Face to Face: Vrinda Grover
The brutal assault on tribal school teacher Soni Sori by policemen led by an officer in Chhattisgarh, involving stones inserted in her private parts, had shocked the nation. Her continued imprisonment, after being branded a Maoist, on “false charges and fabricated evidence”, has been widely criticized by civil society and human rights groups in Indiaand abroad. Eminent lawyer Vrinda Grover, who is representing the case of Soni Sori and her nephew, Lingaram Kodopi, recently met them when they were brought to the court in Dantewada, and also in Jagdalpur jail, Chhattisgarh. Excerpts from an interview with Hardnews:
You met Soni Sori and her nephew, Lingaram Kodopi, in jail. What is the status of their cases?
I had gone to Chhattisgarh, particularly to Jagdalpur and Dantewada, to argue on behalf of Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi. Soni Sori was facing six cases; she has been acquitted in four of them, in one case she has got bail. This particular case is the last one, and is still going on. Lingaram Kodopi was facing two criminal cases. He has been acquitted in one, the other is pending.
It is important to underline that in all these cases, the chargesheets filed had serious criminal charges against both of them, such as attacks on an MLA’s house or burning of trucks or being part of a larger Naxal crowd that has attacked some place. The sections invoked in those chargesheets were of a very serious nature, including the Arms Act, the Explosive Substances Act, and serious sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). However, in all of the cases, they have been acquitted. The attempt was to project them as dangerous, dreaded Naxal leaders, and they were not given bail in any of them. Since there was no evidence against them, the court had no option but to acquit them.
However, they have been in custody since 2011. So, two years are over. In this particular case, the allegations were that a contractor, BK Lala, on behalf of Essar company, was paying off the Naxals not to disrupt their work. And that Soni and Lingaram were the conduits and they had come to take the money and pass it on to the Naxals.
Ironically, in this case, the seizure memo says that Lala was in possession of Rs 15 lakh; but he is out on bail. The Essar manager, who is alleged to have benefitted from this, is also out on bail. The only two people in jail are Lingaram Kodopi and Soni Sori, who stood to gain nothing in this entire so-called transaction. I am not even for a minute saying that the transaction is true; the whole case is totally fabricated and false.
Soni’s father, who came to meet her in the Dantewada court, was on crutches. His right foot was severely swollen and he had tied a little rag around it. The foot was in a very bad shape. I am not sure, if, medically, his foot can be retrieved anymore. He received this injury because Naxals shot him, as he refused to become a Naxal informer. So that is the real story of this family which is playing itself out, and which actually illustrates the story of the adivasis in Chhattisgarh who are today facing multiple assaults by the State.
How do you call these cases false and fabricated?
Take this case as an example. Framing the charge is the first stage of a criminal trial. The two people who stood to gain from this so-called financial transaction are out on bail. They do not care if the case trials drag on. In fact, it is in their interest to delay and drag the case. The evidence, if at all, is against them. There is no evidence against Soni and Linga. So they are interested in delaying and protracting the issue before the court. The judge herself told me that, for the last one-and-a-half years, Lala and his counsel did not argue. Even this time, his counsel did not argue. He did not turn up. He put in some
This incident happened in September 2011. By October-November, the chargesheet should have been filed. From 2011 to 2013, why have the charges not been framed? What is the explanation for this? Why is nobody in the entire legal system worried or concerned that two people are in jail for no fault of theirs?
The maximum punishment under the sections that they are being accused under in the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act is two years. In this case, they will get acquitted because there is no legal evidence against them. However, they have already served a punishment. What kind of legal system allows this? Why is the court allowing these kinds of delays to happen? Why does the court allow these adjournments?
Why do you think this is happening all the time? Surely, Soni Sori’s case is not the only one…
This is a much bigger story. Perhaps the case of Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi reachedDelhibecause they happened to be here and know some people. But this is a story of a large number of vulnerable, poor adivasis inSouth Chhattisgarhtoday. To my mind, it is part of a State project, and it is extremely horrific that a democratic State deliberately allows this kind of State project in the name of controlling some Naxalite activity, which is an armed group, and is throwing a challenge to certain policies, particularly economic policies, land acquisitions, mining activities. The State wants to send a chilling message to the entire community that anybody who protests, anybody who dissents from the policy that the Centre and the State government have decided — which is only meant to profit certain private and other business houses — those people will be put away. This is what is happening. The most frightening part of the story is that this is actually playing out in front of the judiciary. The courts are seeing these cases before them. A court can make out that there is no evidence because the entire case is false and fabricated. Yet, the police and the prosecution continue to file such cases. And courts are not discharging them, not granting them bail.
The entire chargesheet before the trial court in Dantewada does not have one single piece of evidence to show that either Linga or Soni have anything to do with Naxals. It is a perfect case for discharge. It is a story that has been concocted. The story was made up because they wanted to project Linga and Soni as dangerous Naxal leaders. Like all the other cases have collapsed so will this. Clearly, what the police, the prosecution, and the State are determined to do is to punish them through the legal process by incarcerating them.
I also want to point out that, invariably, the adivasis, who are jailed in all these so-called Naxal cases, are not even produced before the court because they are given ‘administrative excuses’ that vehicles or security guards are not available. Since they are branded in so-called ‘Naxal cases’, therefore, a larger contingent of CRPF, and so on, needs to accompany them. It is another matter that these cases collapse like a house of cards each time. I am told that Soni had to argue, request and plead with the jail superintendent of Jagdalpur to allow her and Linga to be taken to the Dantewada court. She had told them that her lawyer had come all the way fromDelhi. The jail superintendent made special efforts, contacted the police, and saw that Soni and Linga were produced before the court.
