On 20 February,  three unidentified men carried out an acid attack on tribal activist Soni Sori in which her face was burnt. In a candid interview, Soni Sori speaks about the attack, her struggle against the system that framed her as a Naxal and her stand towards the issue of Naxalism.

Edited excerpts from an interview.

Q. Tell us in detail about the recent acid attack.
A. I had gone to meet Isha Khandelwal and Shalini in Jagdalpur when the attack took place. Both of them
are activists and legal advisors for adivasis. The police had been harassing them for quite some time.
They were threatened. Even their landlord was harassed who told them to vacate the house. No one took them in as tenants because announcements were made to inform the police if they were seen anywhere. They decided to leave Jagdalpur and wanted to see me before they left. When I reached there in the evening I received information about the arrest of one of their associates. They left for the bus-stand. I got another message from a village local asking about my well-being. When I asked why he was concerned he told me that he heard the police discuss how to stop me from visiting Jagdalpur. They were
planning to send goons to attack me. Though I ignored what he said I did share it with Shalini how they were scheming against us. She wrote that I could be attacked. Since such threats are a norm here, I did not take it seriously. Then I called my friend, Rinki to drop me off on her bike. On our way back (from Jagdalpur to Geedam), we stopped at a dhaba for tea.

When we reached near Bastanar, three men on a bike called out my name. When Rinki did not stop the bike, they got in our way and forced us to stop. They caught hold of my hands and said, “Stop raising your voice against IG Kalluri. Stop raising all your issues. We are only blackening your face now, but we can do worse to your daughter.” Then they rubbed something on my face. Initially I thought it was black paint to humiliate me. We reached Geedam. But soon my face began to burn. I called many people. I called Linga Kodopi. Linga took me to Geedam hospital from where I was shifted to Jagdalpur. I could open my eyes only after three days.

Do you know the men who attacked you?
No, we haven’t found out yet.

Did the attackers mention IG Kalluri?
Yes, they told me to stop speaking up against the police and give up the Mardoom case. Recently,
there was a fake encounter in Mardoom. They picked up a man, framed him as a Naxalite and killed
him in a fake encounter. He has seven children. He had a ration card, Aadhar card and he even received
some money under the Indira Awas Yojana. Along with his wife, we presented all these documents
before a press conference. The police said they have proof that he was a Naxal. I said I can prove
he is innocent. The government has issued all the documents to him. If he was a Naxal, how can he get
funds under the Awas Yojana? We have raised issues of rape and fake encounter. But they panicked over
this particular case.

Why did the police arrest your sister and brother-in-law?
When I came to Delhi for treatment after the attack, they picked up my brother-in-law. My family thought they took him for interrogation as a committee had been set up to investigate the attack. They wanted to cooperate but the police did not let him go. I realised my family was being targetted. I reached Chhattisgarh on 11 March and called a press conference demanding the release of my brother-in-law or else we’d sit on a dharna. The same day they arrested my sister. I demanded why they were harassing my family. We tried everything but they were released just before I reached Bastar.

But why were they arrested?
They were being pressurised to confess that Linga Kodopi, my brother-in-law Ajay Markam and his
friend had carried out the attack on me, that Kodopi had masterminded it and that he paid them to carry
out the attack.

In the press conference, you claimed that IG Kalluri was behind the attack. Is it right?
I suspect that it was IG Kalluri’s plan. Earlier it was only a suspicion. But the way they are harassing
my family I am certain the police and IG Kalluri are behind the attack. If they have to find who is
behind the attack, why are they harassing my own family? They even threatened my father and my
sister that our family will be destroyed.

What is the struggle about in Bastar?
The state government has been running a campaign against us in the name of fighting Naxalism. I
know Bastar has a Naxalite problem and such activities are a reality. But the label is used as a weapon against the tribals. If the aim is to fight Naxals, attack them. But this does not happen. I have come to realise that the sttruggle is not against Naxals. It is a conspiracy to take over the land of tribals and set up big corporates. They label tribals as Naxals to achieve this purpose. How many Naxal leaders have been killed or arrested so far? They should bring the data before the country. They have a huge force deployed in the region. Between my release in 2014 and 2016, how many state level Naxal leaders were arrested? Innocent villagers are targetted, labelled as Naxals and arrested. Their women relatives are raped. They are beaten and harassed. It is nothing but a plot to usurp tribal land.

