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#India -Tribal Activist Soni Sori- Can the State drown the fight for justice for women ? #Vaw

: Q&A with Indian tribal rights activist Soni Sori


In a crowded auditorium at a conference on gender-based violence in Delhi this month, a frail woman sits, silently listening as lawyers and activists take turns to speak. When the discussion shifts to atrocities on adivasi (tribal) women, she takes center stage. When she speaks, the crowd listens in silence. Soni Sori, a schoolteacher, speaks about the fate of women in Chhattisgarh, an Indian state that has been engulfed in violence and conflict, with tribal civilians caught in the crossfire between Maoists and government security forces.

Within this mineral-rich Indian state, the genesis of conflict has been complex. It is a mix of deep neglect of the poor and also, some would say, lopsided development plans. But beyond simplistic explanations of conflict, undeniable is the loss of lives and brutality unleashed in the name of counterinsurgency and fighting for the poor. For years, women and children have born the brunt of this cruelty.

In 2013, at least 1,380 rapes were reported in Chhatisgarh, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau. The controversial and now-disbanded Salwa Judum, a self-protection force formed with local civilians and later declared illegal and unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2011, face at least 99 counts of alleged rape since its inception in 2005.

It was against this backdrop that Soni Sori, all of 35, was arrested in 2011 and accused of being linked to the Naxals, an armed, left-wing extremist group that has waged war against the Indian state for decades. She was sexually tortured in custody. Human rights activists worldwide campaigned for her release. Amnesty International declared her a “prisoner of conscience,” turning the spotlight on atrocities she’d been subjected to. Now out on bail, Sori spoke to me about the inhumane sexual torture she endured, the dismal state of women’s prisons in Chhattisgarh, her fight ahead, and her optimism on women’s rights.

Indian tribal rights activist Soni Sori speaks to Amnesty International India about her case and thanks the organization for its support in advocating for her release. (Amnesty International India)

Priyali Sur: It’s been almost three years since you were first taken into police custody. Do you remember every detail?

Soni Sori: It was past 10 at night. I was asleep when the cops came and woke me up, saying the superintendent of police wanted to meet me. The superintendent, Ankit Garg, asked me to sign documents that would confirm I was involved with the Maoists. I refused. He then asked the lady constables to leave, warning them that what happened inside the police station that night should not be told to anyone.

The police officials started abusing me, calling me a whore and saying I indulge in sexual acts with Maoists. They stripped me naked, made me stand in an “attention” position and gave me electric shocks on various parts of my body. I still didn’t relent. They then shoved red chili powder inside my vagina. By now, I was losing consciousness, but I refused to sign the documents. The cops started inserting stones into my private parts. Many stones—so many that they started falling out. I finally collapsed.

The next morning, I could barely move when I was taken to court. My biggest complaint is that the magistrate didn’t even see me once and sent me to prison. In the days that followed, I was admitted to the hospital, where they chained me to the bed. When I asked why, they said it was procedural. Due to the stones, it was difficult and painful for me to even urinate. Only after I wrote to the court was I taken for treatment.

Sori was ultimately referred to the NRS Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata, where stones were removed from her vagina and rectum. But her torture and humiliation in the prison continued. In April 2013, a group of human rights organizations wrote to the Chhattisgarh chief minister, demanding the end of ill treatment of Soni Sori and other inmates in Jagdalpur, the central jail. They said Sori was being subjected to a psychiatric evaluation to declare her mentally unsound and create doubts over the veracity of her complaints of sexual torture.

PS: How long were you in prison and what is it like for the women inmates inside jail?

SS: I spent two and a half years in all, and spent time in four jails [Tihar, Raipur, Jagadalpur, and Kolkata]. The plight of girls and women is deplorable inside the Chhattisgarh jail. There is an urgent need for proper health care and sanitation. During their menstruation, women inmates are not given any sanitary pads. They have just one piece of cloth, which they wash and reuse as a pad. At times, due to the unavailability of pads and clean cloth, many even have blood trickling down their knees. It is extremely humiliating. Due to such unhygienic conditions, most women suffer from vaginal discharge, problems like “safed paani” [vaginal discharge] and foul-smelling urine. Women keep waiting to visit a doctor, but they are only taken after a very long wait.

The way women inmates are treated is inhuman. They are themselves made to clean the toilets and if anyone complains, the cops beat her up and put her in an isolated cell. No woman is allowed to keep more than one sari. If families send them more, the cops burn the extra sari. They are made to do hard labor but given a poor diet. If a mother dares to ask for more for her crying child, she is beaten up.

PS: Are the inmates also sexually abused by the police?

SS: The inmates are mentally tortured and harassed. A naked drill is a common thing. I was tired of being asked to strip again and again and again. They would strip me and accuse me of being a Maoist. …  They would then humiliate me by inspecting my breasts with their batons and forcing me to spread my legs. It’s a mental torture. Not just me, but they do this to other women inmates as well. There are many minor girls as well inside, but they are falsely recorded as majors in the files. Many 13- to 14-year-old girls are brought in and accused of being Naxals.

According to Himanshu Kumar of Vanvasi Chetana Ashram, an organization working for tribal people in Chhattisgarh, grave human rights violations are taking place in the prisons of Chhattisgarh. Himanshu has been fighting for justice for Sori. He says that the International Committee of the Red Cross has access to all the prisons across the world to carry out human right audits, but has been denied access to Chhattisgarh prisons. The state has been seen as the epicenter of Maoist conflict for a long time.

In February, after almost two and a half years in jail, Sori was finally granted bail by the Supreme Court of India. She is free to go anywhere but has to report to the nearest police station every Monday, regardless of the location. Sori now wants to work from Chhattisgarh, along with a human rights lawyer, to help other women who have been falsely accused and are languishing in prisons. According to the National Crime Records Bureau report of 2011, Chhattisgarh was one of the states that reported the highest number of female convicts (242) in its central jails. The women’s prisons here are overcrowded, with almost 150 percent occupancy. But along with this, Sori’s priority is also her children—her two daughters and one son.

