One woman’s harrowing ordeal in Chhattisgarh reveals the nature and functioning of India’s repressive state apparatus.
A candlelight vigil organised by civil society groups for Sodi Shambo, who was denied access to the press, activists and even her lawyer while she received treatment at All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi in 2010.
Photo: Flickr / Joe Athialy
For several years now, the state of Chhattisgarh in central India has been in the news as security forces have waged a protracted war in its southern districts against Maoists and those declared to be their supporters. Describing the challenge as the “biggest national security challenge”, the new Home Minister of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Rajnath Singh, has promised a massive strike against Maoist leaders and cadres. More troops, more money and more weapons are expected in the new strategy for eliminating the Maoists. To be sure, the present commitment is but a continuation of previous efforts which were similarly aimed at eradicating ‘left-wing extremism’. Besides posing a security challenge, the Maoists offer a serious threat to the planned path of industrial development based on exploitation of natural resources as they have been forcibly resisting the entry of the state and corporate capital into the forest areas.
A brush with death
Given their strong rural and adivasi bases, uprooting the Maoists has not been an easy task. Nevertheless, the state policy is premised on the understanding that until and unless the Maoists abjure violence, the offensive against them will continue. Consequently, the ‘affected’ districts of Chhattisgarh have been engulfed in a swathe of violence and are, for all practical purposes, a war zone. In tandem with the state’s propaganda, a strong public opinion has grown against the Maoists and their ‘menace’. What is overlooked is that the war is not between two evenly matched adversaries. The state’s coercive apparatus is far stronger than that of the Maoists, and there is no level playing field in Chhattisgarh or in any of the districts where the state is fighting what it views as the enemy. Undoubtedly, crimes committed by the Maoists need to be investigated and prosecuted, but what of those committed by state forces and the vigilante groups it supports? The story of Sodi Shambo gives an idea of how the rule of law has been compromised in this unequal war which the state has declared against its own people.
A few years ago, Sodi Shambo, resident of Gompad village in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district, was subjected to a gruesome encounter. On the morning of 1 October 2009, she was grievously shot in the leg, allegedly by the security forces and Special Police Officers (SPOs), who had surrounded her village in a bid to flush out suspected Maoists. While nine people were reported to have died in the combing operation, Sodi Shambo survived to tell a tale. That was just the beginning of her travails.
Within a fortnight, when news had travelled to Himanshu Kumar’s Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA), and several affected villagers arrived to narrate their experiences, Sodi Shambo was in dire trouble and needed urgent medical attention. Since her village had never seen any development activity worth its name, she had no choice but to travel to Dantewada for help. VCA was known for its activism among the adivasi villagers who were at the receiving end of violence by Salwa Judum, the state-sponsored militia propped up to counter the Maoists. Engaged in the task of implementing various government schemes as well as facilitating the resettlement of villagers in strife-torn areas based on a Supreme Court order, Himanshu Kumar and his Gandhian ashram had garnered a reputation for fearlessness despite intimidation and attacks. Hence, the VCA was possibly the only place for Sodi Shambo to seek refuge. Assisted by fellow villagers, she arrived hobbling and her injured leg looked twice the size of her emaciated body. Given the gravity of the injuries and the fear of secondary infections, Kumar proceeded to take her to Delhi by train under his supervision and protection. She was immediately admitted into a well-known hospital where doctors performed a complicated surgery on her bullet-pierced leg, a part of which had rotted already. Notwithstanding the inordinate delay of nearly three weeks, her leg was saved, though it was held together with metal pieces and caused her much pain. Through the help of a translator she recorded her statement from her hospital bed, which was filed in the Supreme Court by Himanshu Kumar. A vigil was mounted in the ward by activists to protect her from the police.
The nature of the injury was such that it required further surgeries which could not be performed at that time. Consequently, after discharge she stayed in an activist’s flat for two weeks in order to recuperate under the care of the doctors. Flung from her home and confined within the four walls of a small flat in an alien city, her only sources of entertainment were wildlife shows on Discovery and National Geographic channels. They likely struck a chord as she would look animated while watching them. The rest of the time, she fretted about her children and home. Since she was insistent and could not be held back, she returned to Chhattisgarh with a fellow companion with the understanding that her treatment would resume at the same hospital in some time. Back in Dantewada, she stayed at the VCA for over a month with her children and husband. Her health was precarious, and she had to be admitted to a local hospital, which was unaware of the reason for her injury. There was no question of her returning to her village as it had no health facilities. Besides, there was the fear that her attackers would return and punish her for daring to tell.
