Is there any hope for Soni Sori?

Betwa Sharma
Grist Media

Two years ago on October 4, 2011, Soni Sori was arrested in Delhi on suspicions of being a Maoist operating in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh. The Adivasi woman had been on the run from the local police.

But instead of fading into just another statistic in India’s vast prison labyrinth, Sori’s saga, beginning with her dramatic flight from the tribal belt, captured headlines and the public imagination. Was this woman a dangerous Maoist who, as the police claimed, had attacked police personnel, attempted to blow up and torch trucks, and acted as a conduit for passage of protection money from a steel company operating in the area? Or was she, as activists claimed, an educated woman who was being silenced for her protests against injustice in the conflict-hit region?

The outspoken Adivasi woman acquired an air of mystery as her story spread in India and abroad. Was she a victim persecuted by the state machinery or had this strong and resourceful schoolteacher played both sides to survive in a conflict?

And was her nephew, Lingaram Kodopi, accused of channelling protection money to the Maoists, also being framed because the budding journalist was reporting on human rights violations allegedly committed by security forces in the tribal villages?

Their tumultuous stories suddenly offered a glimpse into the perils faced by Adivasis caught between the Indian security forces and Maoists. And if Sori and Kodopi were framed, then their predicament also raised concerns about how many more Adivasis had been slapped with false charges and scuttled into the oblivion of jail cells.

The furore over her arrest intensified when Sori said that she had been tortured and sexually assaulted by the police on the intervening night of October 8 and 9, 2011 in a Dantewada police station. She had been taken back there from the capital despite her pleas to a Delhi court judge not to be sent back.

Two years later, Sori is still locked up in a Jagdalpur prison and continues to wait for bail. In contrast to the uproar over her arrest, October 4, 2013 passed without ceremony. Nobody visited Sori, 37 or Kodopi, 27, in prison that day. No protests marked their continuing captivity or the fact that no investigation has been conducted to probe her allegations of sexual torture. Once the subject of concern for intellectuals like philosopher Noam Chomsky and economist Jean Drèze, Sori and Kodopi seem to have withered away from the public imagination.

But they were never a special cause for concern or outrage in their own communities. In these parts, villagers say that human rights violations and false arrests are too commonplace to warrant any special attention. The coverage by local media was similar to its reporting on other arrests of suspected Maoists, usually relying a great deal on the police version.

KK Dubey, Sori and Kodopi’s lawyer in Dantewada, said that what the national and international media wrote about her was not read by locals and was of little consequence. “Here, the local press have often depicted Soni Sori and Linga as dangerous Maoists. It’s what these [Hindi] newspapers say that matters,” he said.

Observers also say that expecting some gesture to mark two years of the arrest is out of character for the Adivasi community. Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian activist who has worked on social issues in Dantewada for almost two decades, said that it was in their nature to not dwell on past grievances and live in the present. For example, when investigating human rights violations in the area, it often took a great deal of patience and questioning before someone would provide coherent information. “But it is us asking and them not telling,” he said.

* * *

In a letter sent from jail to her lawyer in October 2011, Sori described how she was sexually tortured in a Dantewada police station:

[SP Ankit Garg said,]“Bitch, do you know who I am? I am SP Ankit Garg… who used to be in Bijapur earlier, and am soon going to be promoted from an SP to an official of the big range.” He banged on the table and said, “Everything happens from here. Whatever we order will be carried out. We are the administration, authority and government. Do you understand, you bitch? How will you defame [Constable] Mankar? He will now be given a promotion.”

I was asked to sign on some papers and was asked to write down some things. When I refused, I was pressured through stern talk. I still refused, and then they started giving me (electric) current in my feet, legs and on my clothes.

After repeatedly giving me electric shocks, my clothes were taken off. I was made to stand naked. SP Ankit Garg was watching me, sitting on his chair. While looking at my body, he abused me in filthy language and humiliated me. After some time, he went out and in a little while, he sent three boys. These boys started molesting me and I fell after they pushed me. Then they put things inside my body in a brutal manner. I couldn’t bear the pain, I was almost unconscious.