PS: Now that you are out on bail, do you worry about separation from your family again?

SS: My children refuse to let go of me at all. They say this year they will stay with me since they don’t know when I might be taken to jail again. Every other day, jeeps packed with cops come to my house and question my children at gunpoint, but my children are strong and aren’t scared. My children say, “Let the police come, we can handle them.” Everything that they have been through has made my children strong.

When I was in jail, my husband passed away. I wasn’t even allowed to come for his last rites. I appealed to the court to let me go home to see him for one last time, but they didn’t permit me. One week later, they said I could go and visit home. I refused, saying it was too late.

During India’s recent general elections, Sori ran from her region. She says her decision to join politics is so she can challenge and change the system that treats women mercilessly. She remembers how the jail officials mocked her, saying that once she was out, her spirit would die. She says joining politics is an answer to all those people who challenged her.

Sori lost the election by a huge margin.

PS: You entered politics—are you disappointed that you lost?

SS: Not at all. I believe I have won, and my fight has just started. My fight was not to occupy the chair, but to get the support of my people. Today, there are many who will come and stand by me. The rulers always rule from their chair. I am fortunate that I will get to work at the grassroots level. My politics is not about ruling, but about fighting for the rights of my people.

PS: Is it difficult to stay motivated and focused on your mission?

SS: There are days when my children have nothing to eat. I don’t have a job today while Ankit Garg, who has been accused of brutalizing me, has been awarded with the president’s Police Medal of Gallantry. But it’s my children who give me the courage to fight. They are all I have today. My fight is not about caste or religion but about the rights of all women.

I know there are many who are waiting for me to die for this fight to end, but I want to tell them that if Soni Sori dies the fight will not end. There will be a hundred more Soni Soris who will emerge. Can they drown the fight for justice for women? Can they kill each one of us? In the end, victory will be ours.

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#Sundayreading – Soni Sori ,Dayamani Barla and Medha Patkar in India Elections

No time for parties

These three women in the electoral race have fought for change from outside the system.

The exhilarating process of elections has begun. There is genuine and understandable apprehension about the future. But there is also hope. Because in this election, an element has been injected that has attracted more interest in it than in several pervious general elections.

That new element is the kind of individual that has now entered electoral politics. There have been instances in the past when non-politicians have either joined mainstream political parties or stood as independents and fought elections. But this time, thanks largely to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the range of independent-minded non-political individuals in the fray is much larger.

I personally find the presence of three women to be particularly significant. There are many women who are contesting. And some, like those from the film fraternity, are drawing media attention. Nagma, Gul Panag, Kirron Kher, Smriti Irani and, of course, Rakhi Sawant, are a magnet for television cameras.

The three women I want to write about are also celebrities but in a completely different way. Their life and the struggles they have undertaken over decades have been appreciated. They have received awards. They have been extensively interviewed and written about.

Yet, their entry into the electoral race as AAP candidates marks a significant change. Whether they win or lose is not so important as the fact that people have a chance to see and hear women like them who have fought for change from outside the system.

The women I refer to are Soni Sori from Chhattisgarh, Dayamani Barla from Jharkhand and Medha Patkar from Maharashtra (although her work has been all over India).

The least known of the three is Soni Sori, a 39-year-old schoolteacher from Jabeli village in Dantewada, Bastar, in the state of Chhattisgarh. Soni shot into limelight when she was picked up by the police in 2011 allegedly for being a Maoist, was brutally tortured because she refused to sign a false confession that would have implicated others, and finally released on permanent bail by the Supreme Court earlier this year. Her account of what she went through during her time in jail, which included horrific sexual assault, is chilling. Four of the six cases against her have been dismissed. She still has two pending.

Elections cost money. Soni has only a few hundred rupees in her bank account, Rs.424 to be exact. But support for her from outside has gathered pace ever since her candidature was announced and the funds are coming in. Still, the total is nowhere near the Rs.70 lakhs per candidate permitted by the Election Commission. And given the size of her constituency of Bastar, she will certainly need that money to reach out to her constituents, even if just to inform them about her name, her party and the party symbol.

Another tribal woman, much better known, is the former journalist and human rights activist Dayamani Barla, also known as the Iron Lady of Jharkhand. Dayamani is the candidate from Khunti in Jharkhand and the “Iron Lady” tag comes from her battle against steel giant ArcelorMittal. She successfully scuttled plans by the company to build what would have been the world’s largest steel plant. Together with a captive power station, the plant would have displaced people living in 40 villages. Whether the people saved from eviction will actually vote for her in these elections remains to be seen. What is significant is that she has taken the step of moving from agitation from the outside to attempting to influence policy from the inside.

The third woman is Medha Patkar, who needs little introduction. Her decades-long fight against the Narmada dam might not have prevented the dam from being built. What it did do was bring into the conversation about development the concept of sustainability from the perspective of the environment and people.

Medha is the AAP candidate from Mumbai Northeast, a constituency with a mix of urban poor and middle class. Everyone ought to know of her given her presence in the public realm since the 1980s. Yet, a week before she filed her nomination papers, many people living in the slum settlement of Gautam Nagar, which falls within her constituency, had not heard of her or of AAP. Only those who watch television news recognised her, or at least knew of the party and its symbol.

Like the other two, Medha faces an uphill battle. She does not have the funds required to carpet-bomb her constituency with fliers, posters and banners. She does not have enough volunteers who can reach out to all the constituents. And her own time and strength is limited, given that she is also in great demand in other parts of India.

