, I feel desperate. But then I realise I must wait for good times to come.
How do you keep your hope alive?
At the base of my hope is my belief that my mother did no wrong. Initially, I did not know what the case against her was.
When she was arrested, right?
Yes. When I came to know that she has been connected to the Bhima Koregaon violence, I was like, “What?”
When my mother has to squash a mosquito she does it so tenderly (laughs). For her to be involved in violence...it is all cooked up.
The other thing is that nobody came to ask her questions during the time she was under house arrest. Wouldn’t they have if they had evidence? Such is the technology now you can easily gather proof of someone’s involvement in violence in minutes. But they are still preparing a chargesheet against her. It is a nonsensical allegation they have pinned on my mother.
And you blame the government for it?
Yes, I do. I have been a student of political science. They are incapable of doing anything. What meaning does democracy have? What meaning does the right to free speech have? Mamma was doing precisely that. But it is her freedom that they have taken.
When mamma was with me, I wrote, “It takes courage to fight for justice, it takes a lot to fight for your right and your dignity and individuality. According to the police, fighting against injustice or fighting for the poor is against the law. They want the poor to be invisible.”
Still, I have both positive and negative feelings.
Nothing will be done for my mother. She will come out of prison but after a long time. Our government is interested in sending people like her to jail, even without proof.
At the same time, so many famous personalities have spoken in her favour. I hope this will put some pressure on the government. That is my hope.
So you are constantly swinging between hope and hopelessness. That is often the source of our suffering.
Yes, I feel the same way.
Have friends got back in touch with you now?
Yes, some of them have, one or two. The thing is, new friends stopped talking and old friends, with whom I had lost touch over the years, they reached out to me. There used to be a very good friend of mine. This person knew mummy well but then stopped talking to me. I was shocked.
After your mother was arrested, the media was full of stories about her and the others. But the media has forgotten them now. Do you feel let down?
Yes, they should have continued writing about them. Once I heard someone remark that the shortest life of anything in this world is of news.
That is a wise one. What does Maaysha mean?
What do you want to do in life?
I want to help people. But my method would be different; I want to work as a psychologist or a part-time activist. I would take my family along. In the future, if I were to have a child, I would not want him or her to suffer the pain of separation. I can’t be like my mom.
Have you told her this?
What did she say?
She said, “Beta, you are free to live the way you want. I have never stopped you, I never will.”