From Phansi Yard: My Year With The Women Of Yerawada, by Sudha Bharadwaj

Sudha Bharadwaj
13 Nov 2023 5 min read  Share

Numbers are reassuring things – they are neither left wing nor right wing, they don’t change with governments, with freedom or bondage.

Arrested on 28 August 2018, human rights lawyer, teacher and IIT graduate Sudha Bharadwaj is among 16 accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case, charged under  sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967.  

Bharadwaj was arrested from her house in Faridabad, where she had moved in 2017 to teach law at the National Law University Delhi. 

Earlier, Bharadwaj had spent nearly three decades working in the state of Chhattisgarh as a trade unionist, providing legal aid to blue-collar workers and marginalised communities and villagers. 

The police accused Bharadwaj and others of delivering incendiary speeches, sending emails and circulating pamphlets that sparked violence in the town of Bhima-Koregaon near Pune city in January 2018.

In From Phansi Yard: My Year With The Women Of Yerawada, Bharadwaj paints a vivid picture of life behind bars, discussing overcrowding, menstruation, sanitation, fights, health niggles and more. The book is also a series of sketches of other inmates she encountered in the Yerawada jail complex in Pune, their struggles with mental health, accessing legal aid and healthcare, based on notes she jotted down in her cell in the ‘Phansi Yard’ (death row yard) of the jail. 

After three years and three months in prison, the Bombay high court granted  Bharadwaj bail on technical grounds in December 2021. She now lives in Mumbai, as required by her bail conditions.  


On 1 November, I mark my second birthday in custody. Diwali was in late October this year, and Shoma Di has saved a bit of her Diwali faral (snacks, in Marathi) as a treat for me. She gives me a beautiful card with a hand-drawn Sudoku on the front and a ballerina ‘dancing away to her freedom’ on the inside. It’s an ode to my Sudoku mania.

When I was ‘outside’, I would do Sudokus on the long metro rides from my home in Faridabad to the National Law University in Dwarka, where I was teaching, or to escape from the depressing news in the newspaper, but only the easy ones. It seemed such a waste of time to bother with the tough ones. In jail, time passes at a tortoise’s pace and I have become an expert at the tough Sudokus. I do it the long-hand way, filling pages with the 9x9 grids and working out the alternatives. Now I can do nearly all the Sudokus in both our newspapers – including the ‘Hard’ and ‘Extreme’ ones. Numbers are reassuring things – they are neither left wing nor right wing, they don’t change with governments, with freedom or bondage. You only need to focus on the digits 1 to 9 being in the right place.

So much has been happening in this one year, of which we can only hear echoes, see shadows. The Modi government has been re-elected at the Centre, and a new Congress government has come to power in Chhattisgarh. Article 370 has been abrogated, a new Citizenship Amendment Act has been passed that is seeing widespread protests… It feels so strange to be out of touch with political developments. I miss my trade union comrades, my lawyer colleagues; it’s almost like an ache. I long for news of how they are coping. My biggest purchase from the Canteen is always notebooks and pens. I meticulously make brief notes on the news items that interest me: news of workers’ struggles, talk of new labour codes; land and displacement issues, poverty and inequality; the latest judgments and gossip about courts and judges. And of course...  anything and everything to do with my home state, Chhattisgarh. Why? After all, I know I will never read those notes again. Perhaps it is my little act of protest, of stubbornness. To say no, I will not be cut off, I refuse to be cut off, my knowing all this still matters, I will live to fight another day.

One day there is a news item on the Report of the Judicial Enquiry Commission into the Sarkeguda ‘encounter’. Sarkeguda is a village deep inside the Bijapur district of the Bastar region in Chhattisgarh.The villagers have been vindicated as the Commission has concluded that the seventeen villagers killed by security forces in June 2012 were not ‘dreaded Maoists’ but ordinary unarmed villagers, including six minors. Vivid memories rush to my mind as I recall listening to their families’ heart-rending stories, marvelling at the courage of the young nurse who leads them and translates their Gondi into Hindi. I remember typing out their affidavits and the difficult search for a notary brave enough to put his stamp on the papers. I remember the bedraggled group appearing before the Secretary to the Commission after a night-long bus journey, the arguments with a snooty bureaucratic clerk to extend the time for the submission of their affidavits and the gruff voice of the judge heading the Commission on the telephone: ‘Madam, rest assured, my job is to uncover the truth, not to conceal it. My office will accept the affidavits.’ Later, a brave group of women lawyers based in Bastar was to represent the case of the villagers before the Commission. But the irony – on the day they are vindicated, seven years after they began their fight, I, their first lawyer, am in a jail 1,000 kilometres away! Yet it is a happy day.

Winter has come around again. This year it is really cold. I am bathing and washing my clothes on alternate days to make judicious use of the four buckets of water that I can store in my cell. The very cold water is quite invigorating after the first mugful hits you with a shock. We have to ask permission from our Madams on guard to dry our clothes in the patch of sun on the Stage, because otherwise they will take forever to dry. Shoma Di patiently waits till the afternoon bandi when one of the Madams can escort her to the solar heater to get half a bucket of hot water to ease the pain in her knees. Our neighbours of course try their best to hog as much hot water as they can and grudge her even her half bucket. The Madams chose diplomatically to pander to their pressure. Whatever momentous things might be happening in the outside world, the mundane daily struggle of our existence in jail goes on unabated.

(Excerpted with permission from From Phansi Yard: My Year With The Women Of Yerawada published by Juggernaut.)