Yet, as I said earlier, it really does not matter whether these three women win or lose. Their presence is a relevant reminder that politics in a democracy is not the sole property of a handful of families and their progeny; it does not belong to crooks and criminals; or to those with a casteist or communal agenda. The very fact that people like Soni, Dayamani and Medha believe they should enter the election arena, represents a sliver of hope for the future of Indian democracy.


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Soni Sori – a voice emerges from Bastar’s margins

Under threat from the Maoists, and jailed by the police, AAP‘s Soni Sori plunges into the election for all she holds dear

Aman Sethi  |  <news:geo_locations>Geedam (Chhattisgarh

 Last Updated at 00:25 IST
Soni Sori

Soni Sori
Soni Sori awakens in a half settled house on National Highway 16, slips on a brown kameez and black slacks, tames her shoulder length hair with a banana clip, jumps into a Mahindra Scorpio piloted by her brother, Ramdev, and careens down to the Kuakonda police station in South BastarChhattisgarh, to sign the following handwritten affidavit: “In accordance with the bail conditions set by the Honourable Supreme Court, applicant Soni Sori is required to present herself at this police station. The most respected officer is requested to take the trouble to record the applicant’s presence.”

“I have to report to a police station every Monday morning,” says Sori, as she stashes her copy of the affidavit into a many-zippered brown leather handbag, “Had I missed it, bas, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate would be back in jail.”

Bastar – one of India’s poorest and least developed constituencies – goes to polls on Thursday, April 10. From 7 am to 4 pm, thousands of heavily armed troopers will guard 1,797 polling booths from the guerilla army of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The rebels have called for an electionboycott, a call their cadres are well capable of enforcing, and the local press reports that a re-arrangement of polling centres has meant that Adivasis from parts of the remote Narayanpur district shall have to walk 70 km each way through undulating forest to vote. (BEHIND THE BAR)

Dinesh Kashyap, the incumbent from the Bharatiya Janata Party, is expected to narrowly defeat Deepak “Bunty” Karma, his closest contender from the Congress. Yet, all the attention is focused on the AAP candidate, Sori, a 39-year-old Adivasi school teacher, with Rs 1 lakh in fixed deposits and no assets, who has become a symbol of the tragic repercussions of the war between the Maoists and the state.

‘Police abuses never raised in Bastar polls’
In October 2011, Sori was arrested for allegedly ferrying money from Essar Group to the Maoists in a deal to protect the company’s assets in rebel-controlled territories. The allegation was denied by Essar Group, Sori and the Maoists.

She fled Chhattisgarh, alleging the state police had tried to kill her in a fake encounter, was subsequently arrested in Delhi and transferred back to a prison in Chhattisgarh. In letters smuggled out of prison, Sori accused the police of torturing her in the course of interrogations, and went on a hunger strike in prison to protest against the poor living conditions there and the alleged withholding of medical assistance by prison staff. A medical report by the NRS Medical College in Kolkata lends credence to some of her claims.

The Chhattisgarh police has denied Sori’s allegations. On Republic Day in 2012, Ankit Garg, a policeman who allegedly oversaw her torture, was awarded the Police Medal for Gallantry for his bravery in anti-Maoist operations. Garg has also denied Sori’s claims.

In February this year, nearly two-and-a-half years after her arrest, Sori was granted bail by the Supreme Court and was declared the AAP’s Lok Sabha candidate from Bastar in March.

“The issues of human rights violations and police abuses have never been raised in a Bastar election,” said a senior journalist from Jagdalpur, “For Sori to stand for elections and say, ‘I am not a Maoist, I am an Adivasi from Bastar and this happened to me’, is a very big step.”

Prior to Sori’s candidature, the Communist Party of India was the only political force that consistently spoke of human rights violations in Chhattisgarh. In 2007, CPI leaders Manish Kunjam and Kartam Joga filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court to halt the controversial Salva Judum movement in which adivasis Adivasis in Chhattisgarh were evacuated from their villages and put in fortified camps protected by the State police. The petitioners have accused Judum mobs of burning villages, attacking villagers and molesting women. Since then, the CPI’s ground network has crumbled under a sustained assault from the Maoist and the state police. Kartam Joga himself was accused of supporting the Maoists and arrested in 2010. He was acquitted in January 2013.

Having marked her presence at the police station, Sori heads out to meet her family. “I should be campaigning right now but my daughter has just finished school and has returned from her hostel. She keeps calling me and asking me to come.”

It will be a miracle if Sori wins this election. Bastar is an enormous and inaccessible tract of sal forests and iron-veined hills threaded by walking trails, and the Maoist boycott forced all campaigning on to the state and national highways rather than the interior villages that might be more receptive to her key messages. The BJP has thrown its weight behind their candidate – the party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, addressed a rally here in March and Chief Minister Raman Singh flew down this week to rally the troops.

Soni’s campaign, by contrast, consists of 15 cars criss-crossing an area the size of Kerala. Campaign posters arrived four days before polling day and her campaign teams have been plagued by requests for money.

“Villagers ask for money to our faces and we have to explain we are different,” said Sukal Prasad, an Adivasi leader who spent 15 years in the BJP and another 15 in the Communist Party of India, before joining Sori’s campaign this year, “The Bastar election is managed by village-level coordinators who ensure their party delivers goats, chickens and liquor a few nights before polling. We don’t believe in that.”

Sori’s ancestral village of Palnar, on the edge of the forest 15 minutes by car from the Kuakonda police station, is one place teeming with posters of Sori’s sombre countenance alongside AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal’s beaming visage.

‘I dreamt you were dead’
Madru Ram, Sori’s father, and Ashu, her youngest child, wait for Sori on a low wooden bed in the airy veranda of their house at the entrance to the settlement. In June 2011, the Maoists attacked Madru Ram’s house in Bade Bidme, a neighbouring village, and shot him through the leg. The fracture is yet to heal.