When she tried to make her return journey to Delhi in early January 2010, she endured further punishment. Three times the police surrounded her bus, and compelled her and her companions to return to Dantewada before they were detained. When she tried leaving by car with Himanshu Kumar, the vehicle was intercepted at Kanker town, and she was summarily taken into custody and separated from Kumar. Of course, the officials told angry journalists that they were merely discharging their duty by inquiring why Sodi Shambo had not lodged a First Information Report (FIR) before becoming a petitioner in the writ petition that Kumar had filed in the Supreme Court against the State of Chhattisgarh. The laws of the land, they reminded the journalists, had to be obeyed. The Dantewada Superintendent of Police (SP), Amrish Mishra, stated to an insistent journalist over the telephone that the police had been looking for her for the past three months, and that they had news of her being in the custody of Himanshu Kumar. He also clarified that Shambo was not merely an eyewitness, but also a complainant against the police. Hence, the police were interested in ‘recording’ her statement and not in arresting or detaining her.
Following her abduction, she was lodged in a local hospital in Jagdalpur town, which had no facility to treat her injury. No journalist was allowed to interview her, even though the SP in Dantewada had stated that she was not under detention. However, despite their best efforts to keep her in Chhattisgarh, the police had to obey the instructions of the Court and bring her to Delhi for further treatment. They refused to take her to the hospital where she had been treated and instead, kept her in All India Institute of Medical Sciences under intense surveillance. She was whisked back to Chhattisgarh before her lawyer or Himanshu Kumar could meet her. Sometime later she was again brought to Delhi and produced before the Court, only to be returned to Chhattisgarh almost immediately. After that it was difficult to determine her whereabouts as the entire region had transformed into a police state and no civilian movement was possible without questioning and interrogation. Slowly, she slipped from public knowledge and was swallowed by the custodians of Operation Green Hunt, the code name for anti-Maoist operations carried out by security forces along with SPOs starting in the latter half of 2009. In any case, the search was over as Sodi Shambo, the victim and witness of state violence, had been taken under control.
The question of violation of people’s rights was deemed irrelevant as the Judum was claimed to be a ‘spontaneous people’s movement’ meant to ‘purify’ the people of their Maoist ‘illness’.
Scratching the surface
As Shambo disappeared without any trace, it became increasingly apparent that her story was not an isolated or accidental case in recent history. The attack, abduction and disappearance made sense only when one saw it as a ‘witness story’ of the large, state-led hunts that have continued to ravage the southern part of Chhattisgarh in the name of countering Maoism. Back in the early 1980s, when the erstwhile People’s War Group began building its bases in the Dantewada district, there was really no governance or development in the region. For almost three decades, the Maoists consolidated their bases and mobilised villagers against local oppression and exploitation at the hands of tendu leaf contractors, patwaris (money lenders), revenue collectors and forest officials. Through the sanghams, the village level organisations, the Maoists settled local disputes, fixed prices and wages and forcefully intervened on issues of prices, wages and the misappropriation of funds by government functionaries. Although the nature of armed operations was of low intensity, the Maoists were able to expand the guerrilla zone as part of their larger aim of creating what they call ‘people’s rule’. Unable to uproot the Maoist challenge politically and socially, the state’s answer was to launch a private militia in 2005, the Salwa Judum, ironically titled as a ‘peace movement’. The state’s rationale was based on the understanding that the Judum would drive out the Maoists, leaving its mineral-rich forests safe for industrial extraction. Within this rationale, the question of violation of people’s rights was deemed irrelevant as the Judum was claimed to be a ‘spontaneous people’s movement’ meant to ‘purify’ the people of their Maoist ‘illness’.
True to its goal, Salwa Judum acted as a lynch mob which raided villages, burnt dwellings and “forced the people to join it on pain of death”, according to late human-rights activist K Balagopal. While its leaders functioned as local warlords, who benefited from the state coffers and mining leases of private companies, the rank-and-file members, the SPOs, were drawn from the vast pool of unemployed adivasi youth, surrendered Maoists and minors. Undoubtedly, the state has always relied on vigilante groups for aiding its counterinsurgency strategies, but the creation of the Judum only exacerbated its ongoing conflict with the Maoists. Typically, a Judum ‘meeting’ was characterised by search-and-cordon operations mounted by security forces in a selected village, followed by attacks which compelled the villagers to either flee or face death. In case of the latter, the Judum members would simply throw the bodies in a makeshift grave before proceeding to the next targeted village. Soon after its formation, the armed actions of Salwa Judum had devastated 644 villages in Dantewada district as people were displaced from their homes and forced to reside in ‘camps’ run by the Judum, which also doubled as detention centres for surrendered Maoists and counterinsurgency training camps. The consequences were terrible: on the one hand, a vast section of internally displaced persons (IDPs) were generated from the Judum’s campaign and, on the other, a new set of Judum loyalists and SPOs were created in the camps. Despite growing criticisms and the filing of two writ petitions in 2007 against them, the Judum continued unabated as it had the backing of the state and had received a clean chit from National Human Rights Commission’s investigation team.