…they took me from the Dantewada police station to the Dantewada hospital. After a long time, I regained consciousness… I did not mention my torture to anyone at that time. I had been threatened. Still, I kept looking for an opportunity to talk about my torture, but I was surrounded by police at all times.

A medical examination by the NRS Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata, conducted from October 26 to 28, 2011 on orders from the Supreme Court, found that two stones had been found in Sori’s vagina and one in her rectum. The stones were submitted to the Supreme Court as evidence.

After receiving the medical report in December 2011, the Supreme Court ordered the Chhattisgarh government to respond to the allegations of torture and sexual abuse within 45 days. But almost two years later, no investigation has yet been initiated.

Less than four months after he allegedly tortured Sori, on January 26, 2012 SP Ankit Garg was awarded the President’s Police Medal for Gallantry for an anti-Maoist operation conducted two years earlier in which six insurgents had been killed.

With the allegations of custodial torture still pending against Garg, activists expressed shock at the award. But for many, what is more disturbing is the Supreme Court’s continuing silence on Sori’s petition for an investigation – especially in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape, which mobilized the entire nation to demand better protection and speedy justice for women against sexual crimes.

Kavita Srivastava, general secretary of Peoples' Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), called the movement against sexual crimes “a very significant beginning,” but added that public sympathies do not extend to an Adivasi woman like Sori or victims of sexual assaults in places like Kashmir and the Northeast. Srivastava also said that Indians have a tendency to look away when crimes are committed by Indian security forces or the Indian police in conflict zones. “There is selectivity of response of the Indian people and State machinery,” she said. “But this outrage should traverse different situations and regions.”

Sori’s petition hearings came up before Justice Altamas Kabir, who had ordered her medical examination in October 2011 and given the Chhattisgarh government 45 days to respond to the allegations in December 2011. In July 2012, he became Chief Justice of India for a nine-month tenure, but the petition for investigation went nowhere.

Following the Supreme Court order in December 2011, Kumar, the Gandhian activist and mentor to Sori, wrote in an emotional letter to the former Chief Justice, “And were Soni Sori your daughter, would you have given someone who had inserted pebbles in the private parts of your daughter 45 days to respond?”

The Chhattisgarh government responded to the Supreme Court by denying allegations of torture, and claimed that Sori had told doctors in the Dantewada hospital that she had sustained head and back injuries after slipping in the bathroom. Two years on, activists wonder why the Supreme Court did not order an FIR to be lodged against Garg or order a CBI inquiry. And they are still waiting for the report from a team of the National Commission for Women, which visited Sori in December 2012.

Both Sori and Kodopi are presently locked up in Jagdalpur prison as the cases against them drag on and their families follow along the hearings in the Dantewada district court. The latest hearings happened on September 14 and 20, 2013, and the next one is scheduled for October 22. In recent conversations with lawyers and family, Sori said that she was sad that no action had been taken to probe her allegations and punish the perpetrators, and that that she depended on the Supreme Court to take action against those who had subjected her to sexual torture. So far, she said, the country’s top court had been her only source of support by ordering her medical examination and transferring her to the Jagdalpur prison to be closer to her family.

Some doubts have also been raised about Sori’s claims. The Indian Express published a piece on August 5, 2012, that asked why two government hospitals in Dantewada and Raipur, which examined her before the Kolkata one, had made no mention of the stones.

Human rights activists responded by saying only her upper back, and not her lower body, had been examined in Chhattisgarh. But some were still of the view that it was impossible for Sori to have survived with foreign objects inside her private parts for almost three weeks. The Express report questioned why she didn’t inform doctors on October 10 at the Dantewada hospital or tell reporters who spoke to her the same day.

The Express report also pointed out that Sori’s lawyer first talked about stones in the Supreme Court around 45 days after the alleged torture, even though their writ petition was heard several times in October.

Sori maintains that it was impossible for her to speak freely with anyone during her examination at the Dantewada hospital since she was constantly surrounded by the police and feared for her life and her family’s safety. The schoolteacher has told her family that if she ever gets out of prison, she will continue to fight for justice against her sexual torture.

