Peace can never be attained through violence and weapons: Soni Sori

It rained all night. At dawn, a distant swarm of birds adorned the skies far away. Near the railway tracks, in lone farmlands, we spotted a few women sitting under a large mahua tree. At Geedam, in a house situated adjacent to the main road, military fatigues lay haphazardly on a wooden cot. The men placed their guns beside them as their eyes followed us to the curb.

We stepped out of the main street and walked down an alleyway to the right. There were no customers at the bakery today. An old woman carried a sack of vegetables on her back as her grandchild trotted beside her. Street hawkers shifted their glance towards the bus station.

We waited a little longer before returning to Dantewada. In an hour, Soni Sori arrived on a motorcycle with her nephew Lingaram Kodopi. A few weeks ago, unknown assailants attacked her with a chemical substance which left her severely injured. “It doesn’t hurt anymore,” she said with a smile, “I was in excruciating pain. I couldn’t open my eyes. I didn’t recognise my face. This is the price I pay!”

In 2011, the adivasi school teacher turned politician was arrested by Delhi Police’s Crime branch on alleged charges of acting as a conduit for Maoists. In 2013, she was acquitted of all charges in six cases by the court. One of the integral voices against police brutality, human rights violation and extra-judicial killings in Bastar, she has borne witness to the suffering and endless struggles of adivasis. We spent an entire morning with her delving deeper into her fight for civil rights, bringing to light police excesses and systematic destruction of tribal lands in the name of development and progress.

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Today, your name has become synonymous with ‘struggle for Adivasi rights and justice’. You were also a member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Could you shed some light on your journey so far? Do you long for the ‘simpler’ times?

I am from Dantewada district. I was born in a village called Bade Bedma. My father was a farmer. He ensured that all of us got a decent education.

In 2002, I secured a job as a teacher. My husband and children lived with me. Back then, there was no Maoist activity in these areas. I didn’t know anything about Naxalism or Naxals. We heard about Maoists working towards a united people’s struggle movement in Bijapur and other areas. By 2006, their presence was noted in areas that belonged to the Nilavaya Panchayat.

People spoke about incidents wherein Congress leaders were attacked by Maoists. Back then, I was just focused on my job. In 2006, I became the hostel warden. By then, our area was mired in conflict. Maoist cadres would visit hamlets and villages. They organised Jan Adalats (people’s court or kangaroo court) and pronounce judgments. As people started attending these gatherings, I realised that our villages no longer remained hidden. Two years later, I observed that several children from my own hostel had become orphans. Salwa judum and the Naxal-state conflict claimed the lives of their parents. War destroyed their lives.

One day, I received some information about children hiding in the forests near Chintalnar and Jagargunda. I decided to rescue them. The sections of the forest where they remained hidden in fear were situated at least 30 or 40 kms from the hostel. On our way back, it took us more than a week to reach our homes. When we first set eyes on these children, we realised they were covered in insect bites. There were around 50 of them huddled together.

Upon informing what I had witnessed in the forests, the authorities increased the capacity of our hostel from 50 to 200. Since I was an adivasi teacher, people treated me with utmost respect.

One dreadful day, Maoists called upon all hostel and school wardens in the region. Everyone except me decided to boycott the meeting. I wanted to understand what was happening in our region and why did they wish to speak to us? If you don’t go, they might demolish your hostel: someone told us. We heard they carried guns, and threatened people who refused to obey them. In the meeting, they discussed amongst each other about destroying our ashram and hostel. One of the men was referred to as dada by locals. I asked him why they wanted to demolish our schools.

You allow security forces to use these buildings and plan attacks against us. This place is meant for education. Therefore, we will destroy them,’ he said.

Why are you here?’ I asked him. 

‘We are here for the people!’

‘If you destroy these ashrams and hostels where several adivasi children reside, aren’t you snatching away their right to education? How then can you claim that you are here to fight for our people?’

There was an awkward silence that ensued soon after the conversation. I feared I may have overstepped my boundaries. He was forced to think about what I said. He went away, and returned a while later. As long as the security forces don’t set foot into our ashram, we were allowed to function in the area. This was a massive jan adalat where the strength of the attendees ranged between 5000 to 10,000 people. If forces come to your hostel, we will conduct a bigger jan adalat than this one and punish you: they told me.

