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Tribal activist Soni Sori- Burnt & bullied in ‘police state’ of Bastar #Vaw


Jaideep Hardikar

Tribal activist Soni Sori, her face blackened with a chemical, after the attack on February 20. Picture courtesy Deshbandhu

Tribal activist Soni Sori, her face blackened with a chemical, after the attack on February 20. Picture courtesy Deshbandhu
Feb. 20: A tribal activist alleging fake encounters in Maoist-hit Bastar has her face burnt with a chemical on a highway.

Feb. 7: A journalist reporting on alleged rape of tribal women by police has her home stoned by vigilantes, frightening her into leaving Chhattisgarh.

Mid-Feb: Police summon and pressure landlords to evict women lawyers aiding arrested tribals and a former academic uncovering alleged police oppression.

Activists, journalists and lawyers have reported being systematically targeted in Chhattisgarh for protesting alleged police repression of tribal folk in the name of anti-Maoist operations.

The latest to be attacked was tribal activist and Aam Aadmi Party member Soni Sori, who had her face smeared with a hot, black grease-like substance on February 20 evening on her way home to Geedam from Jagdalpur in Bastar.

The mother of two, aged about 40, has a blackened, swollen and burnt face. She is stable but under intensive care at Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, where she was taken after her condition worsened on February 21.

“I had received threats but neglected them,” she had told reporters at Jagdalpur hospital the night of the attack without identifying any group.

Her party’s Chhattisgarh unit president, Sanket Thakur, who had accompanied her to Delhi, told The Telegraph that Sori was riding pillion on a two-wheeler when she was waylaid by three men whom she couldn’t recognise in the dark.

Sori had been a schoolteacher campaigning against the controversial anti-Maoist militia Salwa Judum when, in late 2011, she was accused of helping the insurgents extort money from Essar as a conduit. She shot into the limelight when she alleged prison torture, prompting the Supreme Court to order a medical check-up. She received bail two years ago.

Sori, who unsuccessfully contested the 2014 general election from Bastar, recently accused the police of murdering a tribal villager, Hadma Kashyap, in a fake encounter on February 4.

“Intolerance and intimidation are happening not just in JNU or Dadri. The police here are hounding people like Sori, who are asking uncomfortable questions about fake encounters, rape of tribal women during anti-Maoist operations, and fake ‘Maoist surrenders’,” a Jagdalpur-based reporter said.

One of those hounded out was Malini Subramaniam, a journalist and former International Red Cross worker who had written a series of reports for the online portal on the allegations of rape by the security forces.

On February 6 evening, members of an anti-Maoist vigilante group called the Samajik Ekta Manch, made up mostly of BJP workers, demonstrated outside her rented house, denouncing her as a “pro-Maoist outsider”. Past midnight, some people stoned the house, smashing the windows of her car.

It took the police two days to register an FIR. Malini left the state on February 19. The next day, so did two young members of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLag), Isha Khandelwal and Shalini Gera.

Isha and Shalini had been providing free legal help to illiterate tribal folk, mostly those arrested on charges of aiding the Maoists, for the past three years.

Last week, the police summoned their landlord and asked him to throw the women out, local journalists say. The same tactic was adopted to try and get rid of social scientist Bela Bhatia, a former professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences who had moved to Bastar last year from Mumbai.

Bhatia had been part of an expert committee the Planning Commission had formed in 2006 that included current national security adviser Ajit Doval. The panel had produced a widely acclaimed report explaining the alienation of Dalit and Adivasi communities in areas that have turned Maoist zones.

Bhatia, who has written extensively on police atrocities in Bastar, has so far refused to buckle and is staying put in her quarters on Jagdalpur town’s outskirts.

Sori had been returning home after seeing off the JagLag volunteers in Jagdalpur when she was attacked, her nephew said.

The state police have denied any role in the attack in a statement issued through the state information and public relations directorate, and said they are seriously investigating the case.

Fresh threat

Handwritten pamphlets written in Hindi were thrown into Sori’s home on February 26 through the kitchen window, threatening to harm her family, Thakur said.

The state government has now posted two policemen at the Geedam house as Sori recuperates in Delhi.

Earlier, on February 24, Sori had from her hospital bed turned down an offer of security from the Chhattisgarh police.

“Why should she not? Just a month ago, the Bastar inspector-general of police, S.R.P. Kalluri, had branded her a Maoist sympathiser at a news conference,” Thakur said.

Sori has consistently said that she opposes the Maoists, whom she accuses of once beating up her father.

Two days before the attack on her, civic authorities at Geedam, 380km south of state capital Raipur and 80km from Jagdalpur town, had said they would demolish Sori’s home as it stood on encroached land, Thakur alleged. He said the accusation was false.

The police dismiss the charges of atrocities and extra-judicial killings as Maoist propaganda.

Groups of journalists have visited BJP chief minister Raman Singh to press for investigations, to be told each time that he “would look into it”.

The National Human Rights Commission has asked the state government for detailed reports on civil society groups’ charges of sexual assault on women in Bijapur and Sukma.

Separate teams of the Adivasi Mahasabha, a social organisation of the tribal communities, and the Congress have corroborated the findings and demanded action.

But just one of the multiple complaints has led to an FIR in the past six months, and no arrests or inquiries have been made, local journalists say.

Kalluri, the Bastar police chief, told a news conference a few days ago that “outsiders” had been waging a disinformation campaign against his force to derail the Maoist hunt in the south Bastar districts of Bijapur, Dantewada and Sukma. He didn’t take calls to his phone today.

The police claim to have eliminated some 50 “Maoists” in south Bastar in the past four months without suffering any casualties. They have not revealed the names of the slain.

Activists allege the figures are inflated, and that many innocent people have been killed too. They say that hardly any of the “surrendered Maoists” the police are flaunting had ever been an insurgent.

“Bastar is becoming a police state,” the leader of the Opposition in Chhattisgarh, T.S. Sinhdeo, told this newspaper. “The Congress condemns the attacks on journalists and civil society members.

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