“It doesn’t matter if she wins or not. It is really important she fights so people can learn the truth of Bastar,” Madru Ram said, “I was shot and looted by the Maoists. My daughter was imprisoned and tortured for being a Maoist.”

Ten-year-old Ashu runs up to Sori and wraps her arms around her mother’s legs, Sori hugs her: “Have you been a good girl? What were the nightmares you told me over the phone.”

“I dreamt you were dead.”
In 2010, a Maoist party attacked the Kuakonda police station and raided the house of Congressman and civil contractor Avadesh Gautam. Gautam escaped but two people were killed and a stray bullet injured his young son. In an FIR recorded after the incident, Gautam said he recognised 67 people who participated in the attack, including Sori and her husband Anil Futani.

Futani was arrested straight away and Sori was declared an absconder despite the fact that she continued to teach at her village school a few kilometres away and the school administration faithfully recorded her daily attendance.

The police, Sori alleges, would occasionally call her, remind her of the vulnerability of her children and her pending warrant and threaten to arrest her if she did not work for them as an informant. The Avdesh Gautam case collapsed in 2013 – every single accused was acquitted, including Futani who, Sori said, was beaten to the point of partial paralysis. He died soon after.

“I was in prison when he died. I missed the funeral,” Sori says, crying now. “People ask me why I haven’t taken off my bangles – I can’t. I still can’t believe I am a widow. If I take them off, I will break.”

Sori and her small team of volunteers have assembled a 21-point manifesto for a campaign, many of which allude to her party’s focus on decentralisation and devolution of powers and elimination of corruption. Yet in her speeches, Sori talks of her “natural battle” for the truth, for security, for the dignity of Adivasis and the rights of prisoners and undertrials – many of whom, she says, have been jailed on trumped up charges.

Nowhere else in the country is a campaign being fought on prisoners’ rights.

In 2012, Chhattisgarh’s jails were overcrowded by 253 per cent – or 14,780 inmates were crammed into cells intended for 5,850 prisoners – compared to the national average of 112 per cent, according to the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group.

From 2005 to 2012, an astonishing 95.7 per cent of all cases ended in acquittal of the accused, compared to a national average of 38.5 per cent. However, cases are increasingly taking longer to be decided and undertrials are spending more time in prisons. In 2005, nearly 75 per cent of all cases were disposed off in less than two years. By 2012, that number had fallen to 60 per cent and a significant number of cases ended after six years.

“I lost everything when I was sent to jail,” Sori explaining why she raised this issue, “They destroyed my life.”

It’s a little past lunchtime; she is headed back to Geedam with Ashu to the house that she and Futani once shared, when her cellphone rings. “I will come, I will come, I will come,” she says and hangs up, “I really should campaign but my son, Deepak, has just finished school and wants to leave his hostel as well. My children worry they will never see me. They say, ‘first you were in jail, now you have become a neta’.”

On the last day of campaigning Sori feels like an examination aspirant confronted by Bastar’s vast syllabi: Her father will canvass for support in Palnar, while she will first drive 100 km east to Sukma, campaign for a few hours and then drive another 160 km dead west to Bijapur before returning to 50 km back to Geedam to spend the night with her children.

Cars have been readied; in a rare display of professionalism, drivers have gone to get their stepneys checked. “Tell the drivers to hurry up,” Soni is dressed in a lilac kameez, a white dupatta, brown and black chequered cloth moccasins. She is raring to go when her cellphone rings. It’s her father, calling her 13 km away to the Madhuban hotel in Dantewada.

Spies and informants of all stripes haunt the Madhuban, Dantewada’s sole motel with attached restaurant. The Maoists, police, state intelligence, central intelligence – everyone is believed to have their people employed there, a charge the staff hotly deny. Sori and her family sit in a Mahindra Bolero parked on the hotel premises and speak in whispers.

Thirty minutes pass, and then an hour. Finally her father holds her close, she emerges from the vehicle and waves goodbye. Is everything ok?

“Nothing is ok,” she replies, “The Maoists held a meeting near Palnar last night and sent a message: They will wait till this election is over and then they will kill me.”

She makes a few phone calls, she tells the driver she is not going to Sukma, or Bijapur. Her campaign teams continue to move from village to village, slipping white hats onto all they meet. “Vote for Soni Sori,” they say, “Our party is not like the other parties.”

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Bastar: One’s Own Voice – Soni Sori

Date: 5 April 2014
Subject: Bastar: One’s Own Voice

Magazine | Apr 14, 2014

Suresh Rawal
A small push Soni Sori addressing tribals in her homebase Bastar, Chhattisgarh
One’s Own Voice
In this BJP bastion, it’s AAP that’s able to reach the deep interiors
Yashwant Dhote


It’s already hot as summer in these parts, with the mercury hovering around 42 degrees C, as Soni Sori, an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) cap on her head, addresses a group of tribespeople. “It’s corruption that led to the growth of Maoism,” says the former school teacher who is the AAP candidate. The connection is a novel one; a few heads nod, but most listeners sit stony-faced, the default response around these parts.

She tells them the AAP was founded to fight corruption and injustice, and that she wants to help free adivasis who are being wrongly held in jails. This is something speaker and audience can well relate to: Soni Sori is well-known as the victim of illegal confinement and gruesome torture by the Chhattisgarh police, and most adivasi families know of relatives or friends who have faced similar circumstances. She narrates the story of her arrest and torture and her two and half years in jail. The same stony silence, speaking of a stolid acceptance of harsh realities.