Are you saying that the government wants to grab tribal land but the locals oppose it?
It is apparent. NDMC is a mining company. Despite much struggle, it was granted forest land. But what
about the development our people were promised? The people do want development. They need
basic facilities of water, electricity, roads, schools and anganwadis. Not the kind of development big
corporates stand for.

What about the issue of the rape of nine women?
There were two incidents of rape by patrol police. One in Padmapara and another in Vellam Nendra
village. There children were snatched and thrown out. The men in their families ran to the forest.
Such incidents took place earlier too. We have told them not to run but to face them. But if they stay
back and fight, they are either arrested or killed in fake encounters.

What can be done to stop the oppression?
It cannot be stopped. If it were really a fight against Naxalism, the leaders of Chhattisgarh would form
a forum. I have often sought for a public forum to tackle Naxalism. It may help us find a solution to the
problem.  But the leaders do not want the struggle to end. Because they get crores of rupees directed
for the cause, and they don’t want the money flow to stop. I am confident that if they discuss it on a forum, it won’t take more than a year to end it all.

Do you support Naxalism?
Why do we need to support Naxals? They already claim that they are powerful enough. They are in possession of arms, they are organised. They don’t need anybody’s support. Why would Soni Sori support Naxals? I have clearly denied working for either the police or the Naxals. I work for the public. The Naxals have arms, the police have arms too. But our fight is against arms. I have seen enough violence even during Salwa Judum when so many houses got burnt, many children got orphaned and a number were killed and raped. I don’t support such a struggle. I only support peaceful public struggle. The struggle is legal and our system allows it. This is why I neither fear the Naxal nor the government.

If you are with neither of them, do the Naxals pressurise you to work for them just like police?
Whenever there is a dialogue, I only speak of peace. For instance, when a tribal was arrested by the police, 12-13,000 people gheraoed the police station for three days peacefully. The police had to release Sukdi as a result. Sometimes I am asked why I oppose armed conflict. I tell them I don’t believe in it and I am against anybody who takes up arms. If a bullet hits anyone, it only kills. It is nothing but violence. How can we protect humanity with arms? Our only weapons are peace, education and pen.

If you are against violence, why does the police or the government take action against you repeatedly?
It is because I raise my voice against injustice, rape and fake encounters. There are so many incidents of
rape such as Vellam Nendra, or the fake encounter of Bima in Revali. Bima was a tribal farmer. I fought
for him. They falsely accused him of being a Naxal. Because I spoke in support of him they believe that
I am a Naxal too. I provided proof of his innocence yet they labelled me a Naxal supporter. If I raise the
issues before the media, they call me a liar. I told the villagers to speak out and share their own stories
instead of telling me. I will seek help for you from the administration. When the women are speaking
up about the horrific rapes, why does our media shy away from them? But they call me a Naxal when I
raise such questions.

When was the first time you were accused of supporting Naxalism?
In 2011, I was framed as a Naxal and arrested. Now, I am out on bail in a case. I don’t have a job. They
torn apart my life. My husband died because of the torture in jail. I had a good life, a normal family. But
everything was destroyed. I fight for truth.

What about the charges?
The case is underway. It has been four years but no witness has been presented in court. All of it was a propaganda. I want the government to speed up the trial. The Supreme Court got me bail or I would have been stuck in jail all these years. The high court granted bail to BK Lala and Essar’s general manager DM Verma in the case but were denied the bail. They must have lined the pockets of officials. But we are poor tribals. We don’t have that kind of money. There are some people who helped us throughout the case. And the more I was tortured, the more strength I had to struggle.

After the attack, did your children receive any threats?
When I was admitted to the hospital, a note was received that read, “Madam, don’t be too happy if
your daughter has been given security cover. You have a son too.” My children told me about it after
I was discharged. But my children are brave. They tell me not to get scared. They know my fight is for
the people.

Has such an attack taken place before?
Small incidents took place earlier too. The police have repeatedly warned the villagers not to rely on
me as I will soon be “killed or arrested.” They have summoned my father several times and told him to
stop me. My father is a victim of Naxalism himself. He was shot in the foot by a Naxal.

Why was he shot?
The IG used to visit my father as he was a respected sarpanch. But the cause of enmity for someone to shoot him is still not clear. My father also had a tract of land in possession of the Naxals. It was freed after I went to jail. This is why I say that if we can fight the government why wouldn’t we fight the Naxals? Even then Kalluri accused my father of willingly giving our land to Naxals.