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A spectre that haunts

Sibi Arasu | Updated on August 27, 2014

One day at a time: Soni Sori looks forward to an innings in politics. Photo: Suvojit Bagchi

Rallying around: Members of the All India Students Association demanding her release in January this year. Photo: VV Krishnan

Rallying around: Members of the All India Students Association demanding her release in January this year. Photo: VV Krishnan

Another country: Women outside a polling booth at Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh. Photo: V Sudershan.

A Moriya tribal in Bastar district goes about his daily business. Photo: A Roy Chowdhury

Out on bail, Soni Sori hopes to reclaim her dreams and some of her dignity

Schoolteacher, tribal rights activist, alleged Maoist conduit and now, a potential neta with the Aam Aadmi Party, 40-year-old Soni Sori is many people in one person.

On the evening of September 10, 2011, Soni Sori fled Jabeli, her village in Chhattisgarh, after an anonymous caller informed her that she might be ‘encountered’ by the police. Her nephew Lingaram Kodopi was arrested earlier that day.

A month later, on October 4, 2011, she was arrested in the Capital by the Delhi Crime Branch and brought to the Saket District Court. Several charges were filed against Sori, including one for being a Maoist go-between, extracting money from officials of the Essar group, attacking the house of a local Congress leader, Avdesh Gautam, and attempting to blow up Essar Trucks, among others.

In court, Sori pleaded with the judge not to send her back to Chhattisgarh. Feminist-historian Uma Chakravarthi, who was present at the district court at the time recounts, “The first time I saw her was at the court. Peculiarly, she was not objecting to being incarcerated but said she wanted it to happen in Delhi because if she went back, they would torture her.” “I thought that was an interesting position to take, but soon, we realised that was exactly what happened, and what the implications of the judge’s decision to send her back were,” she says. When she was produced in the Raipur court the following week, Sori couldn’t even walk from the police van to the courtroom. A clerk had to record her statement inside the van.

Recalling the horrific treatment meted out to her, Sori says, “While looking at my body, he (the then DSP, Ankit Garg) abused me in filthy language and humiliated me. Later, he went out and (…) sent three boys in. (They) started molesting me and I fell after they pushed me. Then they brutally inserted stones in my body.”

After a two-year term in the jails of Raipur and Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh and later, at Delhi’s Tihar jail, Sori is a free woman for now. Granted bail by the Supreme Court last month and acquitted in five of the seven cases — however, Sori would rather not put her life in jail behind her. She wants to use it instead to fuel her political ambitions and to bring changes to the jailing system and villages in her home State that have all but fallen off the map. BLink meets her in Delhi.

Dispatches from Jabeli

“Do you know what dalia (broken wheat) is?” asks Soni Sori, prefacing a tale from her childhood in Dantewada. “At the local school in our village, Jabeli, children were given dalia in exchange for attendance. Every morning I’d graze my father’s cows near the school and offer to wash the baniyan of students for their share of the dalia. The teacher saw this one day and said he’d give me a bowl too if I attended classes. That’s how I started going to school. My dad was not happy about the cows being abandoned but he came around eventually.”

Like several other girls who sought an education in and around the Bastar district, Sori was later enrolled at one of the schools run by Mata Rukmani Kanya Ashram, set up by Dharampal Saini, a disciple of Gandhian Vinoba Bhave. Located outside the town of Jagdalpur, 130km from Jabeli, this residential school was where Sori spent most of her childhood, returning home only for vacations. After completing her education, she was absorbed as a teacher by the Ashram, which runs more than 39 schools for girls across Bastar. But her days in the classroom were numbered. When Sori’s father discovered that she had fallen in love and married Anil Futane, a Marathi, born and brought up in the town of Geedam in Dantewada, “He made sure I lost the job,” she says. And it was only after a few years that Sori and her father reconciled and she went back to teach at the Ashram.

An Adivasi woman graduating from a student to a teacher is still uncommon in the red corridor. It was no surprise then that local women sought Sori out when the police accused their menfolk of being Naxals and arrested them. “They used to say, please come Soni madam, you know Hindi, you can help us get them out, so I would accompany them,” she says. “On such trips to the thana, I used to ask the CRPF and the police: Sir, if your fight is against the Naxals, go to the jungle and arrest them. Why are you dragging us into this?”