In 2011, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional Chhattisgarh’s use of state-sponsored private militias and induction of adivasi youth as SPOs to fight Maoists. By this time, the Judum had morphed into Koya Commandos, a vigilante group that accompanied the security forces as part of Operation Green Hunt. In a bid to circumvent the Court’s order, the state government regularised the SPOs as police officers by lowering the eligibility criteria and by enacting a new state ordinance. Thus, just as the Judum had profited from the police’s need for local informants, the state fought its dirty war by exploiting the resentment of the local populace against its poverty-stricken condition and its grievances against the Maoists. Hence, even after the Court verdict, it was once again business as usual for Salwa Judum and the security forces.
This infamous history showed that once a hunt is initiated, it rarely dies out; the semantics shift and the names change, but the metaphor of the hunt remains. Accordingly, Operation Green Hunt marked a new phase, and it replaced the Salwa Judum strategy of displacement and eviction of villagers with an all-out state offensive against the Maoists. Unlike the previous ‘purification’ hunt, which was initiated with much fanfare by its leader Mahendra Karma (who was one of 17 people killed in a 2013 Maoist attack on a Congress Party convoy), and suitably embroidered with the mythology of jan jagaran abhiyanor people’s awareness campaign, the Manmohan Singh government denied the existence of Operation Green Hunt in 2009 and blamed it on the media. Nevertheless, in order to combat the Maoist challenge, the campaign intensified and a very large number of paramilitary troops were stationed in the affected areas of Chhattisgarh from June 2009. Like its previous avatar, the underlying motivation of the hunt was to enhance access to natural resources for the benefit of private companies, but it was assiduously carried out in the name of internal security. Much of the methods of cleansing remained the same: selected villages were targeted based on the information provided by the SPOs and ‘area domination’ exercises were carried out by the security forces. As before, the dead were hastily buried in makeshift graves. In response, the Maoist squads carried out retaliatory attacks on security forces, state officials, Judum leaders and local informants. The last few years have shown the waning and waxing of the political fight over ‘area domination’, with significant losses on the Maoists’ side: many of its leaders are dead, thousands of suspected supporters are rotting in jail without trial, and its base among the villages has been substantially eroded.
The campaign has also entailed a hunt of those who cried foul against the hunters. The story of Himanshu Kumar and VCA is, by far, the most obvious example. Between 2005 and 2009, Kumar filed 522 complaints on behalf of villagers in which he extensively documented instances of fake encounters, rape allegations and other human-rights abuses by the SPOs and security forces. His vocal criticisms of the flagrant and routine violations of human rights in Chhattisgarh were duly punished. His ashram was razed to rubble in May 2009, his aides Kopa Kunjam and Sukhnath Oyami were arrested in December 2009, and his planned padyatra the same month was denied permission on grounds that he could be attacked by adivasis opposed to him. Towards the end of December, Kumar had to wind up his activities as the landlord of his rented accommodation was pressured into having the premises vacated. Over the next few weeks and days, prominent activists who arrived in Dantewada to pledge their solidarity were attacked, and the police warned many journalists that it had their “eyes on them”. After 17 years of dedicated service, Himanshu Kumar was finally forced to leave Dantewada. The veteran Gandhian had become too critical of the state.
The police had to take particular ‘care’ of Shambo as she was both a witness and victim of the carnage in Gompad, and her evidence could crucially expose falsehoods in the official version.
Under state duress
Shambo’s disappearance and Kumar’s forced exit from Dantewada were closely connected as the state had good reasons to attack both. Before leaving Chhattisgarh, Kumar had filed a writ petition in which Shambo was petitioner number 13. The following statement from Shambo was recorded while she was in Delhi hospital:
On Thursday, 01.10.09, at about 6-7 am in the morning, SPOs, police and other security forces who had come from the Injaram, Konta Camp – among whom I recognize Madvi Buccha s/o Madvi Subba, SPO presently residing in Konta – surrounded my house and took me, along with my two children [Sodi Raju, aged about three years, and Kumari Sodi Nago, aged about five years] to my neighbour Soyam Sensa’s house, where Soyam Sensa’s wife, Soyam Bali was there with her infant baby. The security forces had trained their rifles against her to shoot her, but they did not kill her because some other security forces, seeing the small children, stopped them from firing. I had also been made to stand nearby my two children. I was shot in the foot, after which I fell to the ground. Immediately both my children threw themselves on me and began to cry, after which, on being stopped by the other security forces, they left me.