I feared for my life. They had killed a few Congress leaders back then. I was in a fix. If the security forces visit my hostel, these people would kill me. I didn’t know what to do. For the sake of those 200 children who were dependent on us, I agreed to their demands.

I couldn’t sleep the whole night. The next day, I spoke to my senior colleague from the education department and informed him of the situation. He helped me a great deal. He immediately contacted the Collector and asked other authorities to ensure that the forces never visit the ashram for it may result in devastating consequences. They kept their word. The soldiers would visit the neighbouring village and return after their routine operations. As long as I was in-charge, no one set foot in the hostel.

Three days after the jan adalat, Maoist cadres destroyed all the ashrams in the vicinity save ours. Children residing in those ashrams were shifted to different locations. Two years later, I met the block officer and the collector. I told them we must make an effort to rebuild our structures. We must ensure that our children have access to schools. I even communicated with Maoists and informed them that their actions resulted in tribal children being deprived of education.

They cannot walk 50 kms to go to the nearest school!  ‘If the wardens of those ashrams had made an appearance during our initial meeting, then we would not have destroyed them. School cannot be used the security forces for their operations,’ they said.

It is the warden or superintendent’s duty to try and protect their school. They should have displayed such sense of responsibility. Perhaps, this was a mistake on their part. The children suffered the worst.

As the number of children gradually increased, I built an additional shed in my ashram. The government granted me the permission to do so and even sanctioned Rs 500,000 to help with construction. Meanwhile, I was engaging with local youth and encouraging villagers to rebuild structures in their areas. Around that time, Avadhesh Gautam made several statements criticising Maoists who forbade people from building anganbadis, roads and schools.

Their cadres attacked Avadhesh Gautam’s residence. He accused all members of the Communist Party of India (CPI) from Kuakonda block of being involved in the attack, and threw them in jail. My husband was one of them. My name appeared on that list but they couldn’t arrest me!

Meanwhile, funds sanctioned by the Government for development of certain villages like Burgum, Nadi and Aranpur were not being utilised appropriately. They would constantly use the excuse: Naxals don’t allow us to construct anything here. I told them I would take the responsibility and with the help of local men we could build ashrams and schools for tribal children. 

Avadhesh was unhappy with the suggestion. He wasn’t too pleased that I, an adivasi teacher, challenged him. So, he found a way to implicate me in false cases. He raised complaints against me with the authorities. ‘How did her ashram manage to survive? She is closely involved with Maoists. She speaks to them regularly,’ he said to them.

The administration and Government too kept fabricating cases against me. Some of them included ridiculous claims such as setting a car on fire, digging up roads, and even making an attempt to kill Avadhesh Gautam! Can you imagine? They had no proof nor any witnesses.

They threatened me with temporary warrants. If I offered them information on the whereabouts of Maoist camps, their strategies and plans, then they wouldn’t arrest me. The Police had created a group that hounded me whenever I attended district or block meetings. I refused to become their informant. I am a teacher. How would I know what Maoists are upto?

My husband was already in jail. I have young children. For a few months, I told them I would help them. I had no will power or strength left in me to fight them anymore. I dodged their questions and inquiries for a while.

(*Soni Sori and her nephew Lingaram Kodopi were accused under Sections 121 (waging or attempting or abetting war against nation), 124 (A) (sedition) and 120 (B) (criminal conspiracy) of IPC, as well as Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Act. The charge-sheet named D V C S Verma (Essar GM), Lingaram Kodapi and Soni Sori [as suspected Naxals], company’s chief contractor B K Lala and top Naxal commanders Raghu and Vinod.*)

In the Essar case, they cast such a nasty web to trap me. They have no evidence whatsoever. I have been acquitted of all other charges in prior cases. There should have been an inquiry into the accusations levied against me before my arrest.

How could I blow up a police station? How can I travel 30 kms in the night from the ashram in Jabeli to Nareli and set a car on fire? Avadhesh Gautam’s home is at least 15 kms from the Jabeli Ashram. How could I have attacked him?

I had to flee to Delhi. I knew that if I was arrested in Bastar, they would either kill me or torture me. I had witnessed and heard enough about what women went through in custody. There was a girl from Guniyapal who was raped and shot in her private parts. I attended her funeral. I saw what they did to her. That was the first time I came across a victim of police brutality and sexual assault.

