Something was awry in these forests. Dread roamed here. Cultivated in plenty amidst shrubs that barely held form, in isolated pathways where lay thorns and dead leaves, where the despair cried their last sigh, where in whispers one revealed shrouds of agony, was grief and loneliness. There in the wretched summer heat, away from the forests where a chorus of cicadas and birds rang high in the air, was where we first met Kawasi Hidme.
She had a sparkle in her eyes. She stared at the empty railways tracks beside her for a while. Her tremulous voice grew firmer as she spoke to us. When we first met her in Soni Sori’s home, her shy gaze followed us to the road.
She stood and observed at times in silence.
Sometimes, she spoke of lands she left behind.
Beyond two rivers across the region lay her village that she now calls home. On stormy nights, one beckons, water rises and inundates the landscape. “I am from Sakler. My mausi (mother’s sister) lives in Borguda. I have two younger sisters and a brother. My sisters are married. My parents died when we were very young. They travelled to Andhra Pradesh to work in farmlands as agricultural labourers. My mother was bitten by a snake on her way back to our village. She was returning home to attend her mother’s funeral. Three months later, my father passed away. They say fever took him. His illness lasted four days. I am not sure how old I am. Medical reports suggest I have lived for 24 years.”
Her eyes wandered into distant farms. At the crossroads where lay an abandoned structure, children burst into peals of laughter. Their feet were bare, and away they ran into the woods. A faint rustle of leaves startled her as she smiled at us. Soon after her mother died, her infant sister passed away. Their death left her broken. She lived with her widowed aunt in Borguda. She tilled their lands and helped with grazing their cattle and goats.
“I remember that day,” she spoke in short staccato bursts. Her otherwise mellifluous tone turned harsh. “It was 2008. I had travelled to my mausi’s village to visit her. I worked in her farm for an entire year. We had just gathered our harvest. Someone set it on fire. I am not sure who committed this act nor do I know why. Upon hearing what had happened, I rushed back to Borguda from my brother’s village which was situated on the way to Konta towards Andhra Pradesh. It takes about four or five days on foot to reach Borguda. I recall reaching her home. It was a Monday,” she said.
The next morning Hidme accompanied her aunt and cousin sisters to the mela (traditional fair) held in a nearby village. One of the little girls insisted to visit a stall and apply mehendi. Their mother refused to give them money. “I had just Rs 50. They were charging Rs 5 per hand. So, my sisters got beautiful designs drawn on their little hands. I held them dearly and took a stroll alongside the road. The mela wasn’t that crowded that day,” she recalled, “There were also groups of men and women performing traditional dance and songs. At 12 pm, I was captured by men in uniform.”
She asked them to run as fast they could. The men dragged her away. She heard their faint screams as their feet scurried towards her mausi. “Oh Mother! Come quickly. They arrested our sister. They took her in their car. It was the police. They are hitting her. Mother! Hurry! Hurry!”
She stared at them from top to bottom. She was wounded and trapped in the vehicle. There was no one who would hear her screams, no one who would come to her rescue. Grief and agony became her companions for several years. She saw her mausi and sisters running towards her. They seemed distant. She heard their violent sobs and bore witness to flailing arms in the air. They ran for a while until they couldn’t anymore.
“She didn’t even come near the vehicle,” said Hidme over and over again. Her eyes fell to the ground. For a moment, we wondered if her suffering would have ended had they reached her. Down by the tiny stream, at the banks of River Indravati, one evening, we sat and thought about that young tribal girl we crossed paths with whose wrath went unaccounted for, and whose sorrows engulfed her soul.
At 2 pm, she was brought to Konta police station where she spent some time in their custody. There were alleged false cases filed against her. According to officials, her involvement in a gruesome incident leading to the death of 23 police personnel led to her arrest while activists and human rights lawyers involved in the case ascertained that the initial FIR did not have Kawasi Hidme’s name on the list. Her name was added five months later based on a statement recorded by a woman in her village who apparently was involved with Salwa Judum.
