Who Is Soni Sori And What Does She Stand For?
By Parijata Bhardwaj
05 March, 2016
On 20th February 2016, when Soni Sori was returning to her house she was forcibly stopped about 10 kms before Geedam by unknown assailants who rubbed a dark substance on her face and threatened her to stop raising the issue of the fake encounter at Mardum and complaining against Kalluri else her daughters might be attacked next. Soon her face started burning and had to rushed to the hospital. This attack was part of the ongoing offensive unleashed by the police to forcefully quell dissent and has already led to the eviction of journalist Malini Subramaniam and the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group.
During the time that Soni has been receiving treatment the state has done everything in its power to belittle this attack whether it be calling the attack staged or linking it to Umar Khalid and the latest being the attempt to pressurize Soni’s family into admitting that they orchestrated the attack. It is important to note that all these conclusions are being reached by the state even before it has concluded the scientific inquiry into the attack.
As Soni recovers it is important for us to know who she is and why is it that the state wants to silence her.
Who is Soni Sori?
Soni Sori, is an Adivasi leader and member of the Aam Admi Party at Bastar. Even before becoming a politician, when she was the hostel in-charge at the State run government school in Jabeli, she was the one people would approach for help. Her courage to fight for rights of people without giving in to State pressure, education and conversant knowledge of Hindi, made her the ideal medium between the adivasis and the administration. It was this refusal to remain silent in the face of injustice which first brought Soni to the attention of the State back in 2009, when she refused to silently be spectator to the harassment of her nephew and Adivasi journalist Lingaram Kodopi. Linga had managed to document some of the gruesome atrocities committed by the State. Thus, both became the enemies of the State. It was to silence Soni and Linga that false cases were slapped on them and when Soni was arrested she was subjected to one of the worst kinds of torture with stones being shoved into her private parts and being administered electric currents. The truth of the torture surfaced when stones were found in her private parts by doctors at the Government hospital in Kolkata. She was denied bail by the Sessions Court and the High Court and was in jail for about 3 years till she was granted bail by the Supreme Court in 2014. From jail Soni used to write strong letters about jail conditions and the oppression of the State.
Any other person after having suffered so much would have decided never to return back to the place of torture but Soni is not like any other person. She despite the warnings decided to go back to Bastar and continue her fight for the rights of the adivasis. In her years in jail she had witnessed the extent of abuse faced by the people and having been a target herself completely understood their plight. So soon after her return to Bastar in February, 2014 she immediately immersed herself in the fight for implementation of the rights of the people. Having faith in the constitutional framework, Soni stood for elections on her return from AAP and made the persecution of the adivasis in the area a main agenda. Soni did not win the election but unlike several politicians, who even after being elected forget their mandate, she stuck to it. In Soni, the people found a person who not only understood their plight but was also courageous enough to fight with them for justice.
Why is the State opposing her?
The answer is simple because she is not willing to turn a blind eye to the innumerable atrocities committed by the State under the garb of fighting naxalism. Since her return to Bastar, Soni has been instrumental in bringing to light several instances of injustice aimed at the Adivasis in Bastar and has not shied away from confronting the State. Lets have a look at some the cases she has brought to light.
By the time Soni had settled back into house and started engaging with the people to work with them for the assertion of their constitutional rights, the police set-up in Bastar also witnessed a change with S.R.P. Kalluri being appointed as the IG, Bastar range. Kalluri is infamous throughout Chhattisgarh for his brutal methods including fake encounters, forced surrenders and even custodial rape to fight ‘naxalism’. He has been accused of ordering the burning of 300 houses in Tadmetla, Timmapuram and Morpalli, in 2011, due to which he was transferred out of the district. The Judicial Probe and CBI investigation into the matter are still underway.
Soon after Kalluri took charge in mid 2014, Bastar suddenly witnessed a surge in the number of surrenders of alleged Maoists. Infact, the surrenders in just few months of 2014 was more than the surrenders in the past few years. Soni was among the first to question these surrenders which were later found to be forced and fake.
Towards the end of July, the police claimed to have killed 2 naxalites in the Ramaram village of Sukma. Though, soon questions started being raised about the veracity of the encounter and Soni, along with her nephew Linga were one of the few who went to the village with a fact finding team, wherein the villagers revealed that on the day of the encounter the forces had suddenly surrounded the village opened fire, leading to the death of an old women who could not run to shelter fast enough and the other was a young boy who was caught by the forces on their departure and killed in cold blood. Refusing to keep quiet, Soni immediately called a press conference and demanded action against the errant officials.