In the Delhi court, I knelt before the Magistrate and begged them to not send me to Chhattisgarh. If I have allegedly committed these crimes, then keep me in Tihar Jail. I will live here and fight my case. Judge sahib, if I go to Chhattisgarh I won’t survive. I will be tortured mentally and physically. They will kill me. I broke down several times.

By then, Chhattisgarh police had filed numerous cases against me. The Magistrate assured me that I would be safe. “There won’t be a scratch on you. I promise. You are going to Chhattisgarh under my care and security,” he said to me that day. The police too gave a written statement that they would protect me.

I came back to Chhattisgarh hoping they kept their word. After undergoing a series of medical tests, I was taken to the local court. The police then remanded me in custody for two days.

What transpired in those two days, I will never forget! They gave me electric shocks periodically. They put stones in my private parts. They beat me up and stripped me off my clothes. This is how they treated me!

I kept screaming throughout the ordeal. ‘Who will come to save you?’ remarked the SP. He was in the room. I lost consciousness several times. I didn’t know what happened. I came back to my senses, the next morning. I saw myself. I saw what they did to me. I was utterly alone. There was no information given to my family. They didn’t know anything. I was rushed to the hospital. Someone recorded a video of doctors and nurses tending to my wounds. They recorded me screaming in agony. And, that’s why I am alive today! This is why I believe in the power of media.

That video saved my life. Later, when the police presented me in the local court, I repeatedly told them I would like to see the Magistrate. I don’t know what fabricated stories or lies were fed to her. Before meeting her, they wanted me to put my signature  on a piece of paper. I refused. They went in, and returned a while later. Do you want to go to jail or do you want to remain in our custody? they asked me, If you don’t sign this paper, you will be handed over to us. If you sign it you can meet the magistrate and proceed to jail.

I was badly wounded and wouldn’t have lasted another day in custody. So, I signed the paper hoping I would survive, and fight my battle.

I never met the magistrate. On the first day, when we went to the police station, my brother asked them: Why aren’t you taking her to the magistrate? Why are you taking her to jail?

My condition was critical. The jail superintendent in Jagdalpur refused to let me in. ‘She will die tomorrow. I cannot let that happen,’ he told them. His name was Gaikwad. He showed me kindness. And, that’s all that mattered! They shifted me to a hospital. By now, a lot of media had gathered around the premises. My backbone had suffered serious damage. I was rushed to Raipur where I was harassed once again. The doctors kept telling the police that I was in no position to walk.

In Raipur jail, they kicked me mercilessly. I collapsed to the floor. The women officers asked me to get up. I couldn’t. The local police returned to the cell. All I remember is pain.

After 15-20 days, I was presented before the Magistrate. I asked her, “Madam, you had sent me on a 2-day remand. I even had a medical checkup before being taken away. Why didn’t you call me after 2 days?” Apparently, she had sent her assistant to look for me.

I was tens steps away from her, that day. She could have inquired about my whereabouts. She could have saved me from being tortured. Couldn’t she have ordered the police to bring me in?

I told her what they did to me, what transpired in police custody and how they treated women there. What justice will you give me now? What justice can you deliver sitting here in your chair? Whatever the Police wanted to do to me, they have already done it! I have no expectation from you! She looked down and sat in silence. That day, they were scared; all of them.

Today, some people claim that Soni Sori inserted stones in her private parts herself. If that was the case, then why wasn’t I allowed to meet the Magistrate earlier? I kept crying throughout and begged them to let me see her.

Since I am educated, I can talk about these things. I am aware of laws. I am aware of the justice system prevalent here. I know my rights. Therefore, I could question them! There isn’t a shred of evidence to prove that they tortured me. Nothing!

When I was in jail, I struggled a lot. I was on hunger strike for 2.5 months. They tormented us. The injustice meted out to tribal women cannot go unnoticed. They served food with insects in it. Women were continuously tortured. Many women were raped in police stations. They gave birth in jail. Many women’s breasts and nipples were chopped off by the security forces.

I witnessed such atrocities in my lifetime! It changed me. I am no longer the person I once was. I was an ordinary woman; an ordinary teacher. I had an ordinary family and I wanted to lead a normal life. Going to jail completely changed my life, my way of thinking and altered my perspective.

And, this is my story…

A few days ago, you mentioned that women in jail were complete unaware of their fundamental rights. Could you tell us about your experience in jail? According to you, how has the conflict between Maoists and the state affected the ethos of Bastar?