Soni Sori’s campaign is being run by scores of men and women who claim to be working for various voluntary organisations. Like those in the audience—whose response to questions such as why they are here, who do they support and so on is no more than a muttered ‘nahin maloom’—the volunteers are unwilling to give any more details. Adivasis in these parts don’t open up readily with strangers. However, a couple of volunteers—Arvind Gupta, a contractor, Santosh Sahu, a mechanic, and Raghavendra Baghel, who works for a private firm—speak up and say party chief Arvind Kejriwal’s arrival will electrify Soni Sori’s campaign.

Coil of torment Sori outside a Delhi court. (Photograph by Tehelka)

A stream of journalists from across the country and abroad are here to witness elections in this Maoist-dominated region. Hotel and lodge rooms in Jagdalpur are difficult to come by without early bookings. The Election Commission is organising the Lok Sabha elections in nine phases across the country, but seems to want to get done with Bastar at the earliest: it’s the only constituency in Chhat­tisgarh where polling will take place on April 10, in a very early phase. In less than a year, Maoist rebels have struck two major blows to the Indian state. Last year, they ambushed a Congress cavalcade through the region, killing many front-ranking state leaders of party. And last month, they ambushed a crpf patrol, killing 16 troopers. Bomb attacks, skirmishes with security forces and attacks on outposts are a regular affair.

She says she has just Rs 415 in her bank account. But that is not keeping her from putting up a stiff fight for AAP.

Mainstream parties seem afraid of making campaign forays into these parts—dominated by Maoist rebels—to reach villages in remote forest areas. “Neither BJP nor Congress workers are able to venture into the interiors,” says Sanket Thakur, state coordinator of the election campaign for the AAP. But he claims that volunteers of the AAP have no problems in reaching out to adivasis here and have nothing to fear. Lack of finances does not seem to bother the candidate either. “I’ve just Rs 415 in the bank,” says Soni Sori. She is also exp­ected to make appearances in different courts every week in connection with “false cases” filed against her by the Chhattisgarh police. She’s been acquitted in five cases, but the other cases take up both time and money. “Even in the case in which I have been granted bail by the Supreme Court, I am required to regularly appear before the police and the court,” she says with a wry smile. The odds, she admits, are stacked against her, but she’s not one to give up without putting up a good fight. “My struggle and my fight will continue.”
Hers is a case of being caught between the Maoists and the security forces, a story familiar to many adivasi families in this region. Maoists allegedly killed her father in April 2011. They also burnt down a tractor and the grain stored at her home. A few months on, it was the Chhattisgarh police that began to harass her. They accused her of being a Maoist and a conduit for the transfer of protection money from Essar Steel—which has a plant in the state—to the Maoists.

Two Essar officials were arrested and Rs 15 lakh was seized from them. Soni Sori, who the police said had slipped away to Visakhapatnam, was arr­e­sted in Delhi. There was national outrage when she revealed she was stripped and tortured in police custody: stones were pushed into her private parts. Police officers stoutly denied the charges, but human rights activists kept up a chorus of protest. A medical report submitted to the Supreme Court confirmed the torture. She was granted some relief by the courts but cases are still pending.

Her husband, who left his home in Maharashtra to live with her, was also held on trumped up charges, she says. He came out of jail on bail with partial paralysis and died soon after. “The last three years have turned my life upside down,” she says. But what she regrets the most, she says, is the loss of her students. A Std xii pass, she’d decided to work for the education of the children of adivasis who were jailed or killed by Maoists or police, gathering some 100 of them about her. She wanted to give them an education as a way out of Bastar’s circle of terror and vengeance set in a context of tribal loyalties and Maoist ideology. She now finds there are only eight students left. “The others have melted away in the two and a half years I’ve been in prison,” she says. “I suspect many of them may have joined Maoist dalams.”

Winning this election will be quite difficult for her. Bastar has been a BJP stronghold for long: it has been represented by BJP MPs since 1998. After the sudden death of sitting MP Baliram Kashyap, his son Dinesh Kashyap was fielded by the BJP in 2011. He is once again the party’s candidate this time. His brother Kedar, a minister in the Raman Singh government, lends extra heft to the campaign. The Congress candidate Deepak Karma, also in his thirties, is also the son of Congress leader Mahendra Karma, of Salwa Judum infamy, who was killed by Maoists last year in the ambush on the party convoy. Both AAP and Sori being first­-timers, their chances are not being rated highly by observers. But nobody can fault first-timers for not putting up a spirited campaign. At least half a dozen Swaraj Mazda trucks pasted with election material and 15 other vehicles have been lent by well-wishers. At least the first-timers are not invisible in these forested, troubled tracts.

The writer is a senior journalist who has covered Bastar for more than 15 years

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#India – Death of liberty in Chhattisgarh – Soni Sori #Vaw

By Shalini Singh
Story Dated: Monday, March 10, 2014 15:47 hrs IST
Soni Sori wants to live, but, she feels that the government wants to kill her
in pursuit of justice: Sori says she may enter politics to give voice to others like her. Photo by Aayush Goel

in pursuit of justice: Sori says she may enter politics to give voice to others like her. Photo by Aayush Goel

It is a winter afternoon in Delhi’s Jangpura area. Sitting in her lawyer’s office, Soni Sori, who has recently been granted bail by the Supreme Court, looks relieved. This 38-year-old tribal schoolteacher from Chhattisgarh, who was accused of helping Maoists, says she suffered torture and sexual harassment in jail. She is thinking seriously about joining politics.

“I am an educated Adivasi woman. I have to give voice to others like me in my village even if it means entering politics at some point,” she says. She may also write about her life in jail. “Every day I spent in a jail has a different story of brutality, enough to write a book.”

Daughter of a former Congress leader from Bade Bedma village in Dantewada, Sori was leading a normal life in the neighbouring Jabeli village, with her husband and three children. She became a teacher in 2002. “Teaching kids in my village made all of us happy. It was considered a feat for an Adivasi woman to become a teacher and the kids took to me. In 2006, I was asked to take up the principal’s responsibilities and our three-room school expanded,” she says.

