Why is Durga Shakti Nagpal’s uprightness upheld and even “saluted” while Soni Sori‘s assertion and Arati Majhi’s innocence are condemned?
Anand Teltumbde ([email protected]) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.
The kind of reactions the suspension of Durga Shakti Nagpal, a young Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer posted as subdivisional magistrate in the city of Noida in Uttar Pradesh (UP), evoked all over the country may reassure one that if and when the time comes, Indians can and will stand up in defence of democracy. Her suspension by the Samajwadi Party (SP) government in UP, ostensibly for demolishing a boundary wall of a mosque in Kadalpur village in Gautam Buddh Nagar district on 27 July, which turned out to be a white lie, was certainly a naked act of arrogance by the political class that may well be taken as a trendsetter for what may be in store for others. Actually, it was meant to chastise her for her temerity to launch a drive against the sand mining mafia of the state.
As it came to pass, all the political parties had similar skeletons in their cupboards; however, each one of them feigned sainthood. It is as clear as sunlight that the gross maladministration and loot of the country are a joint undertaking of the politicians and the upper echelons of the bureaucracy. Without a pliable bureaucracy, politicians cannot do a damn thing, and without the support of politicians, bureaucrats may just be ciphers. Only when a bureaucrat knowingly or unknowingly falls out of this joint venture, the hell breaks loose on him/her. The case of Ashok Khemka, an exceptionally qualified and upright bureaucrat who stands his ground undisturbed while suffering the wrath of political class, is among a few honourable exceptions. It is too early for Nagpal to be judged whether she will buckle to the threats or prefer to walk into the hall of fame that persons like Khemka occupy.
Nagpal is surely wronged and deserves the support she received. But one wonders, why such support is never forthcoming in the cases of much bigger wrongs being done to ordinary Indians, particularly those who are dalits or tribals. For instance, the saga of Soni Sori, fortunately not totally unknown to the public, and that of Arati Majhi, a 23-year-old tribal woman from Odisha, whose pathetic story is not as much known, does not evoke as much visible support. Soni Sori reappeared in the news as she lost her husband, Anil Futane, himself a victim of the ire of the state, on 2 August, and Arati Majhi for having been acquitted in all the seven cases on 17 July after spending nearly three and a half years in jail. Nagpal, just a victim of politics, will surely be saved by the Supreme Court (SC), even without her approaching it, but Soni Sori and Arati Majhi, have been the victims of the system. There are thousands of cases like theirs, each a tale of monstrous injustice but there is no one to listen. The electronic media, which has become the sole arbiter of right and wrong, is blind to such cases; what little is covered in the print media perhaps only serves to legitimise our great fourth estate!
Travails of Soni Sori
Soni Sori’s travails did not begin only with her arrest by the Delhi Crime Branch on 4 October 2011. As an educated woman from a politically active tribal family (her father was a sarpanch for 15 years, her uncle, a Communist Party of India Member of Legislative Assembly; her elder brother, a Congressman, and her nephew, a journalist) in a Maoist stronghold, when she along with her nephew, Lingaram Kodopi, who had studied journalism in Delhi, began voicing the concerns of her people, this automatically brought them into the radar of both the Maoists and the police and also into conflict with some powerful local people. The police tried to co-opt them as informers but when they paid no heed, it began to harass them.
On 30 August 2009, the police took Lingaram away and kept him in a police station toilet for 40 days. He was released on 10 October only after a habeas corpus petition was filed in the Chhattisgarh High Court. In 2011, the police intrigued and picked up Lingaram and one B K Lala, a contractor of the Essar group, from their houses on 9 September but claimed that they were caught red-handed exchanging money in the marketplace. Soni, who had tried to know the whereabouts of Lingaram, was declared absconding. Both were charged for acting as conduits for extortion money being paid by the Essar group to the Maoists. Despite the fact that the entire episode was exposed as a silly concoction by the Chhattisgarh police (see Tehelka, 15 October 2011), the police has persisted with the charge, unleashing inhuman atrocities and still holding Soni in jail even after her acquittal in six out of eight cases.
After her arrest on 4 October 2011 and when she was in police custody, Soni was brutally tortured. She described this torture in her letters, how she was pulled out of her cell at the Dantewada police station at midnight on 8/9 October and taken to superintendent of police, Ankit Garg’s room, where she was stripped, sexually assaulted, and two stones were put in her vagina and one in her rectum. Upon a SC order, NRS Medical College, Kolkata examined her and its report confirmed that two stones had been found to have been inserted in her vagina and one in her anus, which were the primary cause of the abdominal pain from which she was suffering. Nonetheless, the SC declined her plea to keep her in any jail outside Chhattisgarh, gave the state government 45 days to respond and virtually sent her back to her torturers.