I used to strongly believe that the violence perpetrated by Maoists must be addressed and dealt with. They shouldn’t interfere with our lives.

Once I witnessed and experienced what the police were doing under the guise of ‘safety’ and fighting insurgency, I started comparing the two entities. I realised that these notorious elements in the police department and government agencies were partaking in far more dreadful and unjust practices than the Maoists.

I learnt to fight for my rights in jail. Gradually, I started teaching uneducated tribal women whom I met in prison about laws and their fundamental rights. They gave me strength. I told myself: If these women can raise their voices, so can I!

The police would handcuff us constantly. While going to the court for hearings, male constables would touch female prisoners. They weren’t allowed to do so. At first, I raised awareness on smaller issues. Women were forced to clean toilets in jail. This wasn’t their responsibility. The Government has appointed sweepers and cleaners in prisons.

You are remanded in custody. The court has not yet pronounced its verdict and they are still contemplating on whether or not you have committed the alleged crime. The police arrested you merely on suspicion. In the eyes of the court, you aren’t a criminal yet! These naïve tribal women assumed that living in filthy and unhygienic conditions and eating contaminated food was all a part of their punishment; a part of being a prisoner in jail.

If and when the court decides that you are guilty, you can then proceed to do these chores. You have to raise these concerns with the jail superintendent. You have to fight for yourself. The jail was reeking with filth and diseases. Women would neither get fresh clothes nor were they provided sanitary napkins. Everyone wore the same set of clothes over and over again. This is my punishment: they told themselves.

This was another form of torture. I have seen women folding their legs and sitting in a corner when they were on their period. They wouldn’t change their clothes. They had nothing else to wear. The stench would become unbearable. Yet, they suffered in silence. They must be provided with clean clothes, soap and oil. I had a huge argument with the superintendent. Soon after, we saw several changes implemented in jail.

Over time, these women cultivated courage and resilience in their hearts. They could fight their own battles and no longer needed my support. They gave me hope. If they could do it within the confines of a prison, why can’t I fight for others outside?

Some officers would remark: Madam, you are enclosed within four walls. That’s why you think you can fight and raise your voice here. Once you are set free, we will show you who we are. I would tell them: I don’t know if I will die in jail. But if I survive, if I come out of this alive, I will continue my fight against injustice.

Sometimes, they would keep me in solitary confinement for two or three days at a stretch. They tried to break me. I wouldn’t see sunlight for days. I feel my time in jail trained me to face life. I got conditional bail for two months. It was Prashant Bhushan ji (public interest lawyer in the Supreme Court of India and activist) who helped me. I immediately traveled to Delhi.

I longed to return to my land, my place of birth! Bastar is my home. The police said they wouldn’t allow me to set foot in the state ever again. If I didn’t come back home, I probably would have killed myself! People fought for me and eventually I managed to return. However, there were a few people who threatened to kill me. ‘You won’t be alive. How can you come back? We will harm you,’ they told me over the phone.

It was around that time that Prashant ji and Himanshu Sir suggested that I join the Aam Aadmi Party. In order to fight for your rights in Bastar, you need a foundation. My ideology was more in synchronisation with the Communist Party of India (CPI). However, I never really got any help from them nor was I approached by them. So, I decided to join AAP.

I contested the elections and lost. Actually, I won! You see the Chhattisgarh government called me a Maoist and threw me out. Not only did I come back to my land, my people and home but I have also managed to become a part of the system. I haven’t come back for power. I came home for my people. I want to serve my people. And, I will live here and do that. Therefore, I won.

Once I returned, I rested for two months. My ordeal in custody and jail took a toll on my physical and emotional health.

Thereafter, my struggles resumed!

My first battle was for Gurbe. IG Kalluri issued orders to abduct a woman. There were five cars that surrounded Sukadi Mandavi that day. Male officers grabbed her hand and dragged her away from home.

Until her husband Ayata Mandavi surrendered and claimed to be a Maoist operative, the police refused to set her free. They wanted to arrest and implicate him in false cases. Ayata was a farmer. He wasn’t a Maoist. Why should he surrender if he hadn’t done anything at all?

Ayata was an active BJP worker but no BJP leader supported him. They all told him to talk to the officers. They would have arrested him the moment he set foot in the police station. The party encouraged him to surrender so that his wife could come back home. They had an infant who couldn’t survive without Sukadi. Their baby would cry bitterly all day. We bought some milk and asked Ayata to feed him.