In the same month itself, Soni then received information about few girls being trafficked from their homes in Geedam and immediately took efforts to help the family. She along with lawyers from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, managed to get an FIR registered despite initial refusal on part of the police which did not want to register the charge of trafficking. Due to the continued pressure on the Police, the girls were finally found and returned home.
Soni’s determination to fight for the rights of people continued to grow. In November, Sukdi, the wife of a local leader was abducted by the security forces. The reason for the abduction was simple, the police wanted the husband a local BJP worker to ‘surrender’ which he had refused. This brazen act on part of the police angered the people who in thousands came and sat outside the thana demanding the release of Sukdi. It is pertinent to note that despite the presence of thousands of people, the entire dharna was non-violent and peaceful and a large part of the credit for that goes to Soni. Owing to the pressure the police had to release Sukdi. In the Sukdi case, one of the measures to fight injustice adopted by Soni and the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group was the issuance of public alerts which not only informed people about the instance but also asked them to contact the officials themselves, hence building the pressure on the officials to uphold the law.
This protest firmly established Soni as the champion for the local villagers. Within a few days after the abduction of Sukdi, news came in about villagers being beaten and picked by the security forces from the Kukanar thana. A majority of the villagers beaten were women and several had bruises and swelling. Yet again Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi led the peaceful representation of villagers seeking a release of those arrested and the registration of an FIR for the assault on the women.
Thus, by the end of 2014 Soni had emerged as a leader who was willing to not only fight for the rights of the people but one who used only peaceful means in this struggle.
In the very first week of the year, Soni was informed by villagers from Revali of the killing of one Nuppo Bhima by the security forces. She along with Linga and few AAP leaders visited the village and found evidence which supported the claim of the villagers. The villagers were also beaten up by the forces on their rampage. Demanding justice for Bhima and asking for an end to the abuse by security forces, thousands of villagers with Soni and Linga, marched peacefully demanding to meet the Collector in Dantewada. But the state instead of engaging with them stopped them several kilometers before and did not let them proceed. It was at that point that Soni still managed to speak with the officials and was successful in getting the Collector to order a Magisterial Enquiry into the matter.
The number of villagers now approaching Soni for assistance grew by large numbers. In fact, the respect and fondness of the villagers for her was used by the police itself in May, when several villagers had gathered outside the station demanding the release of three juvenile girls who had been picked up by the police. The police had also beaten some of the villagers who had tried to enquire the reason for the arrest. Fearing a law and order situation, the station incharge sought the help of Soni to calm the teeming villagers. Soni immediately reached the village and not only calmed the villagers but heard their grievance and connected them with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, who moved the Courts for releif. With her intervention in this case, the plight of juveniles in Bastar got highlighted.
As the year progressed the offensive of the State in the area also increased and stories of increased arrests, detentions, sexual assault and encounters started reaching Soni. Though, it was towards the end of the year that one of the most horrific accounts of sexual assault by security forces came to the fore. In October, women from Chinnagelur, Peddagelur, Gundam and Burgicheru, of Bijapur district, were subjected to sexual assault, physical abuse, molestation on a mass scale by the security forces and threatened with further violence if they chose to report the matter to anyone. When an all women fact finding team from Women against Sexual Violence and State repression, arrived at the village, the brutality of the attack was visible for all to see. All the women, came forward and testified to the attack and assault. Several, still had injuries on their person and had difficulty to walk. Soni with her knowledge of Gondi and immense empathy, immediately understood the experiences of the women. The women collectively decided to not remain silent and travelled to Bijapur determined to testify before the local administration about the assault on them by the troops. At Bijapur, they were to narrate the instances more than once to ensure ‘veracity’, in the face of hard evidence and in the light of the continued pressure of the fact finding team, the first FIR under the recently amended rape law was registered against the security forces. This was also the first case since the amendment to be registered against the security forces. The incidents were again confirmed by independent fact finding teams from the Adivasi Mahasabha and Congress.
Thus, in 2015 Soni again challenged the attack on adivasis in the region in the name of fighting naxalism and rose as a strong and sensitive voice which refused to be silenced.