Human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover appeared for Sori and Kodopi at the Dantewada district court on September 20 to defend them against the Maoist charges. Grover said that in a meeting after the hearing, Sori reproached her that nobody was able to stop her from being sent back to Chhattisgarh by the Delhi court even when she had spelt out the dangers.

“What could I say to her except that I had traveled all the way to be there for her now,” said Grover.

Sori’s chances of getting some respite from jail did get a boost last week after the Supreme Court accepted her bail application and issued a notice to the Chhattisgarh government to respond before the next hearing on October 28.

Senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, who appeared as counsel for Sori and Kodopi, said that the rejection of her bail by the Chhattisgarh courts was because of pressures of dealing with Maoist suspects. At the Supreme Court, he added, they had a “good chance” of getting bail.

* * *

Sori’s father Madru Ram Sori stood in the darkness of a small room, in an abandoned hut where he had been shot in the leg by Maoist guerrillas two years ago. He fingered the grooves on the blue door where an axe had been used to break it down.

“Then they tied my hands and dragged me out,” he said.

One story goes that Madru had defied orders from the Maoists to return portions of land that his family had bought from other villagers. Another story goes that the Maoists suspected him to be a police informant. On June 14, 2011 they carried out their retribution by shooting him and looting almost all his possessions.

Once an affluent Adivasi farmer and sarpanch of the Bade Bedma village in the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, Madru now runs a small wheat mill in the neighbouring village of Palnar. The elderly man in his late sixties limps around on crutches to support a bloated foot that looks purple because of blood clotting.

Madru’s fate would have been archived with countless other untold tales of violence from the Naxal-hit tribal belt in India’s heartland if his daughter hadn’t become India’s biggest story four months later.

The Maoists also issued a diktat against him farming. “If my daughter was a Maoist then how could this happen,” asked Madru, a question he has posed over and over again for two years.

The villages Palnar, Sameli, Bade Bedma and Jabeli, where Sori’s story has unfolded, rest cushioned against a landscape of reedy forests and windswept shrubbery. Despite a good road till Palnar, the absence of mobile phone networks for vast stretches reinforces the sense of isolation once you reach here. Three Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camps, stationed in an approximately 20-km span of the four villages, appear to physically characterize the crush of Adivasis, Indian security forces and Maoists here.

The Adivasis talk of how their lives are entangled with the Maoists. The insurgents come to their homes looking for food and shelter. The villagers are summoned to their meetings. And when a dispute cannot be solved in the community, the Maoists are asked to find a solution.

Villagers also theorize on Sori’s links with the insurgents. One story is that she allowed Maoists to take refuge in the school at night. Some say that she ferried parcels and food for them. But every story comes with the disclaimer that Sori – and others who are approached by the guerrillas – don’t have a choice.

Sori, however, told her lawyers that none of these speculations were the basis of the charges that had led to her incarceration. She also objected that none of this talk was backed up by any evidence.

For Sori and Kodopi, more so than others, life had become a balancing act between the state authorities and the Maoists. Angering any side had deadly consequences. Sympathies for any side invoked the wrath of the other.

Sori’s kin stood out for being more ambitious than is usual for the Adivasi community. Besides their large land holdings, they were educated and politically engaged. Sori’s uncle has served as a Congress MLA, her father and older brother and his wife have served as sarpanches supporting the Congress.  A female cousin serves as the District Superintendent of Police in Jagdalpur.

Her father Madru educated Sori at a time when hardly anyone around him sent girls to school. She became the first Adivasi woman in the area to become a schoolteacher.

While the days behind bars pass slowly for Sori, the small house with a tinned slanting roof, where she lived with her husband Anil Futane and their three children at the edge of Sameli village in the forested hinterlands, is worn down by neglect and seems on the verge of collapse.

Sori and Futane, who was also jailed in 2010 as a suspected Maoist, had a love marriage despite their families’ objections at the match. The couple moved to Sameli, an hour’s drive from Dantewada town, so that Sori could be just a 5-6 km walk from the primary school where she taught in Jabeli village further in the forest. Sori and Futane made an unusual couple for the countryside since it was the husband, a jeep driver, who encouraged his wife’s work as a schoolteacher.

