It is a winter afternoon in Delhi’s Jangpura area. Sitting in her lawyer’s office, Soni Sori, who has recently been granted bail by the Supreme Court, looks relieved. This 38-year-old tribal schoolteacher from Chhattisgarh, who was accused of helping Maoists, says she suffered torture and sexual harassment in jail. She is thinking seriously about joining politics.
“I am an educated Adivasi woman. I have to give voice to others like me in my village even if it means entering politics at some point,” she says. She may also write about her life in jail. “Every day I spent in a jail has a different story of brutality, enough to write a book.”
Daughter of a former Congress leader from Bade Bedma village in Dantewada, Sori was leading a normal life in the neighbouring Jabeli village, with her husband and three children. She became a teacher in 2002. “Teaching kids in my village made all of us happy. It was considered a feat for an Adivasi woman to become a teacher and the kids took to me. In 2006, I was asked to take up the principal’s responsibilities and our three-room school expanded,” she says.
It was a time when Naxalite activities were on the rise, and Salwa Judum, the government-backed people’s movement against the Maoists, too, started operating in the state. “The CRPF troubled women going into the jungles to collect wood…. Women were raped. Once, three boys were killed in front of me in 15 minutes and two of them were buried in one hole,” says Sori. She rallied together a group of villagers and protested at the local police station. “We were accused of netagiri,” she says. “But our point was that they should capture the Naxalites, which was their job, and not trouble the Adivasis. We did not want Salwa Judum to come to our village.”
Things turned worse for Sori in 2009 after the police arrested her nephew, Lingaram Kodapi, for alleged Maoist links. He was kept locked in a toilet for over a month and the police kept denying that he was in their custody. Soon, there were rumours that Lingaram would become a Salwa Judum chief. “We faced trouble from both sides, the police and the Naxals. On the advice of my husband [Anil Futane], I went to meet my teacher [activist Himanshu Kumar], who said we should appeal in the High Court. The court ordered his release, but the police continued to hound us. I suspect they wanted to kill Lingaram in an encounter and put the blame on us,” says Sori. “Lingaram wanted to commit suicide. Our lives were stuck between the Naxals, whose ways we did not agree with, and the police, who kept harassing us.” It was a period of emotional trauma for the family.
A word of caution from her teacher saw Sori fleeing to Delhi in 2010. Sori, Futane and Lingaram were accused of planning and executing an attack on the house of Congress leader Avdesh Gautam. Lingaram, too, had gone to Delhi and had completed a course in journalism. After he and Sori posted a video of police atrocities on the internet, the police branded her a Naxal informer and picked her up for questioning. “They would put pressure on me to tell them what the Naxals were doing and where they were meeting,” says Sori. “When I said I did not know anything, they got angry and started abusing Linga, Swami Agnivesh and Arundhati Roy, saying they were all part of a Naxal network in the city.”
Lingaram was arrested in September 2011 in the controversial Essar pay-off case. The Chhattisgarh Police alleged that Essar was paying money to the Maoists for “protection”. The police said Lingaram was a Maoist conduit, and was extorting money from Essar. “They tried to arrest me, too, but I refused to go with them,” says Sori. “I did not even know if those people were police officers, Naxalites or Linga’s personal enemies.” Terrified, Sori returned to her village.
By this time, she and her family were in the Maoists’ hitlist and her father was shot in the leg. “The Naxals wanted me to appear before the jan adalat, alleging I was taking money in their name. Either the police or the Naxals would have killed me,” says Sori. So, she returned to Delhi, but was arrested and produced in a court in Saket. Although she asked the judge to send her to Tihar Jail, as she felt she would not be safe in Chhattisgarh, the judge reassured her and sent her to a jail in Raipur.
“I was not given any food or water. Ankit Garg [the Dantewada superintendent of police] said I had troubled the police, running from one spot to another. ‘Why did you go to Delhi? Are you not supporting the Naxals? Everything happens from this table. The government, courts, all run from here. We got you back ultimately,’ he said. He asked about Arundhati Roy, Nandini Sundar, Colin Gonsalves, Medha Patkar, Himanshu Kumar, Prashant Bhushan, Kavita Srivastava and said they were all part of the Naxal network. He wrote it all in a letter and asked me to sign it and promised to let me go if I became a government witness,” says Sori.
She refused. “I was then given electric shocks. My clothes were ripped apart and stones were pushed inside my private parts. They said I was a prostitute for the Naxals and others who supported me in Delhi. ‘You should die of shame,’ they said. Their target was Lingaram and they wanted me to testify against him,” recollects Sori.
The next day, she could not use the bathroom and fell inside it. It became an excuse for the police to not take her to the court. Although she was taken briefly to a hospital in Raipur, the police soon yanked off the glucose drip and brought her back to the jail.
Sori went on a hunger strike and was shifted to a Jagdalpur jail where she met several Adivasi girls, who were under detention. “These girls were tortured, sticks were inserted into their private parts and were raped inside the jail. It had become the norm,” says Sori. She says she was most inspired by a young Adivasi girl. “Her nipples had been cut off most brutally. She was uneducated, yet wanted to live and fight. Her plight changed my mind and I said I wanted to fight.”
Sori was later taken to a hospital in Kolkata where the stones were removed. “My labour pain while giving birth to my three children was not as bad as when those stones were taken out,” she says. Her mother, unable to withstand the shock of seeing Sori in jail, died in 2012.
Sori’s travails did not end there. Back in a jail in Raipur, she was again a victim of police brutality. “They stripped me on several occasions. Not just the men, but women guards, too, would do it, telling me to sit with my legs spread apart. I was not given the right medicines. Doctors were called to prove that I was mentally unstable, but they said I was only traumatised and angry.”
Lawyer and Aam Aadmi Party leader Prashant Bhushan says grave human rights violation has happened in the cases of Sori and Lingaram. “If a person is victimised and you raise your voice, you are faced with torture and false cases. No action is taken against those police officers. Land is being taken away from people and given to big corporations. Villages are being burnt down. The accountability of the police has to be fixed, and not just in Chhattisgarh,” he says.
Writer and political activist Arundhati Roy says Sori’s fault is that she is an Adivasi and a teacher. “Linga is an Adivasi and a journalist. We have seen a lot of protests last year. After the Nirbhaya case in December 2012, we have seen fast-track courts coming up. But, for Sori, we had a special slow-track court. Adivasis have no speech, forget free speech,” says Roy. “The police push stones in her [Sori’s] private parts and get gallantry awards…. There are people in jail against whom a war is being waged. Soni and Linga are examples of a nation at war. The bail granted to Sori offers Adivasi women some hope.”
Sure enough, Sori wants to return to her school and her advice is that no woman should break after going through anything. “Don’t lose hope, keep moving forward. Garg said I should die of shame after what was done to me. Why should I be ashamed? I have not done anything wrong. He should be ashamed of the atrocities inflicted on people like me. I will bring everything out in the open. My struggles have not lessened. Now, I will fight for others,” she says.
But, the fear of death continues to haunt Sori. Futane, who was acquitted of all charges in the Gautam attack case, died last August, allegedly because of the torture he suffered in custody. “I want to live,” says Sori. “But, it seems the government wants to kill me.”
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