The significance of this testimony cannot be underestimated, particularly considering her statement to the contrary a few months later in the presence of the police. In her subsequent statement, she purportedly told the Court that the attackers at Gompad were ‘unknown’ men. The change is noteworthy: ‘unknown’ is sufficiently vague to include the Maoists and suitably unambiguous to remove the blame from the security forces and Madvi Buccha, the SPO. If the sole purpose of the state was to compel her to change her statement, then it stands to reason that the state never wanted to accept any allegations of rights violation committed by its personnel and SPOs in Gompad that morning in October 2009. This raises the question as to what happened there and why Shambo had to bear the brunt for her statement as one of the petitioners.
According to news reports and oral testimonies of villagers collected by a fact-finding team in October 2009, Operation Green Hunt was launched in the Dantewada district a month earlier, on 17 and 18 September, when the CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action) personnel along with Judum members killed 12 villagers in Gachanpalli, Gattapad and Palachalam villages. In Gachanpalli, six persons were brutally killed, three of whom were over 65 years of age. Eye witnesses reported that a large number of uniformed men and Salwa Judum members entered the village early in the morning. All able-bodied men ran off into the nearby jungles leaving behind children and old people. Among the dead was a 70-year-old woman, Dudhi Moye, who was found lying in a pool of blood with her breasts cut off. The success of the operation (in which the security forces claimed to have killed 30 hardcore Maoists) was followed up by vicious actions in Gompad, a fortnight later. In total, nine persons were killed, along with large-scale looting, beating and torture of villagers. Among the many violent incidents, the case of Suresh, the infant child of Kartam Kanni, stands out as his mother, aunt and grandparents were hacked in front of him, and even he was assaulted. The vengeance of the killers was apparent in the manner in which they destroyed the meagre belongings of the villagers, such as their huts, pots and grain. While the killings and pillage at Gachanpalli and Gompad were not replicated elsewhere with the same precision, attacks on Jinitong, Mukudtong, and Chinta Gufa, among other villages, bore some similarities. Panic and fear compelled many villagers to flee their homes and take shelter in nearby forests.
Together with 12 villagers, one of whom was Sodi Shambo, Himanshu Kumar filed a criminal writ petition (103/2009) to the Supreme Court in November 2009 stating that the security forces, with SPOs, were responsible for the killings detailed above. News reports that followed the sequence of events after the writ was filed tell their own story. After Shambo was abducted by the police in Kanker, two Gompad petitioners, Soyam Rama (number 2) and Soyam Dulla (number 7) were picked up from a public hearing in Dantewada in early January along with other residents, including the infant Suresh and his father. They all went ‘missing’. The fate of the Gachanpalli petitioners was not much better as villagers alleged that at least five of them – numbers 4, 5, 10, 11 and 12 – were illegally detained in custody by the police. After the Court ordered the police to produce the petitioners, six, including Shambo, were brought forward in mid-February. The remaining petitioners from Gachanpalli were produced in March 2010. The police, however, claimed that they had taken the petitioners into custody in order to protect them from the Maoists, who would consider them as ‘police informers’. Elsewhere, the police asserted that the Maoists, in their efforts to oppose the state, were known to kill adivasis and conveniently shift the blame on to the security personnel. In all likelihood, the police wanted to intervene in the petition and did so by staging the disappearance and re-appearance of the petitioners. Moreover, even when the petition urged the Court to hand over the investigations to a special investigative team, the police went ahead and exhumed the bodies in Gompad and Gachanpalli villages in January 2010 and conducted their own post-mortems. The police had to take particular ‘care’ of Shambo as she was both a witness and victim of the carnage in Gompad, and her evidence could crucially expose falsehoods in the official version. Besides, she had eluded the police and lived incognito under their very noses. It was necessary to convince her to change her statement and become a police witness. With the vast state machinery at their disposal, this was not difficult to accomplish.
Notwithstanding the fact that numerous violations of rights by security personnel and Judum activists have occurred in the affected areas, very few have been publicised and debated. The reason for this is clear as few independent teams have been granted permission to collect evidence in the war zone. The incidents of state violence in Gompad and Gachanpalli came to light only after a fact-finding team, including Himanshu Kumar, met affected villagers in Nendra village in October 2009. The team had to seek permission for its movements, had to repeatedly answer questions at local checkpoints, was unable to visit the actual villages and had to base its findings on the oral testimonies it collected at VCA. Unfortunately, a few infirmities in the final report led some journalists and commentators to criticise the team’s findings as unsubstantiated and point to the battle between fact and fiction in these conflict-affected areas. In the contestation over ‘what happened’, the state emerged the strongest as it enacted the most lasting fiction: it made Shambo vanish completely. Although she still survives as petitioner number 13, her identity as a witness no longer causes significant concern for the state.