In her letters she has specifically levelled accusations against Garg, saying: “He has taken my all. I have been tortured in ways I can’t describe here.” Her husband, running a restaurant at their native place, was already arrested as a Maoist, tortured so badly that he turned paralytic and eventually succumbed to his injuries. Soni was not allowed interim bail to attend his funeral and make arrangements for her three daughters aged five, eight and 13. Her case evoked international outrage and people like Noam Chomsky and Jean Dreze protested against the “brutal treatment meted out” to her to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh but without avail. Soni Sori languishes in jail watching her world getting ruined bit by bit and her tormentor Ankit Jain getting a police medal for gallantry from the President of India.
Victim of Custodial Gang Rape
The arrest of Arati Majhi is vividly documented in a fact-finding report dated January 2011 by Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression. At about 4 am on 12 February 2010, some 40 odd Special Operations Group (SOG) and state police personnel from Adava Police Station, led by sub-inspector, D Mohapatra, raided Jadingi, an adivasi hamlet in Gajapati district asking for two Maoists, Sagar and Azad. They forcefully entered the houses, dragged their inmates, beat them and threatened to shoot them if they did not reveal the whereabouts of Sagar. One of the houses belonged to Dakasa Majhi, where Arati Majhi, his 20-year-old daughter was doing her usual morning chore of pounding rice, while her parents, brother and sister-in-law were asleep. The security forces, all male, dragged her outside and began beating her, accusing her of hobnobbing with the Maoists. Next, they picked up Lajar Majhi, Arati’s cousin from another house and Prasanno Majhi, a youth from a neighbouring village, assuming him to be Sagar. They took Arati, and these two boys with them, while her younger brother, Lalu Majhi, followed them. They picked up Shyama Majhi, Arati’s relation and another boy, Dakua Majhi, from Tangili, the next village. After some distance, they asked the boys to return but Dakua and Lalu lingered on asking for Arati’s release. In the jungle near Baliponka, some security men gang-raped Arati, the crime witnessed by these boys.
After reaching the police station, the boys were threatened with death if they said anything. The boys were not only scared for their lives but for the lives of their family members, most of them already behind bars or being targeted by the police. It is said that one of Arati’s brothers and a sister had left home and had probably joined the Maoists, but Arati was not a Maoist. It is clear that she was not arrested for any crime, not even for being the sister of suspected Maoists, as otherwise the police would not have asked her brother to go away. She was arrested because she was a young vulnerable woman who could be devoured with impunity. On reaching the police station they foisted seven deadly cases on her, these without a shred of evidence, which however were enough to keep her in jail for 41 months. Her name figured among the names of the six persons whose release was demanded by the Maoists in exchange for the release of the two Italian nationals they had kidnapped in 2012, which brought her story in the public gaze. Arati is back in her home but with her world completely shattered for no fault of hers.
No Place for Them
Soni and Arati are by no means an aberration; they represent the plight of thousands of tribals and dalits in India. A plethora of constitutional provisions protecting the scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) apply in their cases, and yet, in practice, no SC/ST law comes to their rescue and punishes the culprits. Why? Because they are labelled “Maoist”, an identity inconsequential in law as decreed by the SC but deemed by the police to be self-evidently criminal. To be designated “Maoist” is to be implicitly considered “the greatest threat to India’s internal security”, and this description has gripped the public imagination. The objective facts speak otherwise. The police who abuse and insult the poor, beat and torture them, molest and rape their women, indulge in
forgery and lies to foist false cases on innocents to cover up their misdeeds are the main catalysts in the manufacture of Maoists. A cursory look at the so-called Maoist cases will reveal that their main intention is to harass people by keeping them in jail as long as possible. Politicians of the mainstream parties, protectors of the police, who have made a mockery of our republic, are the greatest threat to the idea of India itself. They have effectively held all Indians hostage without any escape route.
The contrast between Durga Shakti, Soni Sori and Arati Majhi, all young women who come from the same Maoist belt of Odisha-Chhattisgarh, reveals what difference one’s class identity makes. The uprightness of Durga is upheld and “saluted” but the assertion of Soni and the innocence of Arati are condemned.