It was a time when Naxalite activities were on the rise, and Salwa Judum, the government-backed people’s movement against the Maoists, too, started operating in the state. “The CRPF troubled women going into the jungles to collect wood…. Women were raped. Once, three boys were killed in front of me in 15 minutes and two of them were buried in one hole,” says Sori. She rallied together a group of villagers and protested at the local police station. “We were accused of netagiri,” she says. “But our point was that they should capture the Naxalites, which was their job, and not trouble the Adivasis. We did not want Salwa Judum to come to our village.”

Things turned worse for Sori in 2009 after the police arrested her nephew, Lingaram Kodapi, for alleged Maoist links. He was kept locked in a toilet for over a month and the police kept denying that he was in their custody. Soon, there were rumours that Lingaram would become a Salwa Judum chief. “We faced trouble from both sides, the police and the Naxals. On the advice of my husband [Anil Futane], I went to meet my teacher [activist Himanshu Kumar], who said we should appeal in the High Court. The court ordered his release, but the police continued to hound us. I suspect they wanted to kill Lingaram in an encounter and put the blame on us,” says Sori. “Lingaram wanted to commit suicide. Our lives were stuck between the Naxals, whose ways we did not agree with, and the police, who kept harassing us.” It was a period of emotional trauma for the family.

A word of caution from her teacher saw Sori fleeing to Delhi in 2010. Sori, Futane and Lingaram were accused of planning and executing an attack on the house of Congress leader Avdesh Gautam. Lingaram, too, had gone to Delhi and had completed a course in journalism. After he and Sori posted a video of police atrocities on the internet, the police branded her a Naxal informer and picked her up for questioning. “They would put pressure on me to tell them what the Naxals were doing and where they were meeting,” says Sori. “When I said I did not know anything, they got angry and started abusing Linga, Swami Agnivesh and Arundhati Roy, saying they were all part of a Naxal network in the city.”

Lingaram was arrested in September 2011 in the controversial Essar pay-off case. The Chhattisgarh Police alleged that Essar was paying money to the Maoists for “protection”. The police said Lingaram was a Maoist conduit, and was extorting money from Essar. “They tried to arrest me, too, but I refused to go with them,” says Sori. “I did not even know if those people were police officers, Naxalites or Linga’s personal enemies.” Terrified, Sori returned to her village.

By this time, she and her family were in the Maoists’ hitlist and her father was shot in the leg. “The Naxals wanted me to appear before the jan adalat, alleging I was taking money in their name. Either the police or the Naxals would have killed me,” says Sori. So, she returned to Delhi, but was arrested and produced in a court in Saket. Although she asked the judge to send her to Tihar Jail, as she felt she would not be safe in Chhattisgarh, the judge reassured her and sent her to a jail in Raipur.

“I was not given any food or water. Ankit Garg [the Dantewada superintendent of police] said I had troubled the police, running from one spot to another. ‘Why did you go to Delhi? Are you not supporting the Naxals? Everything happens from this table. The government, courts, all run from here. We got you back ultimately,’ he said. He asked about Arundhati Roy, Nandini Sundar, Colin Gonsalves, Medha Patkar, Himanshu Kumar, Prashant Bhushan, Kavita Srivastava and said they were all part of the Naxal network. He wrote it all in a letter and asked me to sign it and promised to let me go if I became a government witness,” says Sori.

She refused. “I was then given electric shocks. My clothes were ripped apart and stones were pushed inside my private parts. They said I was a prostitute for the Naxals and others who supported me in Delhi. ‘You should die of shame,’ they said. Their target was Lingaram and they wanted me to testify against him,” recollects Sori.

The next day, she could not use the bathroom and fell inside it. It became an excuse for the police to not take her to the court. Although she was taken briefly to a hospital in Raipur, the police soon yanked off the glucose drip and brought her back to the jail.

Sori went on a hunger strike and was shifted to a Jagdalpur jail where she met several Adivasi girls, who were under detention. “These girls were tortured, sticks were inserted into their private parts and were raped inside the jail. It had become the norm,” says Sori. She says she was most inspired by a young Adivasi girl. “Her nipples had been cut off most brutally. She was uneducated, yet wanted to live and fight. Her plight changed my mind and I said I wanted to fight.”

Sori was later taken to a hospital in Kolkata where the stones were removed. “My labour pain while giving birth to my three children was not as bad as when those stones were taken out,” she says. Her mother, unable to withstand the shock of seeing Sori in jail, died in 2012.

Sori’s travails did not end there. Back in a jail in Raipur, she was again a victim of police brutality. “They stripped me on several occasions. Not just the men, but women guards, too, would do it, telling me to sit with my legs spread apart. I was not given the right medicines. Doctors were called to prove that I was mentally unstable, but they said I was only traumatised and angry.”

Lawyer and Aam Aadmi Party leader Prashant Bhushan says grave human rights violation has happened in the cases of Sori and Lingaram. “If a person is victimised and you raise your voice, you are faced with torture and false cases. No action is taken against those police officers. Land is being taken away from people and given to big corporations. Villages are being burnt down. The accountability of the police has to be fixed, and not just in Chhattisgarh,” he says.

Writer and political activist Arundhati Roy says Sori’s fault is that she is an Adivasi and a teacher. “Linga is an Adivasi and a journalist. We have seen a lot of protests last year. After the Nirbhaya case in December 2012, we have seen fast-track courts coming up. But, for Sori, we had a special slow-track court. Adivasis have no speech, forget free speech,” says Roy. “The police push stones in her [Sori’s] private parts and get gallantry awards…. There are people in jail against whom a war is being waged. Soni and Linga are examples of a nation at war. The bail granted to Sori offers Adivasi women some hope.”