Ayata was troubled and wondered aloud if he should surrender. He rang me up one day. Someone asked him to seek my help. Lingaram and I went to his village to assure him that we would fight for him. Sukadi was in Kukanar police station. This is not just your and my fight, we told him. This is everyone’s fight.

Within minutes, around 13,000 people gathered around us with knives, blades, axes and other sharp objects. It was a strange sight! I asked them what their intentions were. Were they going to attack and kill police officers? Why did they come with these weapons?

They told us that they would take matters into their own hands and retrieve Sukadi. I told them we didn’t need any knives at all. You are turning yourselves into criminals by brandishing weapons. I will never support this! If this is how you want to fight, then I will not lead you. If you put down your weapons, I will stand beside you.

They assumed I was afraid. I told them I fought for our constitutional rights. Therefore, I would adopt the legal route. I would never choose violence over peace. If you believe in me, then you may accompany me to the station, I will ensure that they release her. You have my word.

They threatened me with consequences. They told me I would be held accountable if something were to happen to Sukadi. We will take severe action against you. It doesn’t matter whether we attack you or not. We won’t leave you!

I agreed to their demands. I asked them to leave their weapons in the village and walk with me to the police station. There were too many of them. They kept their word. They didn’t carry anything with them; not even a small knife. Some of them were worried that the police may open fire at all of us. I stood before them and told them that their bullets would claim my life before theirs. I am with you.

For three days, we stood outside the police station peacefully and made our voices heard. In the end, they released her! They said they found her sitting on a hillock in the forests. However, in Sukadi’s testimony she clearly stated that she was picked up by uniformed officers from her home. The police obviously was embarrassed by the whole incident. It became national news.

That day, people appreciated my method of fighting without weapons. We can use constitutional means to voice our opinions. Non-violence is the key. Since then, I became their nano (older sister). I am no longer addressed as ‘Madam’. There were similar instances observed and recorded in other villages.

(*Days later, over 150 police personnel entered Chota Tongpal, Jangampal and Bade Gurbe, ransacked their homes and detained around 26 villagers in retaliation to villagers protesting against the illegal detention of Sukadi Mandavi.)

Today, women openly talk about physical torture, sexual assault and rape; about how soldiers and officers squeezed their breasts to check if they were lactating or not. Maoist women cadres are prohibited from bearing children. Earlier, they would be embarrassed to talk about these things. I tell them what happened to me so that they know what their Nano went through.

Do I feel embarrassed? No. We have to fight for our place in society, once again. They must learn to fight their own battles. I cannot be there for them all the time. You have to speak up and I will stand with you, I tell them. We must empower our women to fight for justice.

Gradually, they found the strength and courage within their heart to fight back. They spoke about the injustice and torture meted out to them. Many a times, they said to us: Please record the video. Take our pictures. Tell everyone what happened here.

When we first met, in 2016, 100-150 villagers were arrested by security forces under mere suspicion. You mentioned that many of them were children. Could you talk to us about your experience dealing with such cases?

There was a meeting or seminar held in Warangal. The villagers were going to attend the event. There was nothing illegal about this gathering. Everybody is allowed to attend events in other states in order to understand what’s happening there and share their own stories and points of view. How can these people be arrested? If it is a crime, then register a complaint and submit it in court. Let the court then decide whether people are free to go or not. How can the police and administration resort to violence?

Women sat in the station all night. Villagers were refused food and water. Some people were released. Many more were arrested. How could movements and campaigns flourish in our country if it were illegal to attend meetings? All the accusations against these tribal men and women including stealing vote ballots, digging up roads and beating people up were fabricated by the police department. How can they pass judgment based on mere suspicion?

They neither respect our rights nor their laws. They don’t follow any rules despite being a part of the legal system. How many more people will be tormented? How many more adivasis will watch their lives turn into living hell? Such exploitative behavior pushes people towards violence.

Both the Government and Maoists claim that they are here for the development and well-being of Adivasis. However, if both sides want the same thing then why are they at loggerheads with one another?

If it is indeed true that the government is working towards development of these lands and its people, then why don’t all our hamlets have electricity? Where is the water infrastructure?

In order to construct roads, they deploy armed forces. Why not adopt the same strategy for building schools, dams or levelling fields? Wouldn’t adivasis trust our government and the security forces if they actually lent them a helping hand? They would have raised their voices against Maoists if the authorities had made the right decision!