An untidy structure of yellow-painted walls, tin roofs and wooden poles in the wilderness makes up the village school. On one recent Friday, around 20 children played in its dusty courtyard because their teacher had not shown up.

Lakma, the school peon, didn’t have much to say about Sori but recalled that she did show up for work on most days.

As the legal drama plays out, the principle casualty of the power struggle between the Maoist guerrillas and the Indian State has been Sori’s family. Her family’s relatively prosperous and influential standing in the Adivasi community were assets that both the Maoists and the state government wanted to exploit for their own purposes. And it was these same aspects that challenged their authority.

Reflecting on the events of the past two years in recent conversations with her lawyers and family, Sori said that she had been targeted for speaking out against offenses that had been committed from both sides, and because a strong Adivasi community with a voice was a threat to the existing power dynamic and status quo.

Some villagers described the Maoist attack on Madru and Sori’s subsequent arrest as cutting down to size a family that had become too big for its boots.

Today, her family has quite literally been cut down and torn apart. Her once proud father now cuts a frail figure of few means. Even his visits to Sori in jail have gradually reduced because of advancing years, pain from the bullet wound and the rigor of traveling frequently.

Sori’s mother died in May 2012. Madru said that his wife had a stomach ailment but her condition worsened and she died because of the worry caused by Sori’s incarceration.

Sori’s husband Futane had been arrested in July 2010 on charges of executing an attack against a local Congress leader. He was acquitted on May 1, 2013. His family believe that he was tortured in jail for almost three years to the point of becoming paralyzed from the waist down, which caused his subsequent death. According to media reports, no one was prepared to help him medically once he was released out of fear of association. He died on August 2 from a deteriorating condition brought on by the paralysis.

Futane’s family said that he was a healthy man in his 30s when apprehended in 2010, but he looked like a weak and broken shadow of his former self after being released.

“He was innocent but still locked up for three years,” said Muskan, his 14-year-old daughter.

Muskan had hoped to see her mother at her father’s funeral. “I missed her very much that day,” she said. In what was criticized as a heartless decision, Sori’s request for bail to visit home for a few days after her husband died was also refused by the Dantewada district court.

Sori’s three children now live separately because none of their relatives can afford to take care of all of them. Muskan lives with Futane’s family in the town of Geedam. Sori’s 12-year-old son lives in a hostel in the neighbouring town of Dantewada; some activists are footing the bill for his school. And her seven-year-old daughter lives in a primary school hostel close to Palnar village where Madru runs his rice mill. 

Once regarded as the rock of her family, Sori is now helpless to support them. Her biggest worry is the safety and future of her children.

Sori’s eldest daughter, more than her younger siblings, is aware of the consequences of being branded a Maoist. Muskan has endured the humiliation of her parents being carted off to prison and witnessed her father become sick and die.

Muskan’s aunt talked about how their neighbours often express false sympathy and then engage in backbiting. “They say, well, if Soni and Anil were arrested then they must have done something bad or had some links with the Maoists,” she said.

Exhausted by the routine questions posed to her by sombre-looking journalists, Muskan still braves interviews in the hope that it could help her mother. “My mother is not a Maoist,” she said. “She is a schoolteacher.”

* * *

So far, Sori has been acquitted in five of the seven cases filed against her in the Dantewada district court. The court found lack of evidence, her lawyers said, on charges of attempting to blow up trucks belonging to Essar, attacking a police team, blowing up a tehsil, attacking a police station and attacking the home of a local Congress leader – all between July and August 2010.

She still stands accused in a case of torching vehicles in Nerli Ghat in September 2010 – for which she has received bail – and also for allegedly channelling ‘protection money’ in September 2011 to the Maoists from a contractor of the Essar Group, which has large mines and steel operations in the area.

While Essar contractor BK Lala and Essar general manager DVCS Verma have been granted bail in the same case, Sori and Kodopi, also accused of passing money to Maoists, have been denied it.

