By Nikita Agarwal:
“Soni Sori ke waastey, khaali karo raastey!” This is the slogan that was raised when a little more than a handful of protesters came together in front of the Chhattisgarh Bhawan to communicate their outrage against the brutal attack on Soni Sori while she was on her way back to her home from Jagdalpur. While Soni Sori was returning back to Geedam after holding a press meeting and bidding adieu to her friends from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group in Jagdalpur, her vehicle was stopped and a black substance was thrown at her face making her face burn, swell and mutilate.
An unfortunately small number of people were present at the site of the protest. It was a perfect mirror to the apathy of the people, political or otherwise, left or right, towards the situation of the tribal, the forest and the activist in Chhattisgarh. When the first few of us trickled in, we encountered a large battalion of police fully prepared, the Chhattisgarh Bhawan barricaded, following their orders which became quite clear as the afternoon progressed. It was to hush up the screams of Soni Sori as the acid-like substance seeped into her skin, charring her face. It was a determined attempt on the part of the authorities to make their streets look clean, to once again silence the Adivasis in Bastar with such vehemence that it would not even allow their stories, not even Soni Sori’s, a public icon of courage, struggle and resilience in the face of gross human rights violations, to be heard.
Under the pretext of ‘Prime Minister’s movement’, they first asked us to move towards an alley on the side. When we refused to do so, we were pushed, heckled and shoved into an alley and asked to wait until the ‘PM’s movement’ was over. The police were provoking us, constantly inciting us to push them back. One act of violence from the side of the protesters would have ended up in a justified lathi charge. We kept arguing, many insisted that the protest must take place outside the Bhawan and not in the hidden alley. But some conceded that the police was only following their orders.
The slogans, “Acid Attack ki yeh Sarkar, nahi chalegi abki baar”, “Soni tum sangharsh karo hum tumhare saath hai”, “IG Kalluri murdabad”, were shouted simultaneously arguing with an indifferent police. To completely stitch up the circle, the police slyly moved a police bus right in front of us effectively blocking us from being seen at all. We were surrounded from all sides, trapped between a barricaded Chhattisgarh Bhawan, a police bus, the police and an empty alley.
The usual things like “Do you know why were are here?”, “it is our right to protest, you are violating our right to protest”, were said. Some tried to slyly get past the vehicle, some wanted to keep sloganeering “Police bhi humse darti hai, bus ko aage karti hai”, some insisted that the police let them go out of the circle and faced a police egging them on to push and shove them. Some got tired of the many lies, the betrayal and lay down on the road, one played the flute, and some pretended like there was no betrayal, and no bus. They moved from agenda one to two to three on the checklist!
A delegation of five went inside the Bhawan to meet the Resident Commissioner and hand him a charter of their demands. They managed to get inside but were not only prevented from meeting the Resident Commissioner but were also pushed out. It is relevant to note here that the delegation comprised of women and senior citizens. Finally, the police gave way. Our time had come!
We moved to the pavement, beyond it, standing on the side of Sardar Patel Marg holding our banners and sloganeering only to be immediately confronted by a police who would just not let us stay there. How could they allow us to be seen? The police started filling the same bus they had used to hide the protesters with the protesters. A few of us protesters refused to move and were immediately pushed, pulled, shoved and dragged inside the bus. As is custom, we were taken to the Parliament Street Police Station, given nothing to eat and drink and ultimately let-off at around eight o’clock in the night, much beyond the time women can be legally kept in police custody.
After being released, my friends and I went to have a drink on a dry day. Sitting on a rooftop in Paharganj, drinking lemon tea, we silently prepared ourselves for another day the next day. A huge rally for Rohith Vemula had been organised and I silently wondered how easy it is for everybody to ignore the Adivasi, the other. I felt resentful, resentful of the Left which has as easily shoved the question of Bastar to the side, resentful of how so few had turned up for the protest, how men are constantly the ones giving the slogans, and how these older forms of protest are not effective anymore.
The protest was symptomatic of a larger silencing. That of a woman, an Adivasi woman, an Adivasi woman from Bastar. To fight this iron hand, we need to learn new ways to organise, to demonstrate and recognise that Soni Sori is just one face, one name. The extent of human rights violations is Bastar is immense and Bastar should be a cause of concern to all of us.