“There were so many policemen, that day. They dragged me by my hair and beat me up. My hands and legs were tied. In Konta, I was beaten up again. By then, I lost count over the number of bruises on my body. They accused me of being a Maoist. I pleaded with them to let me go. I wasn’t an insurgent. I wasn’t a terrorist. I told them my parents were dead. I work in the fields. I look after animals and discard cow dung. I take care of children, sweep and mop floors for survival. If my parents were alive, perhaps I would have had enough to eat. I don’t know anything about Maoists. I told them repeatedly. Why have you arrested me? The more I spoke, the more I was beaten up,” she said plucking blades of grass from the ground.
At 6 pm, the officers took her to the police station in Sukma. Later, they shifted her to Dantewada and transferred her to Bhansi. “I got one blanket to use as a mat and another thin blanket to cover myself. I didn’t know what time it was,” she said, “Was it 12 pm, 1 pm or 2 pm? I kept thinking to myself what should I do? I am alone in this world. If I die, would it matter to anyone?”
She didn’t remember events in any particular order. Perhaps, she didn’t want to. They struck her ear with a large stick. For a while, she couldn’t hear them but she felt endless waves of pain throughout her body. It went on for days, months and years. The torture never ceased to exist. They blindfolded her, gagged her, tore away her sari and confiscated her ornaments. For the next six days, what ensued was a brutal display of human rights violations encompassing sexual assault and electric shocks.
‘They will kill me,’ she thought to herself. ‘They will chop me up into pieces and throw me away. I have nobody. I have no father. I have no mother. No one will rescue me. My aunt and sisters won’t be able to fight for me. If I die, who will help them? No, I can’t be weak. I can’t die here. ’
‘I have nobody. No one I can call my own. I can’t die.’
‘I have nobody.’
Her thoughts spiraled. Without conscious volition, she thought of death. At times, it lasted for days. One day, she overheard a police woman yelling instructions to her subordinates at the station. “Feed her at appropriate times,” she said to them, “Later, we will take her to a river, tie her body to a heavy rock and throw her into roughshod waves.”
“I was 16 years old when they arrested me. I didn’t like it when they dragged my hair. I didn’t like it when they touched me. I didn’t like it at all. Men and women officers held batons and struck me all over my body. Some days, I could see their brutal faces, their scorn, and even heard their laughter ringing in my ears. There were far too many men. They would kick me in the stomach,” she said with spite, “The swelling on my head lasted for weeks. I had nothing to cover my body save a petticoat. They didn’t even give me a sheet to cover myself. The day they arrested me, I came down with a fever. The shivering never stopped. I started vomiting. I hoped for death to come at last. Every single day, I hoped it was my last,” she said placing her arms around her knees. Her eyes twitched as she pursed her lips disapprovingly for an instant. Her memories turned foggy, she said. She doesn’t recall what transpired during those days but she never forgot how she felt.
“It was in Bhansi where they stripped me of all my clothes. Yes, I remember. I lost my strength and hope. The torture began at 10 am and it went on till 3 pm. My body was swollen. I am not certain how I managed to stay alive. They pulled my hair so hard that they left a large bald patch on my scalp. Kill me with your gun: I begged the officers. I was in so much pain. I couldn’t eat anything. Nothing remained in my stomach. I spent seven years in jail. It’s a long time, isn’t it?”
There were three men, she recalls. She didn’t know their names. She doesn’t remember their faces anymore. They beat her up and sexually assaulted her. The day it happened they shifted her to a separate room. “They were on duty and took turns,” she said looking away from us, “I was afraid. I told the others — who came to torture me later — what happened in their absence. I requested them to leave me alone. They won’t, said a lady officer. They will kill you unless you confess. I screamed in agony. I begged them to end my misery. She phoned the Sukma police station immediately. This girl won’t survive the night, she said to them. From where did you pick her up?”
In Sukma, a male officer resorted to aggression and kicked her violently. A child’s excreta lay on the floor unwashed and untouched. Later, one of the staff members asked her to clean up the mess. Hidme refused to do so. She stood up to her and paid a heavy price. The woman returned with a large cane. A while later, Hidme collapsed on the floor.