The sexual violence of 2015 continued into 2016. 11- 14th January witnessed yet another instance of large scale sexual assault of the women by the security forces during the combing operations in the village of Nendra. Yet again the women came forward and testified before the SDM and the police regarding the extent of the attack and due to the sustained pressure of fact finding team of WSS which included Soni Sori and Bela Bhatia, an FIR was registered.
On the very same dates i.e. 11-14th January, the women from Peddaparra in Kunnu village of Sukma were also subjected to a similar attack. People of the village (several of them women) were rounded up and subject physical, verbal and sexual abuse by the security forces. One young man from the villager succumbed to the physical assault and died soon after. Three villagers were also detained in the process. While getting an FIR registered is itself a daunting task that in itself does not imply an independent investigation, in all the cases where an FIR has been registered there has till date been no progress beyond that point.
In the very first week of February, Hadma, a young man and only provider for his family, which included his wife and 7 children, was killed in Mardum area. His family approached Soni for help and on reaching the village Soni was informed that prior to his mysterious death, the police had come to the house and taken Hadma as a guide in the forest. His wife then kept waiting for his return but on receiving no news approached the sarpanch, who also initiated inquiries. It was after this that the family got to know that Hadma had been killed by the forces as an alleged Maoist. The family also travelled to Raipur with Soni where they narrated in detail the events leading to the death of Hadma. Since, then the family along with Soni has been working to get an FIR registered in the matter.
It is also important to note that the attackers of Soni, specifically asked her to keep quiet about Mardum and stop going after the Bastar IG or be prepared to face dire consequences. Few days back her family in Geedam once again received threats via notes despite the presence of police guards which said, “Don’t be happy with the security guards for your daughter. Don’t forget, you have other sons and sisters.”
From the very beginning, whether it be during her days as a hostel warden, in jail or as a popular leader, Soni has espoused a firm faith in the Constitution and steadfastly worked towards ensuring that the rights enshrined in the document do not remain on paper alone. As is evident from some of the activities undertaken by her since her return, she has at every point taken recourse to peaceful and legal means in her quest for justice. When asked by a journalist to elaborate on her method during one of the peaceful protests in Bastar she had stated:
Even if a single villager is beaten up or detained by the police these days, they [the tribals] call me and I stand in support of them because I have seen harassment, exploitation and torture when I spent two-and-a-half years in jails...The only condition I put forth for participation is that no protester should be armed, even with traditional bow and arrow or stick
The truth as lucidly put by Soni herself is that the State is presently waging a war against the adivasis in Bastar and is getting rid of anyone who stands in the way, whether it be lawyers helping people to demand accountability from the forces or journalists courageously reporting the true realities on the ground or independent researchers like Bela Bhatia working diligently to ensure that the voices of the adivasi men and women do not go silenced and of course Soni. With Soni, owing to her identity and her position as a leader of the people, the nature of the attack escalated from threats to an actual physical assault. Though, for Soni her purpose is clear and nothing even an attack to her person is going to deter her from continuing the struggle for the rights of the people of Bastar. It is perhaps because of this realisation that the state has now taken recourse yet again to vilifying Soni for as of now in the State’s rampage to ‘development’ Soni seems to be the biggest cog in the way and the State is employing any and every means to get rid of her. The question which arises now is whether we will be mute spectators to this offensive of the State or will we like Soni have the courage to fight for justice.
Parijata Bhardwaj is member of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group. She graduated from Symbosis, Pune and TISS, mumbai.
 Both of them have since been acquitted in all their cases except one
 http://iadhri.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/ledha-bais-statement-against-srp-kalluri/ - See more at: http://sanhati.com/excerpted/12510/#sthash.4ZYAXDTW.dpuf
 Details are in http://sanhati.com/excerpted/12510/
 For details read: http://pucl.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/January-2015_Chhattisgarh_Revali-Fact-Finding-Report.pdf
 The testimonies of the women can be seen at http://wssnet.org/page/3/
 For more details see: http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/the-pegdapalli-files/296625
 http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/raipur/Bastar-encounter-killing-sparks-row/articleshow/51012521.cms and http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/bastar-farmer-killed-in-fake-encounter-family/article8245674.ece
 The time line of the threats is available at http://wssnet.org/2016/02/24/time-line-of-the-attacks-on-human-rights-defenders-in-chhattisgarh/