“It was probably her outspoken nature that put Soni in peril. She used to help others in trouble and that in turn put her in trouble,” says Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian activist who ran the Vanavasi Chetana Ashram in Dantewada for 22 years, until it was destroyed by the State government. Kumar has known Sori for over a decade now.

Caught in the crossfire of ideology, on another occasion, Sori found herself face to face with the Naxals. It was 2011 and the Maoists were trying to hoist a black flag at her school on Independence Day. Sori resisted their attempts to do so and insisted that the Indian national flag be hoisted. On September 9 that same year, the State police charged Sori as a Maoist accomplice, and apparently, on the advice of an ‘anonymous caller’ who said the police might ‘encounter’ her, Sori decided to flee. On the run for nearly a month, she was picked up in Delhi and sent back to Chhattisgarh.

In the jailhouse

“When I was jailed two years ago, I wondered why all of this was happening to me,” says Sori, “But after I met the women in jail and heard their stories… I changed my mind. All the 70 female inmates at the Jagdalpur jail were villagers from the neighbouring districts and most of them were arrested on ‘Naxal cases’. Many were assaulted by the police, and are physically unwell, but there is no one to hear their pleas. Their cases lie unattended. I don’t know how and why they tolerate the pain? Someone had to fight for them, so I did.”

Sori has earlier said that while in jail, she was singled out and subjected to sexual torture by the jail authorities. In a press conference in Delhi last month, she said, “I was brutally tortured in Raipur jail. While in the custody of the Dantewada police, I was stripped naked and given electric shocks.” When news of her condition reached various human rights activists and civil society groups in Delhi, more than the nature of her arrest, the torture she was subjected to in jail garnered support for her cause.

Delhi-based lawyer Vrinda Grover, who had represented Sori says, “Some of us knew of her prior to her arrest as well. But it was when the news about her sexual torture got out that women’s rights groups took up her cause immediately. Even if you have committed a crime, it is no justification for custodial torture especially committed on a woman arrested on charges of a political crime.”

Chakravarthi agrees, “The treatment meted out to Soni and Linga are clear indications of the manner in which Adivasis are treated by the State.” “The Chhattisgarh police stooped so low as to fly her back to Raipur from Delhi, so they could get more time with her before producing her at court,” she says.

While in jail, Sori continued to raise her voice against the ill treatment of undertrials and the poor quality of food. “At Raipur, there were insects in our food, so we carried out a hunger strike. I threatened to take the worm-infested food samples to court too. That worked in our favour because the women were made in-charge of their food,” says Sori, “I also asked the officers why they made women work, clean toilets and so on, when it was illegal (for undertrials).” Sori also sent letters and messages to the Supreme Court, her lawyer, NCW, NHRC and so on, not knowing if they were received by the intended parties.

By the time Sori was released on bail in February, she had lost her husband, Anil Futane — a paralytic, who was arrested on similar charges and died in jail last year. Her father was shot at by Maoists and crippled in the leg. She was suspended from her job at the Ashram and most of her family turned its back on her.

Election season

Nobody, not even Sori, had imagined however, that her life would take such a political turn. “Had I not been imprisoned, I doubt I would have considered a path in politics,” says Sori.

Vani Subramanian, a Delhi-based filmmaker, who campaigned to free Sori, thinks it’s a good idea. “She’s clear about what she wants, which is a hell of a lot more than many of us,” she says, “It’s odd that Sori was arrested as a Maoist supporter in the first place. She has always been vocal about her opposition to them. It’s time for her now to explore her options. Whether she chooses a pure political route or not, is up to her.”

Sori believes that the political route is also the most viable. The emergence of AAP and the impending Lok Sabha elections seem to coincide with her release. And she has a clear mandate — to revamp the jailing system in her home State.

Prashant Bhushan, lawyer and advisor to AAP thinks Sori is an ideal candidate for the party in Chhattisgarh — “She’s a courageous, bold tribal activist who has been victimised and tortured by the police. She symbolises the plight of the Adivasis in Chhattisgarh, a State dealing with many issues ranging from excessive mining, looting of land and natural resources, and poor jailing systems.”

Asked about her chances, if she is given an AAP ticket to contest the elections, Sori says, “Winning or losing doesn’t matter. Even if I lose, it won’t be a loss — I’ll get to interact with so many of my people, share my thoughts and ideas with them, and in turn, communicate their issues to the election forum. So, there is no loss here, this is a win-win situation.”

S ibi Arasu with inputs from Amit Kumar

Published on March 14, 2014

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