“I was asked to sweep the floors every day. I couldn’t hold the broom. My hands were swollen. Sometimes, I would be woken up at 3 am and forced to sweep the entire police station. I wept all day and night. I cleaned their dishes and washed their clothes. If I wasn’t fast enough, I would get caned. They called me thagri. My body is swollen because of you, I said to them. Back then, I didn’t know Hindi. Save Gondi, I spoke no other language. I couldn’t understand anything they told me. I learnt Hindi in the Raipur jail. For over three years in Jagdalpur and other jails, I didn’t speak to anyone. I cried myself to sleep every night. Gradually, I learnt Chattisgarhi too. There was a woman officer/jailer who beat me up every day. I didn’t have clothes for two years. I covered myself in rags,” she said.
She remembered the woman who caned her constantly for disobeying her, for her disapproving looks, for expressing her agony. Perhaps, Hidme was caned for surviving. One day, they distributed blankets, bed sheets, plates, tumblers and bowls to all inmates. The officer cast her eyes on Hidme and her shredded clothes. “I was thrashed in front of other jail mates for wearing rags that barely covered my body,” recalled Hidme.
“Don’t you have any shame?” she asked me balling her fists and raising her arms above her head.
“My parents are dead. Who will get me clothes?”
“Shut up! Shut up, at once. I will hit you!”
“I discarded the clothes provided to me. I removed every garment and threw it at them. What came over me, that day? I do not know. But it was an act of defiance that made me walk away from these horrid human beings. At 12 pm, they returned with the same set of clothes that I refused to wear. All the other women constables confronted her. They told her no one ever comes to meet me. Why did she pick on me and torture me every day? It didn’t make a difference to her,” she said heaving a sigh.
Her condition worsened every day. The excessive force and assault rendered her helpless and took a toll on her health. Her body rejected her uterus. She bled profusely. Horrified at the sight, she struggled to place the organ back into her body. It happened again the next day. In Gondi, she requested one of the inmates to fetch a sharp blade. As the girls stepped out of the barrack, she decided to operate on herself and put an end to her misery. One of the girls returned and upon witnessing the sight before her she screamed for help. The gathered inmates took away the blade from her hands and demanded the women officers to rush Hidme to the hospital immediately. She underwent several major surgeries in subsequent years.
“I remember when it first happened. There was a policeman who tortured me senselessly. The next day, I saw something slip out of me. I was covered in blood. I am not well, you know. You may tell when you look at me. I am in a lot of pain. They operated on my stomach and my vagina. She isn’t sick. She is putting on an act, said the madam to the doctors. I threatened to take off my clothes and show them what they had done to me. At first, they rushed me to the hospital and brought me back to jail without allowing me to seek any medical treatment. A week later, when I went for another routine checkup, I insisted the doctor to call ‘jailer madam’ and the nurse. I am not going to see it Hidme, madam said with a stone-faced expression. My inmates in jail saved me. They said to her and the doctor: Are you blind? Can’t you see how much blood she has lost? They weren’t sure if I would survive. And for some reason, I did. I don’t know why. Sometimes I hoped I wouldn’t. Who would want to live like this?
It was in Jagdalpur where they first operated on her uterus. In Raipur, they wheeled her into the operation theatre, and moments later they recovered a giant stone from her stomach. When she passed urine and excreta, she bled everywhere. For days, she spat out blood every time she coughed. “My stomach had swollen to a point I couldn’t handle it anymore,” she said gesturing at her body. We sat in silence. Unspoken questions weighed on us as we sat there gazing at distant farmlands. “Yes, it happened once,” she said, “I am not sure if they placed several objects inside me. I took medicines for months. In a way, one could say it has healed. Do you know I bled for five months? I am unfit to do any work now. I can’t even carry a pot of water. I can’t eat too much. My stomach feels heavy all the time. It hurts everywhere,” she said. Some days, doctors tell her the internal swelling and organ damage will have repercussions on her recovery.
Once, her mausi arrived at the jail in Jagdalpur. Hidme had nothing to wear. She washed her rags and squeezed the murky water that dripped from her clothes on to the floor. She hadn’t the time to dry it. They were wet and clung to her body. As soon as she caught a glimpse of her aunt, Hidme was struck with a stick brutally from behind. “It was madam who kept yelling: Time is up, girl. Let’s go! I said to her I wanted to collect a few things from my aunt. I gathered everything into a plastic bag and carried it to my cell. En route, the packet tore and things were scattered all over the ground. Madam grabbed my hair and hit me several times over. Don’t you have any shame? You are wearing rags and bending over to pick up your things from the ground in front of so many men? Why did your bag tear apart Hidme? I was ashamed to hear what she insinuated. I wept bitterly and walked away. A year later, madam breathed her last at a hospital in Mumbai,” she said.