A victim of what Dr Binayak Sen described as “adult malnutrition”, which is most evident among dispossessed communities, Shambo had absolutely no chance of partaking the fruits of development that limited sections of our society have enjoyed.
Out of sight
So, where is Sodi Shambo? Does she regret the fact that she stepped out of Gompad village and sought the help of those who could not protect her? Or is she the proverbial ‘mother courage’ who makes peace, if not profit, in times of war? There is no way of knowing as she is lost for all practical purposes. Over the last few years there has been no news about her whereabouts, and hardly anyone has written about her. Unverified information from an activist contact suggests that she was lodged in a border camp in Konta block where she was last seen about two years ago. One cannot help but reflect on how her life came full circle as her ‘rescuers’ and ‘attackers’ were alike. Should she have resisted? Can one blame her? Like other illiterate, desperately poor Koya women, Sodi Shambo’s life was one of a hardworking peasant wife and mother in her village. A victim of what Dr Binayak Sen described as “adult malnutrition”, which is most evident among dispossessed communities, Shambo had absolutely no chance of partaking the fruits of development that limited sections of our society have enjoyed. Residing in a remote hamlet, she was busy at home whilst her husband was tilling the field that fatal morning. Possibly because her village was identified as a Maoist stronghold, it was attacked. Was she a Maoist supporter, and was that why she was specifically attacked? It is instructive to remember that she would have lost her life in the indiscriminate firing had her children not fallen upon her. In any case, her political convictions, if she had them, ceased to matter after her abduction. One cannot help but wonder what kind of treatment she received for her injured leg while in custody of her abductors and whether necessary operations were performed. Can she walk now? There are no answers.
Perhaps Shambo prefers anonymity, but her singular story is integral to the larger understanding of what happened in the villages of Konta block in September and October 2009. Although her story is better known for obvious reasons, it is a part of the broader pattern of detention and intimidation that accompanied the police’s response to the Court’s orders. More importantly, despite having little or no powers over life, limb or destiny, Shambo, via Himanshu Kumar, refused to comply with what had increasingly become an accepted stereotype of victimhood: the ‘sandwiched’ adivasi in the war zone. In the absence of space for debate, discussion and analysis, a polarised discourse has emerged in the shadow of the hunt that has fuelled the stereotype of adivasis caught in a grim battle of survival and dominance between ‘vengeful’ Maoists and ‘dedicated’ jawans. Shambo’s indictment of the SPO and the security forces emphatically brought home the violence that accompanied the ubiquitous hunt and the area domination exercises. Her revised testimony was a further proof of the violence that was unleashed on those who dared to tell.
Almost five years have passed since Shambo went missing and much has changed. The term ‘Operation Green Hunt’ has faded and the new BJP-led government is busy planning another hunt. The scale of militarisation is expected to rise as the decks are being cleared for a bigger offensive with increased troop deployment, enhanced road connectivity and a more modernised police force. In these circumstances, Shambo’s story needs to be recalled with greater conviction. For too long, the war zone has imprinted the underdeveloped region of Chhattisgarh with massacres, rights violations and large-scale displacements and has ushered in a climate of distrust and suspicion among people. While the Maoists stand accused of crimes, those by the security forces and SPOs are rarely documented, particularly in mainstream media. Investigation beyond Sodi Shambo’s story reveals a slew of human-rights abuses such as the Samsetti rape case (2006), the killings at Matwada (2008) or the Singaram massacre (2009), to name a few. Till date, attacks by security forces in which they torched Morpalli, Tadmetla and Timmapuram villages of Dantewada district in March 2011 have not yielded any indictments, even though the Supreme Court had ordered a CBI investigation into the same. Or take the horrific account of Soni Sori’s sexual torture in custody, also in 2011, which once again confirms the power that men in uniform have over civilians, particularly women. Whether Shambo is in a camp or not, her story repeats and recalls the fate of many other adivasi women who suffer violence at the hands of their abductors. For this reason, she cannot be allowed to fade from our presence and only exist in our memory as an ‘exotic’ woman who briefly garnered media attention before vanishing entirely. If Shambo is forgotten, then we are also compelled to forget the atrocities that happened there. Sodi Shambo’s story, like so many other cases, points to the need for collective remembrance against the power of forgetting.