By Meera Ahmad,
7 February 2014 brought Soni Sori and her nephew Lingaram Kodopi much awaited relief from the Supreme Court, a complete bail in their final cases. Speaking at a press conference a day later she resolved to go back to Chhattisgarh, even as she voiced her grief that her birth-place might become her grave.
For the kind of torture and harassment inflicted on them over the last two years only highlights the ruling establishment’s intent to destroy them. It is important to understand why the state is directing its ire on these two simple people who hail from the Gondi Koya tribe of Dantewada.
Both Soni Sori in her capacity as a teacher and Lingaram as a journalist used their voice and pen to highlight the human rights atrocities on the tribals in Chhattisgarh by the police and the mining corporations at the government’s behest. Linga’ writings provoked the police to kidnap him from his home and torture him in a Chhattisgarh prison to force him to become a police SPO (Special Police Officer) in the Salwa Judum force. The police started pressing false charges against them since July 2010 to pressurize them into becoming informers.
Constantly denounced by civil rights activists for being a state militia for inflicting atrocities on tribals in the name of fighting the Maoists this force was ultimately declared illegal and unconstitutional and disbanded by the Supreme Court. Nevertheless during the height of its operations Linga was among many of the tribals pressurized to join the force. He was locked up for forty days in a police station toilet. Soni Sori, his aunt and a teacher in the tribal school fought hard to free him.
To avoid an increasingly vengeful police Linga came to Delhi, and pursued journalism. He continued to use his voice and profession to highlight the plight of his community. His video on the the aftermath of heinous police killings and rapes in three tribal villages of the Sukama district was the last straw. The police and the ruling BJP government began their persecution. In September 2011, the police alleged both of them to be ‘hardcore Naxalites’ and started framing them in one case after another, one of which was the serious charge of transferring extortion money from Essar Company to the insurgents. This is the case in which they have just received the bail.
Linga was arrested on September 9, 2011 while Soni was arrested a month later on October 4 from Delhi where she had fled. Fearing police wrath in her home state she sought the help of courts to avoid being sent back. However, soon after her arrest in Delhi, she was sent right back. The Chhattisgarh police severely tortured them in custody. In Soni’s own words she was constantly verbally abused, repeatedly stripped naked, given electric shocks and sexually assaulted. In an extreme step stones were inserted into her private parts, all this at the behest of Superintendent of Police Ankit Garg.
Consequent to a furor by civil rights groups she was hospitalized and the medical examination thereafter confirmed stones in her genital tract and rectum. Yet she was denied proper medical care which led to her body suffering irreversible damage. In her letter to the SC she wrote her body being in a bad shape and in great pain.
In prison Soni revolted against the police torture, stripping and beatings with a hunger strike. But the harassment continued even as fellow prisoners tried to dissuade her from the strike and isolate her thinking her to be a ‘naxalite’. In acute despair she started writing to her mentor and biggest supporter Himanshu Kumar, a human rights activist in Chhattisgarh whom she fondly refers to as her father figure and Guru. Her letters to him are a living proof of each and every ordeal and her precarious condition in the prison.
For Soni discovering this outlet also became her pillar of strength in jail while Himanshu circulated her letters everywhere to show people what her student was facing. To the court, to lawyers, to people protesting for her release. For the two years that they have been fighting for justice Soni says it is just through the medium of letters.
Human rights activists and individuals demanding justice for her too wrote back to her. A postcard by an unknown supporter that bears the image of a bird imprisoned in a cage is her constant companion that she never separates from herself. It is a unique image, in that the bird’s head is completely out of the cage. Soni construes the image as a voice, a free voice that can neither be imprisoned nor suppressed. She identified with it her own predicament of her body too being imprisoned in a cage, but with her voice free to empower her struggle and that of thousands of tribals languishing like her. This postcard and the fact that she could tell the world outside of her suffering became her morale in the darkest phase of her life.
“The state kills tribals. They want to fight us by destroying us. I do not have any weapon and I will continue to fight, but I cannot kill. If they don’t kill me and let me live the battle will be equal. I will fight with my education. My education is my strength.”
Soni asserts that if it had not been for her education she could not have written. She stresses that good education is necessary for the tribals to defend themselves from state oppression.
Soni and Lingaram know their incarceration is part of a sinister game to persecute whosoever raises their voice against the land grab and corporate onslaught of their regions and basic rights. They understand the huge corporate and political interests that are driving this war of the state against its tribal population. And they are powerfully vocal about it.
“It is all a game. They are playing with our lives. The police wants to kill us because we dare to speak up and are a threat to their war against us. The police wanted me to name people like Himanshu Kumar, Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy as Maoists so they could then incarcerate them. It is an experiment for them. They want to test how long can we fight.”
They stress their fight is not against the corporate companies alone. The companies come with mining and land seizure orders from the government. Riding high on corporate wealthiIt is the right wing government that has deployed the forces, created the Salwa Judum, and directed the police to oppress the tribals. Despite plundering their resources and guzzling billions from their lands the tribals continue to be deprived of basic development, education, and health services and starve in acute poverty. The government they say is as responsible for their state as the companies.