Sure enough, Sori wants to return to her school and her advice is that no woman should break after going through anything. “Don’t lose hope, keep moving forward. Garg said I should die of shame after what was done to me. Why should I be ashamed? I have not done anything wrong. He should be ashamed of the atrocities inflicted on people like me. I will bring everything out in the open. My struggles have not lessened. Now, I will fight for others,” she says.

But, the fear of death continues to haunt Sori. Futane, who was acquitted of all charges in the Gautam attack case, died last August, allegedly because of the torture he suffered in custody. “I want to live,” says Sori. “But, it seems the government wants to kill me.”

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Activist to honcho, AAP draws them all


  • Former Infosys board member V Balakrishnan (file photos)
    Former Infosys board member V Balakrishnan (file photos)
  • Tribal activist Soni Sori ( file photo)
    Tribal activist Soni Sori ( file photo)

Latest entrants are tribal activist Soni Sori and ex-Infosys board member Bala



The AAP seems to be straddling different ideological boats. As the party, which made a stunning electoral debut in Delhi, plunges into the 2014 national electoral battlefield, it seems to be offering everything to everybody.

Incidentally, a recent AAP release announcing some of the new entrants said all those joining are “like-minded people struggling for the rights of the Aam Aadmi”.

Poles apartHowever, a quick glance at some of the names gives the impression of an ideological mishmash of the left, right and centre.

For instance, those fighting for land rights and rehabilitation of project-displaced people see some hope in Narmada Bachao Andolan activist Medha Patkar as an AAP candidate in Maharashtra, while the proponents of economic liberalisation and foreign investment can bank on former Royal Bank of Scotland officer Meera Sanyal, another AAP candidate from Mumbai.

Tribal and human rights activists have hailed reports of Chhattisgarh activist Soni Sori joining the AAP, while the party’s tech-savvy young supporters are gung-ho about ex-Infosys board member V Bala in Bangalore joining them.

According to news website, 20 years ago, when Patkar was protesting the Dabhol power project while Sanyal was heading the Indian arm of the bank that was financing the project.

While the AAP is yet to make a formal announcement about Sori, she posted in the party’s Facebook page: “Now I want to contest elections and through AAP I want to transform the system.” One of the cases against Sori involves allegations that, in September 2011, she acted as a courier to deliver funds to Maoists from a firm as “protection money”.

Recently, former defence personnel Lt Gen (retd) HS Panag and Lt Gen (retd) TK Chadha had joined the party along with BL Vohra, a retired 1967-batch IPS officer.

Retired IPS officer Kuldip Sharma has also joined the AAP’s Gujarat unit.

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AAP, Medha Patkar, Soni Sori and Corporate Funding

Medha Patkar

Medha Patkar (Photo credit: Joe Athialy)



By Joe.M.S.


18 February, 2014


The Aam Admi Party (AAP) fiasco culminated with the resignation of Kejriwal , another media spectacle, which was like running away from the responsibility of tall promises they made, on flimsy grounds to portray them a martyrs. After this, the AAP has even declared publicly for the first time it’s economic policy, which is not against capitalism as such, but only against crony capitalism. Thus the appearance of the movement as radical for some ultra intellectuals and hopefuls, proved to be a mere displacement anticipating capitalistic economic determinism in the last instance, as Zizek would have put it.


It is astonishing, even at this juncture of neo liberal predatory capitalism, that there are takers for the theory that capitalism can exist with a human face and is susceptible to control, and that the so called developed western capitalism is dissociated from world ecological destruction and wars.


Meanwhile, intellectuals are working overtime to save the likes of Kumar Vishwas, by sophisticated media theories, to present him as a victim, turning a blind eye to their own feminism, indirectly trampling the rights of nurses and women.


In this context, the declaration of Medha Patkar and Soni Sori as candidates of AAP, in effect works as an exercise in revamping, to lend credibility to the sullied image of the party, after the allegedly xenophobic attack on African women. Though some Gandhian post-colonial intellectuals, are bending over backward, to defend the stand of AAP on this racist attack, the party has not yet come clean on this issue. Many progressive feminists and leftists intellectuals have raised doubts about the sincerity of AAP and their defence of their law minister. The AAP’s stand not to believe any other persons apart from their party members is strange to say the least. Some post ideological AAP defenders behave like old soviet Marxist party, which in their economic reductionism, relegated all other questions of language, gender and race to the side-lines. After all, just because of the fact that the allegations against Modi and 2G spectrum are made by corporate media does not mean than they have no substance. Thus the AAP stand that media is targeting them for their supposedly anti corporate politics does not hold good.


So one can say that, the action of Medha Patkar to allow her name to be associated with AAP as a candidate, not seems to be a right move. The fact that she is not only a living legend with impeccable records but the embodiment of world ecological movement may lend credence to a party like AAP, though however detached an attachment to the party she holds. The record of AAP on racial equality can be used even by anti progressive forces the world over to malign the ecological movements. This is especially so, when many rightist Paleoconservative forces are active . So what ever be the anti-Reliance corporate rhetoric of AAP, until they come clean on the alleged racist raid on Africans, it would have been better for a person of Medha’s stature to be a bit more cautious in her espousal of AAP’s cause. This is exclusively so when ecological politics remains the only hope for a rejuvenation of world left, when almost all existing left parties in the world are pro-development oriented. (See the stand of Communist party of India (Marxist) which even supports the right wing forces to oppose pro-ecological Gadgil report ). A time when Medha’s ecology should be guiding light of left politics over and above Marx, she should not be seen advocating soft capitalists like AAP.