She showed no remorse at her death. There wasn’t a sense of bitterness or dismay in her voice as she narrated horrific details of what transpired all those years. The sparkle in her eyes had vanished for a few moments. All traces of angst remained hidden within her, she said to us that afternoon. In the glare of her eyes, lay loneliness. It roamed and stretched within her. She was broken. And, she knew it all too well. “She is dead,” she said in a tone devoid of any emotion. Her life barely held any semblance of hope, joy or humanity. So, she forgot her like a bad dream. The pain never left her. The scars remained etched in her flesh and memory. Those were the days she wished to forget.
It had been a year since she was released from jail when we first met her. On April 1, 2015, Hidme walked as a free woman. She was acquitted of all charges. She recalls spending time with other adivasi women in jail. “Some were 12 years old. How can a child follow the path of Naxalism? They too are beaten up by police officers stationed there,” she said sharing with us how her journey has changed her, “I am no longer scared of them. I have no fear of uniformed officers. What I feel constantly is anger.” A pregnant pause followed by incessant laughter ensued as she continued to speak. “I want to fight back but I can’t at the moment. I need to look after myself. I wasn’t compensated for my loss of time, dignity or injustice. The magistrate held no remorse or regret. I insisted that they provide me with a medical certificate stating what my condition was upon release. After my surgery in Raipur, it was then that I was presented before the magistrate. I have no strength left in me, I told her. I will die in jail. What is your problem? Don’t you get food in jail? You get good rotis, daal, sabji and pej. You get clothes. What problems are you dealing with there? she asked me in a condescending tone. I cried, and walked away.”
It wasn’t the first time that Hidme felt waves of helplessness ebbing and waning through her mind. The magistrate was blind and deaf, she told herself repeatedly. All they ever wanted was to extend her time in jail. “How many years would I continue to rot in there?” she yelled at them. Her fury went unnoticed. “A staff member asked me to write a letter to the court and request them to release me after all these years. I asked them to send it from their side since no body wished to listen to me. No letter was ever sent from the jail to any authority on my behalf,” she explained.
In 2013, some inmates woke Kawasi Hidme from her afternoon slumber. The jails were rife with rumours of another young tribal woman in excruciating pain who perhaps suffered the same fate as Hidme with respect to custodial torture and sexual assault. Hidme’s strides turned weary as she walked to the barrack where a woman was asleep in the corner. She was startled and yelled at Hidme as she gently woke her up. “She was afraid,” said Hidme reassuringly, “She thought she was going to get beaten up again. I know what that feels like.”
That was the first that Kawasi Hidme met Soni Sori — tribal activist, human rights defender, and Adivasi school teacher who also served as a political leader of Aam Aadmi Party in Sameli, Dantewada in prison. In 2011, Delhi Police’s crime branch had arrested Soni Sori upon the request and insistence of Chhattisgarh Police on charges of portraying the role of a conduit for Maoists. In April 2013, the Indian courts of the highest order acquitted her in six of the eight cases filed against her due to lack of evidence. Since her release, she has been campaigning extensively for the rights of those adivasis who bore the brunt of Maoist-State conflict. In particular, she has been extremely critical of police and military violence against tribal communities that have claimed several lives over decades.
“When I first met her, she didn’t know anything. I told her where to get food from, where the bathrooms were and where she could get chai and water to drink. She couldn’t walk. I told her not to worry and that I would get everything for her,” she said with a smile, “It was the least I could do.”
“Where did they take you, didi?”
“Dantewada, Geedam and Palnar”.
“What cases have they filed against you?”
“They told me I work for Naxals”, she said.
“Did you work for Naxals?”
“No, Hidme! They framed me! I have not committed any crime.”
“Are you married didi?.
“Yes! I have three children. What about you?”
