Rights activist advocate Sudha Bharadwaj addresses a news conference in New Delhi on June 7, 2018. (Photo IANS)

As a lawyer in a poor but mineral-rich part of India, Sudha Bharadwaj took on cases that other advocates were afraid to touch. She represented workers wrongfully dismissed by a cement company, villagers who were illegally evicted from their land and women who alleged sexual assault by security forces. 

Then, early one morning last month, the law came for her.

A police team of nearly a dozen people entered the apartment that Bharadwaj shares with her daughter in an industrial city near New Delhi. They took computers and phones and demanded passwords for email accounts. Then they arrested Bharadwaj under an anti-terrorism statute and later told reporters she was linked to a violent conspiracy, which she vehemently denies.

Four other prominent activists across the country were also taken into custody that day. All of them — like Bharadwaj — are highly critical of the current government and outspoken advocates for India’s most disadvantaged, whether they are indigenous tribal peoples or Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables.” 

Now their case has become a litmus test for the rule of law and freedom of expression in India. Opponents of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi say the arrests were an effort to suppress dissent ahead of next year’s national elections. Under the Modi government, violence by right-wing Hindu supremacist groups has increased, as has intimidation of journalists.

On Friday, a three-judge panel of India’s Supreme Court denied a petition to create a special independent investigation in the case and said the activists would remain under house arrest for four more weeks. The lone dissenting justice said the conduct of the police was “disconcerting” and raised doubts about their ability to pursue a fair investigation. 

Last month, police claimed at a news conference that they had “conclusive proof” linking the five to a banned militant group that sought to purchase weapons and ammunition to wage war against the state.

Central to the authorities’ case against Bharadwaj is a mysterious typewritten letter that was leaked to the media. The police say Bharadwaj, 56, wrote the letter and that its intended recipient was a senior Maoist rebel seeking to overthrow India’s government. Bharadwaj has said the letter is “totally concocted” and includes references to people she has never met. Experts say the letter’s contents strain credulity. 

“Anybody who knows her clearly knows that all of this is rotten,” said Shalini Gera, a lawyer who works in Chhattisgarh, the state where Bharadwaj was based for three decades. Inspired by Bharadwaj, Gera gave up a career in biotechnology in the United States to return to India and train as a lawyer. “It is really her legal work that is being challenged,” Gera said.

Bharadwaj’s path to trade unionism and legal activism was far from typical. Born in Boston, she spent the first 11 years of her life in the United States and the United Kingdom. Her mother was a distinguished economist, and Bharadwaj attended the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, one of the country’s most elite universities, where she studied mathematics. (She later relinquished her U.S. citizenship.)

In the years that followed, Bharadwaj moved into a shack in an iron ore mining town in Chhattisgarh, a state in central India with abundant forests and a large tribal population. She worked to organize thousands of laborers at iron ore mines and fought a two-decade battle on behalf of workers fired by a major cement factory. Eventually Bharadwaj found herself involved in so much legal work that she decided to become a lawyer. 

She adopted a child in 1996 and lived a modest activist’s life. Maaysha Nehra, her daughter, recalled that when she was 10 or 11, she complained to her mother about their lack of money. “She said, ‘You will see later that I have earned people, not money,’ ” said Nehra, who is now 21. 

Bharadwaj’s cases — she represented clients challenging the acquisition of land by major corporations and those seeking justice for extrajudicial killings by police officers — also earned her powerful adversaries.

“She is anti-establishment,” a senior police officer in Chhattisgarh told an Indian newspaper in 2015. “We don’t like or respect the work she does.”

Chhattisgarh is part of a swath of central India struggling with one of the world’s longest-
running insurgencies. For decades, Maoist rebels — also called Naxalites — have sought to establish a communist state. But their reach has waned: The number of districts affected by left-wing extremism has fallen by more than half over the past decade, according to the government.

Now, police allege that Bharadwaj sought support and funds from the Maoists, charges she denies. The origins of the case against her and the other activists arrested in August trace back to an event that was held Jan. 1.

On that day, Dalit organizations marked the 200th anniversary of a colonial-era battle that is viewed as a major victory over caste-based oppression. But the commemorations turned hostile as upper-caste groups and Dalits clashed, leaving one person dead. 

Police in the western Indian city of Pune began an investigation into the violence. They arrested five other activists in June and claimed to find a password-protected stash of correspondence. In 13 letters leaked to the media, there are references to a possible assassination plot against the prime minister and purchases of arms from Nepal. 

The alleged missive from Bharadwaj mentions operations against “enemies,” cites links to separatists in Kashmir and refers to nine other activists by their first and last names. In at least three places, the letter also uses spellings particular to Marathi — a regional language that Bharadwaj does not speak.

Shivaji Bodhke, the joint commissioner of police in Pune, declined to address inconsistencies in the letter. “Anyone can say [it’s] fabricated,” he said. “We are confident about evidence we have presented in court.”

The letter is “beyond absurd,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management and an expert on militant groups in South Asia. Maoists do not use real names, and they refer to operations obliquely or through code words, he said. “It is utterly and completely inconceivable that anyone even loosely associated with this group would not get the message on secrecy.”

For the last month, Bharadwaj has been confined to her small apartment in the back corner of a modest housing colony. Three policewomen are living with her, while two other police officers keep a bored watch outside in 12-hour shifts as monkeys scamper nearby.

Nehra, Bharadwaj’s daughter, says the notion that her mother is a criminal makes her alternately angry and sad. “How can you blame someone like this?” she asked. “This is not done. This is not fair at all.”

In India’s slow-moving legal system, the case is likely to drag on for years. “There is no real intent to take this to any logical conclusion of prosecution,” said Sahni, the terrorism expert. “It’s a process of punishment by trial.”

Niha Masih contributed to this report.