‘I BELIEVE IN THE POWER OF THE PEN, NOT THE GUN’
It took Soni Sori a long time to open up about her ‘interrogation’ by the Bastar police when she was arrested in 2011. “They pushed stones into my vagina and rectum. I used to keep crying in jail. I wondered how I would face my husband, my children and society,” recalled the 40-year-old tribal who has become the face of the Adivasi resistance in Chhattisgarh. “Then two girls reproached me, saying, “Do you think you are the only one to have suffered like this? Look at us.” They unhooked their blouses. One had slash marks across her breasts. The other’s nipple had been bitten off. They told me, “You’re a teacher, you can write and tell the world what the police are doing to us. Who will listen to those of us who can’t?'” she reminisced.
Sori, charged with being a Naxalite and out on bail, acquitted in six of the seven cases against her, believes in the power of the pen not the gun. Neither the callousness of the courts, which did not even let her out for two hours so she could see her husband’s body, nor the 30 months she spent in jail deprived of medical treatment, because of which she is still prone to pelvic infections and loss of sensation in her feet, or a fear of electricity (she had been given electric shocks), turned her into a Naxalite.
“I had vowed I would never let the police superintendent who ordered my torture go free,” she said. “But then I asked myself, what is the use of taking up the gun and killing a few people? Will that bring peace? It would only lead to more repression of my people. I need to tell their stories to the world. It is only pressure from across the country that makes the Chhattisgarh police restrain themselves.”
Sori has always believed in non-violence. Even before her father was wounded by Maoists who believed he was a police informer, Sori would teach children in an ashram of which she was principal: “You will study, and when you grow up, you will wield the pen, not the gun.” The saddest day was the one when she received a note from her students after her release. “Tell didi, she wanted us to take up the pen, but we have taken up the gun,” it said.
After her arrest, the police raided her ashram, leading to an exodus of students, many of whom had nowhere to go, having been orphaned by the Salwa Judum-Maoist conflict. The Salwa Judum was a government-sponsored anti-Maoist vigilante movement, which was wound up on the Supreme Court’s orders, but has re-emerged under different names.
What made this woman not only withstand torture, but even return after her release to the battleground of Bastar and fight against police excesses, for which she was recently attacked with acid? She could have ‘cooperated’ with the police or built a new life outside Chhattisgarh.”The police wanted me to write that my guru Himanshu Kumar (Gandhian activist), Dr Binayak Sen, Swami Agnivesh, Professor Nandini Sundar (of Delhi University who petitioned the Supreme Court against Salwa Judum), were urban Naxalites. I couldn’t betray these people who despite not being adivasis had fought for us and suffered,” she said. “As for settling outside Chhattisgarh, that would have been a victory for the police. They would have told my people – “See, she got scared and ran away. So don’t any of you dare to fight the government.” Besides, what kind of life is one where you live only for yourself? Today my children proudly say, “We have given our mother over to our people.'”
Sori believes that the police have made her what she is today. “They sent me to jail, where I met women who have suffered more than I had. That changed me. Today, I have no fear.” It is the police who answered a question that was troubling her: Why is the Chhattisgarh government hunting down adivasis? “Because the government wants your land and the Constitution forbids anyone taking over adivasi land,” is what Bastar IGP SR Kalluri recently told her, alleged Sori.