By Sanika Prabhu:
On February 7th 2014, the Supreme Court of India, after keeping Soni Sori on interim bail for over two months on charges of being an alleged conduit to Maoists, awarded her permanent bail. A school teacher, tortured and sexually assaulted in prison, given bail after suffering inside prison for well over 2 years. Ironically, by the time the bail has been granted, she has already been acquitted in 5 of the 7 cases against her.
But once you move past government propaganda, you can see a tale of bravery and self-determination. Of courage and conviction. On one end of the spectrum there’s a state, which has all the power in its might to dictate and dispose off lives at will. On the other end, there is a small dream, a dream long deferred, a dream that quarreled its way to our doorstep, with just one humble request – Do not to look away. Not this time.
Indeed we have been looking away for centuries. What did we know – us city folk – of the rape and murder in the name of ‘development’? We grow without context, like the cities we live in.
So to set the context to Soni’s tale, we have to roll back to the year 2000, when in the heart of India a battle for tribal self-determination was fought and the state of Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh. Chhattisgarh, with its 40% tribal population wanted control over its own natural resources. It was thought that by this way, people of Chhattisgarh could truly have a say over their lands and lives. But neo-liberal democracies do not follow such naÃ¯ve briefs. It wasn’t long before the development junkies found out what the mineral rich tribal land was worth. By 2003-4 secret MOUs were signed to plan the mining activities across the state, and the rest, as they say, is history. And what a terrifying history it has come to be.
In the 14 years since the formation of Chhattisgarh, the state interests and corporate interests have gotten into bed together, moving on from a one-night stand to a proper live-in relationship. The state is constantly at war with the Maoists, who comprise the left-leaning guerilla resistance. Along with the state forces, there was Salwa JudumÂ – a vigilante militia denounced by the Supreme Court as “body outside of constitution”, constantly denied of existence by the state, but with definite links to both the state and corporate.
The corporate cartel that entered the state riding on the high horse of “development” has brought displacement, dispossession, humiliation and deaths to the tribal Chhattisgarh.
In between all these players, it is the regular citizens, the tribal community that has to pay the heavy price that this war inevitably brings. Just as in Kashmir and Manipur, the stories of rape, tortures, fake encountres, imprisonment under false charges, midnight frisking and combing operations have become routine. It’s a life under constant surveillance and the price to stepping out of line is usually death. To live or at least try to live a normal life itself has become a crime. If you side with the police, the Maoists will kill you. If you humour the Maoists, the Police will term call you an insurgent and put you in jail.
Soni Sori, a school teacher and Linga Kopdopi (her nephew), a journalist wanted to be neither. They wanted what was theirs, by law and by the constitution: equal rights as every citizen and rule of law in their land. They wanted their home back from the jaws of crony contractors and corrupt police-politician nexus. They wanted to live away from the clutches of corporates and the Maoists. They put up a tenacious fight to get the minimum wage of the tribals raised; made noise about senior police officials benefiting from corrupt teak trade (which on official paper was called “Jungle Clearing” to counter the Maoist movement). These assertions didn’t go unnoticed. After Lingaram’s refusal to join Maoist resistance and their persistent fight with the state for their rights, both faced the inevitable fate of “troublemakers”.
Soni Sori was arrested in October 2011, almost a month after Lingaram, on charges of being an alleged conduit for the Maoists in a plot to extort money from Essar Steel. Lingaram Kodopi was implicated in the same case. Both were subjected to unspeakable torture in jail. Soni was raped, sexually assaulted and mentally tortured. While the whole country exhausted its quota of tears over Nirbhaya and roads of Delhi overflowed with candle-enthusiasts; not a single tear was shed for Soni in the middle-class drawing rooms of our cities. SP Ankit Garg who ordered the chilling torture of Soni quietly went on to be awarded President’s Gallantry award. With that, India failed Soni. With that, India failed its women.
But Soni kept her dream alive. She did not let her fate break her. In Jagdalpur jail, she organized hunger strike for better prison conditions and better medical conditions. Even now, after her release on February 7th 2014, she remains resolute in her plans to fight for the release of other women who continue to be falsely imprisoned and tortured in custody.
The story of Soni Sori is the story of entangled interests of the state, the corporates, the mining industry through the complex web of lies and falsehood spread systematically by the state. It is the story of thousands of women who, picked up under false allegations of seditious activity, are languishing in Indian prison. It is the story of a state at war with its own people. But it is also a story of incredible integrity and moral courage.
As Soni tries to return some semblance of sanity to her life now, we should make up for the time lost. We should help fulfill her dream, by reminding the state of its constitutional promise of fair-play and justice. It is important that we keep her story alive. Hell, it’s our duty as citizens of this country to keep it alive.