“No. I have nobody. I have been in jail for 5 years. They accused of me of being an insurgent. What is your husband’s name, didi?”
“Oh! I have seen him during our court hearings.”
“Where is he? Where did you see him?”
“Well, I am in jail. And, so is he.”
“Don’t worry, didi. I’ll take care of you.”
One morning, Hidme was caught taking extra rotis to her cell. She was summoned at once by the head staff and questioned for a while. At that time, she hadn’t realized Soni Sori was on hunger strike demanding justice for the victims of systematic violence and oppression. “No, nuni: she said to me. I will only have some water and tea. I asked her why she was doing this. She wouldn’t survive. To that, she replied: My battle is with people from outside these limits, and not with anyone inside jail. It’s with those police officers who resorted to violence and brutality. Her fever worsened. She was getting weaker every moment. I held her and helped her walk to the bathroom. I washed her hair, got some fresh clothes, and asked her to sit in the sun for a while,” said Hidme as she fell silent. Her frozen glare revealed her misery. “I went to hang her wet garments on the rope. Her body was numb. They had given her electric shocks. I knew what else they did to her. I massaged her arms and legs for an hour. She fell asleep. Her fever had reduced. How will I survive in this jail without you Hidme?, she would ask me and moan in pain. I made it go away: her agony at least for a little while. When it was time for us to leave, she said it was the Goddess that brought us together. ‘You bathed me, washed my clothes, fed me and kept me alive. I will not forget you, Hidme. Don’t worry, I will fight for you. You will be free one day. I won’t leave you.”
Soni Sori kept her promise. With the help of human rights activists and lawyers, she brought forth Hidme’s case to the notice of authorities and the judiciary. Despite witnesses being complete and charges against her proven to be inconclusive, orders to release Hidme were delayed by five months. “I told her about the guards misbehaving with me when I visited hospitals. She asked me to have faith in her. You will be released by end of March, she said to me. On April 1, 2015, I was a free woman. I couldn’t sleep the previous night. I was entangled in a maze of thoughts. Where will I go? I have never seen a bus station. What if the police arrest me again? My inmates asked me to stop worrying incessantly. When I left, the madam smirked at me and said: Go ahead, get out! Take a look at the number of armed personnel walking on the streets,” said Hidme with a forlorn expression.
“Do you know which bus goes to Dantewada?” she asked an inmate in jail.
“You should take the one that goes to Bailadila. Then, take another bus to Dantewada.
“I have only seen the court in Dantewada. I will get down there. Have you seen Soni didi’s home?”
“Yes, I have only seen it in passing. I never stopped there. At Geedam, ask anyone where she lives? They will guide you to her house.”
When Hidme stepped out of the gates, Soni Sori was waiting for her outside. She was thrilled. Never did she expect to see her arrive. “She informed the guards that she had come to receive me. As soon as we drove away, the station master rang her up inquiring where they were taking me. Why? What happened? she asked them. We are looking for Hidme’s case files, they told her. Isn’t it enough that she suffered in jail for 8 years? If you have the courage to set foot in my house, arrest her. She is with me now. They disconnected the call. If didi had not turned up that day, they would have arrested me. Years later, a young man named Joga came looking for me. Apparently, he belonged to my village. There’s no one called Joga where I used to live. A soldier from the neighbouring military camps who perhaps was acting as a messenger had stopped by to ensure that I leave her house unaccompanied. They would have either arrested or killed me that day. Soni didi and Linga bhaiya saved my life. ”
She couldn’t trust anyone anymore. She lost faith in her family, society and people around her. She wondered when they would abandon her like everyone else. Perhaps, she would wake up someday and realise she wasn’t truly free. Fear does that to all. It aches, stretches and roams within our soul until it engulfs everything that crosses its path. “The police are my enemy. They have never shown any compassion towards people like me. It took me a while to start trusting human beings again. I owe a debt of gratitude to didi. She treated me like a daughter. She was transferred from one jail to another. She would keep looking for me and my things every time she was brought back to Raipur. The staff would set ablaze all the items procured for me by didi including soap, surf, oil and my clothes. They would dig in the ground to check if I had buried anything. One day, I insisted they return my clothes. I thought they had burnt them all. The jailer madam had confiscated four bags of clothes from the barracks. She grabbed my hair and pushed me away violently. I fell on a pile of clothes only to realize that they were mine. I couldn’t find some of them. This girl is as stubborn as Soni Sori, she remarked. I refused to eat until they returned my things. Why does jailer madam speak like that to me? Why does she throw me in gunahkaana? Why did she burn my clothes when I am alive? I asked everyone. On the third day, one of the girls from Andhra Pradesh said to me: You have to undergo surgery. Do not be stubborn. Don’t go on hunger strike!”