Why can’t villages be developed holistically with the help and protection of soldiers? Instead thousands of armed personnel are deployed to construct roads. And, many a times, we hear horrifying tales of women being sexually tortured, men being beaten up and villages ransacked. If this is what the government assumes will bring development in these regions, we will never accept it!

Why are adivasis rotting in jail? Why do the security forces kill so many tribal people without even knowing who they are in fake encounters? There is no evidence gathered against these victims.

How many women were raped in Belamnendra? In Pedagallur, a minor girl was herding cows when they picked her up, and raped her. Near the pond, many more women were sexually harassed. They even raped a pregnant woman! Women like Hurre Kartami from Badegudra fought for her husband till her last breath.

Then, the police and armed forces claim they are here to protect adivasis. How can they justify their behavior?

Maoists kill anyone under suspicion of being a police informer. Why aren’t adivasi informers given protection by the administration and police? Aren’t they valuable in gathering intelligence?

I often wondered how the police managed to turn naïve tribal men and women into informants. I once told these people to not return to their villages. It wasn’t safe for them. I told them that the police would protect them.

What about my family? How could we abandon them? We can’t leave our villages. Where else can we farm? We can’t take our land with us: they told me.

I asked them why they did it. I couldn’t understand why they would jeopardise their own lives. Apparently, they were given two options by the police: either become our informant or go to jail. Whenever they summoned them, they had to visit the police station. The officers gave them a tiny mobile phone. If they refused to take it, they would be reprimanded. If Maoist cadres discover the phone in their midst, they will be shot dead.

We were born to die. We will die: they tell me sometimes.

The government and the security forces are very well aware of their conundrum. They know there are dire consequences to their actions. In one way or another, adivasis must die. This is perhaps what the authorities have decided. Land owned by the dead can then be claimed by the government. Maoists don’t need adivasis’ land.

I haven’t heard of atrocities committed against women by Maoists. If such reports were to come to our attention, we will fight for the rights of those women using non-violence. Maoists don’t hesitate before pronouncing judgments and killing people. What about the family of the informant? What about the mother who is struggling to feed her children? What future will they have?

You haven’t killed just one person. You have killed the entire family: I’d tell them. Such cases are far and few. Not once have I hesitated to engage in conversation with them too.

Overall, I believe the fight revolves around tribal land. What does an Adivasi have anyway? Neither do they stay in lavish bungalows nor are they millionaires.  Nobody has a bank balance. They don’t own skyscrapers. They have nothing! All they have is Jungle, jal, and zameen. This is all they rule over! This is what they consider their own. Adivasis are being killed to encroach upon their land in the name of conflict and development.

Once, in conversation, IG Kalluri asked me to abandon my fight. I said to him: Can you stop killing Adivasis? Can you stop throwing them in jails?

The policies or attitude that the Chhattisgarh Government has adopted are immoral and wrong. Kalluri is following Government orders. I have no grudge against him.

(*In February, 2017, IG Kalluri who was accused of committing police excesses and intimidating researchers  and journalists was forced to go on a long medical leave by the Chhatisgarh Government. According to numerous activists, his tenure allegedly saw large-scale human rights violations and extra-judicial killings and fake surrenders)

Adivasis must die. They are born to die like insects. Killing them is important! Adivasis shouldn’t be spared: he told me. This is the modus operandi of the Government!

Our tribal land is governed by PESA and 5th scheduled area laws. Therefore, the government has no rights to acquire lands in these areas without our consent. However, do they follow these rules?

Security forces are summoned to kill adivasis. That is one way of taking control of their land and forests. Many people die in war. Large sections of the forests and villages are deserted now. While some shifted to neighbouring towns, many fled to Andhra Pradesh. Their land was then distributed amongst wealthy businessmen. How is this progressive? How does this entail development?

Maoists, on the other hand, have their own agenda. They are fighting for their movement. I am unaware of their inner workings and fundamental belief system. I wouldn’t be able to explain their ideologies and principles in great depth.

However, I do believe that if they weren’t here, we would have lost majority of our adivasi land. For instance, in Sarguja there are no Maoists wandering in the villages there and yet the Government has deployed the army to empty the forests and take control of tribal land. Villagers were beaten up by soldiers.