Recently the noted academician and human rights supporter Nandini Sundar, also branded as a Maoist by the Chhattisgarh police and the local media asserted that the Chhattisgarh government is unable to accept peaceful protest and peoples’ voices. She voiced Soni’s concern when she said that the police state is rapidly destroying the free speech space for journalists, researchers and human rights activists by labeling them as Maoists
Nandini sundar in fact has been critical of the Maoists as well as the mining policies of the government. The strategy is to be arrest innocent people and forcibly torture them to name people who oppose or disagree with the state’s policies and have lent their voice to the struggle of the tribals as “Maoists” or ‘maoist supporters’ so that they can be arrested, hounded or banned from entry into the state. The predicament of Sundar who clearly states that the aim of the government and the police is not simply to target her, but to pre-emptively act against all democratic, peaceful and lawful opposition to the Raoghat mines by raising the Maoist bogey, echoes the story of Soni’s incarceration.
The life struggle and choices of Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi, the most visible face of resistance illustrate how taking the middle ground in the ongoing war between the insurgents and the security forces, of not taking sides, of engaging in an unarmed peaceful resistance to the government’s mining policies that are completely unmindful of tribals’ land rights, heritage and forest biodiversity, can cost dearly.
On 26 January 2012 Ankit Garg the police superintendent of Chhattisgarh was awarded the Police Medal for Gallantry for his role in the 2010 raid on Maoists. This was after the torture and sexual assault on Soni Sori in custody under his orders had come to light.
In February 2012 Soni wrote a searing letter to the Supreme Court Judge. It is now in the public domain. She described her entire physical and mental abuse and demanded answers-
“I am the first daughter- sister of this country who was given away by the Court into the custody of SP Ankit Garg. The esteemed Court had more faith in the police than in their daughter and because of that, I have lost everything today. He subjected me to numerous tortures and abuse. He has also threatened me that it is the Court that has permitted us to keep you in our custody. Today one daughter has been abused. Tomorrow it will be another. Do something otherwise they will just become stronger in the coming days. I ask you O Honourable Judge by giving me electric shocks, by making me strip naked and by inserting stones inside my body can the problem of Naxalites be solved? Why did all this happen with me? Who is responsible for my condition? Can inflicting torture on a woman’s body end the Naxalite problem?”
Two years later on 8 February 2014 she repeats these same questions to the nation and its justice system –
“Can stripping me naked, giving me electric shocks and shoving stones into my body put an end to Naxalism?….Who will give me security now? The same police who abused me?”
Her sense of persecution is exacerbated by the fact that even though her physical torture amounts to rape her tormentor is not only allowed to go scot-free, but also given a reward. “Why did the President of this country felicitate the same police officer who subjected me to this torture with a gallantry award? Does this mean the law is different for tribals? Is it because I am a tribal, that I have suffered such extreme discrimination? Is it because I am poor? Is it because I am a woman?”
Back home the children await the return of their teacher, many she says already have dropped out after it was razed by the forces. She wants to rebuild the school. But solidarity with the many tribal women languishing in Raipur and Jagdalpur jails of her state, who continue to be raped, tortured and grievously injured by jailers and ensuring punishment to SP Ankit Garg are her two prime goals. Her vow to return home is founded on her desire to work for these women and lend her voice to highlight their suffering. She feels a huge onus towards her fellow tribals knowing well that she could be killed there, but to fight for them is the only way she wishes to live. She stresses it is a question of not her alone, but, that of the entire tribal community and its womenfolk.
For those close to her the thin diminutive form of this thirty eight year old prisoner of conscience as Amnesty international describes her, is in fact the conscience keeper of the state, a symbol of immense strength. In his brief heartrending words Himanshu Kumar compared Soni’s struggle to that of the Shankar Guha Niyogi the legendary trade union leader and symbol of Chhattisgarh Peoples’ movement. He spoke how Niyogi had told Narsimha Rao that he would be killed and he was killed. Today Soni Sori is saying she will be killed. It is up to us whether we can save her or not. Will we lose another activist like Niyogi? It is because Soni’s ethical code is so much higher than that of the Chhattisgarh government that they cannot digest it.
Though the Apex Court’s present and earlier interventions, have her evicted in five of the seven cases and bail in the other two while Linga’s evicted in one of the two cases and bail in the other, Soni’s sense of justice remains incomplete.
It will be complete only when an exemplary punishment is meted out to Garg and his subordinates so that people for generations can see how a police officer who defiles the body of a woman with such impunity is punished. She is driven by the desire to put an end to the impunity with which Garg did what he wanted and his actions that followed his sinister words that the Court, judges, the government all are in his pocket and his orders will reign, despite the Court’s clear order towards her safety. One that would serve as a deterrent against this form of police abuse and violence inflicted on the tribals and ensure the tribal women who are still in jail that no policeman can do this to them and if they do they will go to jail.”
As she prepares to return her daughter’s illness and treatment in Delhi preoccupy her. Her youngest daughter Aarti (8) used to stay with her grandfather Munda Ram, but when he was shot in the leg by Maoists she started living in a village hostel in POTA Cabin, Palnar where she developed multiple cysts in her stomach. She is now in Delhi with Soni for medical treatment and will undergo an operation. Her daughter had requested her teachers several times to take her to a better hospital as her mother was in judicial custody and her father was dead. Soni’s husband Anil Futane, a driver, was branded a Maoist supporter and beaten so severely by the police that he suffered paralysis and sudden premature death in August 2013. She is full of utter despair at not being able to save him from the police that devastated her life. But they did not listen and sent her daughter to her grandfather instead of admitting her to a proper hospital. Her eldest daughter is 14, lives with her uncle, the son (12) is staying at a hostel in Dantewada. Her entire family suffered in so many ways, she says her three small children have forgotten what it is to be together as ‘family’. Since she was arrested they have been living separately, with various relatives.
Meera Ahmad is a Delhi based Anthropologist and Independent Writer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.