Her childhood was mired in struggles. Her sisters don’t recognize her anymore. Her frail figure scares them. They refuse to believe it’s her. Perhaps, they recall chasing after the car and men who dragged her away at the mela all those years ago. “They can read and write now. They read in the newspapers about the day I was released from jail. My aunt asked them to hide in the corner to surprise me. As soon as they stepped out of the shadows to greet me, they stopped in their tracks. Their eyes followed me for a while. They didn’t know who I was. This isn’t her, they told my aunt,” she said looking at the trees swaying in the winds, “Sometimes, I miss my parents and my siblings. When my mother died, we were very young. My father married my third mausi. She has three children. So, in all I have seven siblings. They stay in my parents’ home. I visit them whenever I can. It’s expensive for me to travel to my village quite often. Also, Soni didi gets nervous and anxious if I travel alone. We are constantly worried that someone from the armed forces will arrest me once more.”
Her memories were fading. She reminisced her childhood days. She couldn’t remember where they lived. She had no home there. Not anymore She couldn’t recall the rustle of leaves or the scent of petrichor. There was nothing that she could call her own; neither people nor memories. She was born in her aunt’s home. She didn’t know what home meant any longer. There was a lemon tree where she lived. It died a thousand deaths, and yet it survived. That’s where she was born; she told whoever she met.
“My mausi says: Don’t come here. Stay with Soni didi. You can’t do any household work. You are always sick. You don’t sleep properly. You are in excruciating pain. How will we treat you? We don’t have any money? For years, we haven’t been able to eat proper meals or wear decent clothes. We have done so much for you. Your sisters did odd jobs and worked at random places to pay the lawyer and take care of court fees. I don’t blame her. Life was tough for all of us. I can never repay them. She managed to arrange for Rs 40,000 in order to pay the lawyer in Sukma whereas he informed me that he worked on my case pro bono. Mausi bursts into tears every time she sees me. If I fall sick, whenever I visit her, she takes me to the hospital. She believes I have a better chance at recovery if I stay in Geedam. She is growing old, you know. Her eyesight is failing her. I hold her hand and walk with her wherever she goes. Some days, I find it hard to walk.”
The chirruping of birds broke our reverie that afternoon. Shadows had formed intricate lattices on our arms and legs. Forms and shapes swirled and swayed with the winds. The low rumble of railway engines could be heard in a distance.
Hope. There’s none left here, none for us to grasp, no withering strands floating in oblivion, none for those who writhe in agony and none for them who stand helpless.
Hope, there was none here in these lands.
“What dreams can I have? What hope can I have? I was denied the right to be a daughter. I was denied the right to have a family. I was denied happiness. I can’t get married to anyone. Who would want someone who is accustomed to being a burden? What do I tell you what I hope for in this lifetime? I longed for death and instead I was given life. I must be cursed. Give me death, that’s all I seek. Yes, death. Sometimes, I do have such thoughts. Maybe there’s a reason why I’m alive. I am yet to understand why,” she said with a sparkle in her eyes and the most beautiful smile we had seen all afternoon. Her demeanour left us perplexed.
Hope, it abandoned her a long time ago; longer than she could remember.
“Death is all I hope for…”
*There were remnants of prolonged and damaging effects of conflict everywhere we looked. Hidme’s story was a devastating example of how innocent lives were destroyed by those in authority who lacked fundamental values including kindness, compassion and humanity. Unfettered by ethical or moral concerns, unresolved minds often adopt vile tactics, misuse their power to destroy lives and break one’s spirit…*
[PS: Names and identities of ‘points of contact’, ‘sources’ and ‘interpreters’ changed to protect their privacy.]
(to be continued…)
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