The day they are successful in uprooting Adivasis entirely from Bastar all security forces will be withdrawn for then they would claim they brought an end to the conflict. It would be foolish to assume that the war would end. Many people are deeply connected with this struggle.

Some are with the police. Some have joined Maoists.
No one can banish adivasis from their own land!

I once asked villagers why they fled into the forests every time paramilitary forces entered their hamlets. ‘Initially, we were arrested simply because we ran away. If we don’t, they abuse our women and beat up our families in front of us. Whether we choose to run away or stay at home, we will be arrested by soldiers. In order to protect our women and children, we run. They take our rice, daal, clothes and even mahua and money from our homes. They scatter things around in hopes of finding something to implicate us. They bring chaos with them,’ they said.

Whether Maoists arrive in their villages unannounced or the police, it is the adivasi who dies. So, who do you feel angry at the most? I ask them sometimes. Mostly, they feel angry and betrayed by the police. They are meant to protect us. They are equally miffed with Maoists. For in this fight, there are many adivasis sacrificed by both sides. ‘Why can’t we put an end to this conflict?’ they lament, ‘Until when will this battle be fought? Maoists have guns so they may escape and survive. In the end, we villagers die. Sometimes we ask them: Dada, till when will we keep dying?’

In retort, the Maoist cadres tell them that the Government will usurp tribal land and forest; that they will kill the tribes. We are here for you. We are here to protect your jal, jungle and zameen. The Government wants to take away your land and hand it over to big industrialists: they give them such assurances. ‘Are you with us in this struggle’ they question them consistently.

The villagers are constantly in a dilemma. While on one hand Maoists state they will protect them from ‘oppressive forces’, on the other hand the Government tells them a different story. ‘We don’t understand who is right and who is wrong, nano. We will die but we won’t give away our land to anyone,’ they tell me.

According to you, in what ways has Maoist presence benefitted Adivasis and in what ways has it hurt them?

As mentioned earlier, forest dwelling communities can and must ascertain their rights to protect their land, jungle and water. That is perhaps one of the ways in which adivasis have benefitted from Maoist presence here.

However, accusations of being Maoist cadres or sympathizers are levied against villagers who are then thrown in jail. If somebody becomes a police informant or is suspected of being one, they are killed by Maoists who believe in their armed guerrilla struggle for Adivasi rights. We can’t forgive such traitors, they say to them.

Maoists even issue statements taking ownership of incidents they have partaken in or spearheaded. They present their points of view before people. No matter what they do, the government will hold an adivasi responsible for his actions without realising the helpless situation he is subjected to on a regular basis. They are forced to take sides.

If a Maoist cadre visits a tribal home, eats their food and drinks their water, how can we term the family Maoist sympathisers? How is that a crime? If one is being held at gunpoint and forced to feed whoever set foot in their house, what do you expect them to do? Why aren’t members of the security forces who make similar demands as Maoist cadres being held accountable for their actions?

The police is yet to win the trust and faith of adivasis residing here. They cannot achieve their goals through guns and war. On the contrary, this only helps the Maoist cause and encourages more and more people to lean towards their ideologies.

Violence can be perpetrated from one side or both. Therefore, can we ever have a resolution through non-violence ‘only’? Or is it inevitable to adopt means that encourage a combination of both non-violent and violent struggle, and retaliation? What are your thoughts on the same?

Maoists — who have chosen weapons as their medium — claim that they can win this struggle through violence. The government believes it can end the Maoist movement with armed personnel and bring peace to Bastar. I do not agree with either side. Peace can never be attained through violence and weapons.

This method will only lead to more bloodshed. It will turn people violent. So many lives will be lost! Therefore, how can this be considered as a sign of victory?

There should be a dialogue between the Government and Maoists. I think the Government should initiate such efforts. Both the sides claim they are fighting for the welfare of adivasis. The Government, however, is bound by the constitution to resolve this conflict. Maoists don’t believe in our constitution, law or the system.

People who have taken to arms must have suffered at the hands of the system. Hence, they don’t have any faith in Government policies or rules anymore. They claim they have tried to live with the system and it did not prove to be beneficial whatsoever. The government must engage in meaningful conversations with such people.

Why hasn’t the Chhattisgarh Government done anything in this regard so far? They will release statements to the media stating that if Maoists come forward we will embrace them and wouldn’t hesitate to have a dialogue with them.