When Kejriwal’s own past views on caste based reservations has been questioned from various quarters, the party’s suppression of dissenting women members and their rejection that there is not even an iota of truth in the complaint of African women, in the times of Justice Varma Committee report, is not in the least progressive. AAP defenders hope that they could easily pass their legislations to control corporates ( even if sincere it will only be a move to sanitise Indian capitalism and to make it like it’s western counterpart) and would be not facing any opposition is ridiculous. And their critique of every scepticism posed by the left in the past against limitations of parliamentary politics is meaningless. So it would be opportune for people like Medha to understand the complexities of the situation because racial equality should go hand in hand with ecology . Then only can a new progressive ecological politics garner the support of the subaltern all over the world.


Joe M S, is a social science teacher from Kerala. Worked in various places of India, now residing in Ireland.


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AAP denies fielding tribal rights activist Soni Sori from Bastar for Lok Sabha polls

All India | Edited by Nadim Asrar | Updated: February 17, 2014 21:31 IST

AAP denies fielding tribal rights activist Soni Sori from Bastar for Lok Sabha polls

Tribal rights activist Soni Sori (File photo)

New Delhi A day after a senior Aam Aadmi Party leader said Soni Sori has been offered a ticket for the Lok Sabha polls from Bastar in Chhattisgarh, the party has denied fielding the tribal rights activist.

“Soni Sori is not even part of the party, forget contesting,” AAP leader Sanjay Singh said.

“We asked her if she wanted to fight elections and she expressed her willingness. Charges against her are bogus. She has been targeted because she works for tribal rights,” Mr Singh’s colleague in the party, Prashant Bhushan, had said yesterday.

Ms Sori, currently out on permanent bail granted by the Supreme Court earlier this month, has been accused by the Chhattisgarh government of helping the Naxals in her state.

The 36-year-old activist was arrested and put in a Raipur jail in October 2011 for allegedly receiving money from the Essar Group on behalf of the Naxals.

Ms Sori had alleged that she was tortured and raped at the Dantewada police station after her arrest. The Chhattisgarh police had denied the allegations, claiming she fell in a bathroom.

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Soni Sori will take legal action against S P Ankit Garg who sexually assaulted her in prison


Express News Service | New Delhi | February 9, 2014 12:40 am
Sori said there were many tribal women in Chhattisgarh jails who are sexually harassed by jailers on a daily basis.

Tribal school teacher Soni Sori, who was recently granted bail by the Supreme Court, on Saturday said she would take legal action against police officer Ankit Garg, who allegedly tortured and sexually assaulted her in jail.

Sori, who was jailed for alleged Maoist links, said ever since the December 16, 2012, Delhi gangrape, police action against those accused of sexual assault had become prompt.  “But even though what was done to me is nothing short of rape, it prompted no action. Instead, my tormentor was given an award. Does this mean the law is different for tribals?” she said. Garg was given the Police Medal for Gallantry for leading a counterinsurgency operation in Chhattisgarh.

Sori said there were many tribal women in Chhattisgarh jails who are sexually harassed by jailers on a daily basis.  “I will return home and work for these women, try and lend them my voice and highlight their problems… I came across women who were raped, tortured — all because they were alleged Maoists,” she said.

Sori’s nephew, journalist and tribal activist Lingaram Kodopi, who was also granted bail, said, “In our home, democracy isn’t working.  The police wants us dead because people like me and Sori who dare to speak up are in the way of their war.”
Activist Arundhati Roy, who also attended the press conference, said, “When a judge harasses an intern or when Tarun Tejpal allegedly molested a girl, they’re sent to jail. But if you rape or harass an adivasi, you get awarded.” AAP leader Prashant Bhushan, also present at the event, said corruption was forcing “poor tribals to take up arms”.

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Tribal Teacher Soni Sori speaks on #Chhattisgarh #Vaw after her Bail

Want to work for women who have faced police atrocities: tribal activist Soni Sori

All India | Written by Ketki Angre | Updated: February 08, 2014

Want to work for women who have faced police atrocities: tribal activist Soni Sori

Soni Sori, a tribal teacher from Dantewada in Chhattisgarh, wants to return to her hometown.

New Delhi Soni Sori’s father was shot by suspected Maoists, her husband incarcerated for allegedly supporting them. But Sori, a tribal teacher from Dantewada in Chhattisgarh, wants to return to her hometown despite the threats she says she faces.

“I want to go to Chhattisgarh and work for those women who have faced similar police atrocity. My Janmabhoomi (birthplace) could end up being my kabr (grave), but I will still go back. I know I could be killed there, but I want to keep fighting”, she says.

In October 2011, she was arrested after being accused of being a conduit for Maoists. In spite of getting discharged from five other cases foisted by the police, it took her more than two years to get bail in this one case.

Fearing ill-treatment by Chhattisgarh police, she had sought the help of courts and police to avoid being sent back. However, after her arrest in Delhi, she was sent right back.

“I was given electric shocks, forced to strip, and verbally abused by Ankit Garg. He supervised as police inserted stones into my private parts to force me to give false statements implicating activists (like Himanshu Kumar, Medha Patkar and others). Is this how they expect to solve the Maoist problem?” says an angry Soni Sori, adding, “Today, the same Ankit Garg gets a gallantry award! What did I get in return? Abuse and humiliation.”

Ankit Garg, who Soni Sori accused of supervising police torture, received the police medal for gallantry from the President in 2012 for being part of an anti-Maoist operation in 2010.

Lingaram Kodopi, Sori’s nephew was also given bail along with her by the Supreme Court. “When Badru (a naxal) surrendered, he got a house and compensation from the government. He may have killed hundreds of innocents but all that is forgotten. Instead the government is putting us through such torture, literally forcing us to take up arms.”

Soni Sori is determined to return to her roots despite of the threats. On seeking protection, she has this to say: “Who will give me security? The same police who abused me?”

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