Even before Sori was arrested by the Delhi police in October 2011, the Essar ‘protection money’ charges were being denounced by human rights activists as false – in part because of a ‘sting’ operation Sori did with Tehelka magazine.

While speaking to Sori, a policeman in Dantewada says in the sting operation that Lala was arrested from his home and not from the marketplace exchanging Rs 15 lakh with Kodopi, as the police claimed. The policeman added that Lala in a statement had said that he did not know Sori or Kodopi.

In recent conversations with his lawyers and family, Kodopi asked why they were the only two in jail while the others had got bail. He called it a denial of their basic rights.

Kodopi is a key figure in his aunt’s story.

Their troubles began in August 2009 when he declined an offer to become a police informer. His refusal led to Kodopi being locked up in a Dantewada police station toilet. Sori angered the local police authorities when she mobilized support for filing a habeas corpus writ petition in the Chhattisgarh high court to secure his release.

Seeking respite from harassment, Kodopi came to Delhi a few months later in October 2009 to study journalism. After finishing his course in Noida, he returned home to test his skills despite friends and colleagues advising him against it.

“We were proud of him to do journalism. But we told him to stay in Delhi and pursue his work. We warned him many times,” said Joga Ram, Kodopi’s father, who lives in Sameli village. 

But Kodopi had other plans. The house that he was building for himself close to his family’s place in Sameli village stands half finished.

Like Sori’s family, the Kodopis, too, wielded respect and influence – enough to be of interest to both sides of the conflict. Joga Ram, 60, had educated his children, including his 24-year-old daughter who hopes to finish high school this year and pursue college.

Ram had served as a sarpanch and Masa, Linga’s older brother, was also elected as a sarpanch member. They were both supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party. But Masa, 35, who works as a peon in a government hospital, has buried his nascent political ambitions. “With all that has happened, it doesn’t seem safe,” he said. “One can give up some dreams to live peacefully.”

Masa, who lives in Dantewada town with his family, said that on least two occasions the police beat him in connection with his brother. Masa recalled being slapped in the office of Amresh Mishra, Superintendent of Police, Dantewada in 2009. The reason for the abuse, Masa said, was because his family had the audacity to move the Chhattisgarh High Court against the police to secure the release of his younger brother from the police station toilet. 

“That’s just how it is here,” he said. “There are no rules.”

Shubhranshu Choudhary, who runs CGNet Swara, a website that enables citizen journalists to record and listen to local stories in the Central Gondwana region, and which awarded Kodopi his fellowship to study journalism in Delhi, sees the reporter as the central character of this story.

“Soni Sori is a footnote in a much larger concern of the state,” said Choudhary. “Linga was the first professional journalist who spoke Gondi. He could expose truths that were impossible for other outside journalists. If Linga succeeded, then others would follow and pose a threat to the existing black hole of communication and information.”

Shortly before his arrest, Kodopi had been documenting testimonies of villagers from Morpalli, Tadmetla and Timmapuram where security forces had allegedly burned huts during an encounter with Maoists. He expressed to his family that he did not want to waste the journalism skills he had acquired.

* * *

If their bail doesn’t come through, lawyers estimate that aunt and nephew could be in prison for at least another two years as the Essar trial drags on. With Lala already out on bail, Sori’s lawyers are wary that the contractor’s counsel will cause delays.
But more importantly, KK Dubey pointed out that the case involved getting at least 40 government witnesses. Locating and bringing them from far off villages, Dubey said, often caused long delays. It will also take time to bring back some police witnesses who have been transferred out of Chhattisgarh.

Vrinda Grover said that there is not a shred of evidence against them. “She will be acquitted,” said Grover, pointing out that the charge sheet of the Essar case states that Sori and Linga have other Naxal cases against them. “But they have already been acquitted in those cases. I have never seen a charge sheet like this.”

The larger problem is that Sori and Kodopi are just one of the many who have been charged with false cases and implicated deliberately or due to shoddy investigations. Grover pointed out that Dantewada and Jagdalpur jails together have a conviction rate of only 4 percent.

“And the courts are watching this process even as these state policies are causing so many personal tragedies,” she said.

Betwa Sharma is a journalist based in New Delhi.