What is the condition of the adivasis in the area?
There are Naxals operating in some parts ofSouth Chhattisgarhand the State is not able to pick up most of the Naxal leadership. What they are doing is picking up large numbers of adivasis during search operations. They are nabbed, and thrown into jails; all kinds of totally fabricated cases are made against them.
In this particular case, for instance, they have also invoked other serious sections like waging war against the State, sedition, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, Chhattisgarh Public Safety Act — all these are meant to over-awe the mind of the court when the judge considers a bail application or has to decide if this is an appropriate stage of discharge. The very fact that these are very serious sections would obviously have an impact on the court — although it should not. And the court should be able to see the deliberate, devious plan that the State is playing in order to keep these ordinary, very poor, marginalized, vulnerable people in jail.
Most adivasis in Jagdalpur and Dantewada do not have private lawyers. They cannot afford them. Legal Aid lawyers represent them. We all know and it is an established fact across the country that Legal Aid lawyers do not provide effective legal representation. For many of them, their families do not come to visit them because the jails and the courts are too far. They are also insecure. For instance, if someone from the village comes to meet them, they are abused, called names, picked up by the police, further harassed. They are told: ‘You are also Naxal informers; therefore, you have come to meet him.’ All this is happening very far away from the capital. Jagdalpur and Dantewada are faraway places. Nobody is going to see what is happening in these courts, what is the condition of adivasis in jail — why are they being incarcerated in jail for so many years?
I have been informed that the conviction rate in Dantewada and Jagdalpur is one and three per cent, respectively. So, the entire objective appears to be to keep them in jail for three to four years. Trials drag on for very long and eventually everybody knows that they will get acquitted. But who is going to compensate these people for their loss of liberty, for the agony that they are suffering, for the trauma that the family suffers, for the impact that their incarceration is having on the family? There is absolutely no accountability for this.
Why do the courts keep them inside prisons?
I think the answer lies in what the lady prosecutor said in a very brief argument in the court. Her argument was that all the offences were made out against the accused. Second, these were grave crimes. Third, it was a Naxal-affected area. As far as I see it, the first one is her legal opinion. The second one is a statement of fact. The third one is not a statement that can be made in a court of law. A statement saying this is a Naxal-affected area is a very underhand attempt to over-awe the judiciary. The judiciary of Chhattisgarh should not allow this State project of completely crushing the adivasis. It places a very huge responsibility on the judiciary.
Have the jail conditions improved?
When I met both of them, they looked much weaker. In Indian prisons, it is high time that we raise the issue of what kind of diet is given to the prisoners. To give a person, day in and day out, only one dal and one vegetable, it is obviously going to affect their health. However, it is not the fault of the jail. The diet that is permitted by law for undertrials and convicted prisoners is in itself a poor diet. That is what the law of this land is. I am saying the law is wrong. The jail manual is wrong. You have to have a better diet for people who are in your custody. Let us not allow the State to escape its responsibility by saying that these are poor people and at least they are getting two meals a day. These are hardworking people and they have multiple sources of nutrition when they are living on their own in their villages. They understand the vegetables and nutrition way better, which the jail manual completely loses out on. Therefore, everybody’s health condition is going to deteriorate inside the jail.
Has any action been taken against Ankit Garg, the police officer who has been accused in the alleged sexual torture of Soni Sori?
Yes. The President of India has awarded him a gallantry award for the sexual torture of Soni Sori. That is a statement of fact. The petition saying that torture had taken place has been pending in the Supreme Court for two years. The apex court has not thought of it as a matter that needs to be taken up urgently. Soni has said repeatedly that, under the directions of Ankit Garg, she was stripped, tortured in custody, and the torture was of a sexualized nature. It is perhaps the most heinous offence that can be committed against a woman. At a time, post-December 16, 2012, when the whole country spoke out about violence against women, it is extremely regrettable that the highest court has still not decided this matter. Ankit Garg’s President’s Gallantry Award should have been snatched away, at least while the matter is pending.
The issue was repeatedly highlighted by women’s rights groups; the National Commission for Women (NCW) conducted a jail visit. They went to Jagdalpur jail to see the condition of women prisoners. They met Soni Sori and others. But over maybe two years, the NCW report, despite repeated reminders, requests, meetings by women rights groups, has not been made public. They had talked to Soni, and Soni had told them about the kind of torture she had faced in Raipur. She and other prisoners would be stripped and searched; she narrated the humiliation they had to suffer. But NCW has till date not made its report public.
Is it true that women prisoners have organized themselves in jail?
Well, they have not organized themselves. They are seeking their rights as prisoners and undertrials. For instance, the food that they were being served earlier often had worms and other insects. So they went on a hunger strike and demanded that they be given a separate kitchen where they can cook their food. After they went on a hunger strike, the jail superintendent agreed to their demands.
Now there is a separate kitchen where they cook their own food. However, they still have complaints. The quality of the raw material, whether it is dal or flour, is bad; there are often worms and insects in it. Clearly, it is the responsibility of the jail authorities and the State to ensure that proper quality food is given to them.
How do Soni and Lingaram see their future?
When I met Linga, he asked me if he would be rearrested again after his release. Such is the future he is staring at. Here is an educated young man from the adivasi community who, if allowed, and if not persecuted and tortured by the police, can provide true leadership to the adivasi community. He has equipped himself to be a young voice from his community. But the State has targeted him.
It is the case with Soni as well. I do not understand why theIndianStateis afraid of such people who can bring about a positive change in their communities, in democratic ways, without taking up arms.
Pic: Joe Athialy