Have they ever asked all the public representatives and leaders from Bastar to gather on one stage and have a discussion on how the situation can be resolved? People often question my intentions behind advocating peaceful dialogue.

When those seven jawans who belonged to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were killed in Malewada, I witnessed the aftermath of the incident. They were blown to bits. We didn’t know which head belonged to which body. I was heartbroken. How many more deaths will it take for us to put an end to this conflict? Are we supposed to remain mute spectators as our jawans and adivasis are massacred before our eyes?

Isn’t it our duty? People are dying in such manner, so shouldn’t we try to see how we can stop such a violent conflict? Why can’t we take a strong stand?

I was questioned thereafter on whether I would consider talking to Maoists on my own. This is a matter of concern for Bastar. We must come together to bring peace to this land.

When Alex Paul Menon was abducted didn’t the Government take it seriously? Didn’t they turn to mediation? His abduction shook the entire nation. He was eventually rescued and brought back to safety. When seven Jawans were abducted in Narayanpur, Swami Agnivesh decided to intervene to rescue them. If the government decides to conduct talks, then people will come forward. I am certain. However, this approach will forbid them from usurping tribal land.

Look at what our leaders are upto today!

Take the case of Abhilash Tiwari (BJP leader)! What led him to treat that poor tribal woman in that manner? Was it arrogance? Was it money? He moves around with four armed guards for he fears that he might be attacked by insurgents. In the end, how did he manage to use his power and influence? Kicking a member of the public in broad daylight over a petty argument is unacceptable! His party decided to forgive him.

By retaining such leaders, isn’t the Government fanning the flames of conflict in the region? Such public leaders will never sincerely try to find a solution to the situation prevalent in Bastar because of their own selfish interests.

Before the Government and Maoists got involved in the situation here, there have always been ‘settlers’ who traversed these lands for years and decided to call it home. Today, there are contractors and business men from places like UP, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh amongst others who have settled down in Bastar. Therefore, the situation we observe with respect to selfish exploitation of adivasis has been prevalent in these regions for several years. And, it cannot just be attributed to Government and Maoist elements. Exploitation of tribes seems to be the normal order of things here where each individual is serving their own interests as the downtrodden continues to suffer. In that case, if we have to try and address this issue on a fundamental level, how do we resolve it?

My fight and struggle has never been about religion or caste! It doesn’t matter to me whether someone is Hindu, Muslim, Christian, adivasi or settler. I have nothing to do with any of these distinctions. People can stay in any corner of this country. Therefore, I don’t do politics along these lines either.

Earlier, I would hear numerous stories about outsiders coming to Bastar and stealing our land. They also set up big stores here and started expanding their business rapidly. Most of them have good business acumen. Where once there used to be two homes that belonged to settlers or outsiders, today there are massive settlements and colonies in and around Bastar. They have really prospered while adivasis continue to remain where they are.

Banks don’t hesitate in sanctioning loans to settlers while tribal people don’t enjoy such benefits. Of course, there are numerous policies and loans devised for adivasis too. However, most of the time, they are unable to receive any sort of help with respect to funds from banks.

Outsiders, on the other hand, have flourished over the years. It is because of the adivasis that they were able to establish successful business enterprises here. The tribal communities never opposed their presence in these regions. They have always welcomed them with open arms. Soon, these settlers brought in their families and friends to Bastar. Today, in some regions, you will not find a single Adivasi residing in settlements occupied by traders. These settlers are busy building a fortune for themselves while turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed against adivasis of Bastar. The death of tribal people does not concern them!

This land belongs to the adivasis. Therefore, it is the responsibility of every individual who calls Bastar their home to raise concerns over injustice meted out to tribal communities. They can use their knowledge of fundamental rights and law to support tribes.

Today, one will find huge stores in interior villages like Nakulnar. These people travel to remote hamlets and procure tamarind, mahua and other local produce. The Police never arrest them nor do Maoists trouble them in any manner. Sometimes, I wonder why!

On several occasions, I feel this fight for adivasis divides the society. I will continue to fight for humanity. I speak up for Adivasis when they are wronged and thrown in jail. With respect to fighting for the entire society, I never discriminate between tribal communities and non-tribal communities.

Bastar has to fight its own battles. People of Bastar have to become the face of the story.

We met someone who is an ardent supporter of Salwa Judum. His opinion was that Salwa Judum was not started by the Government. He felt it was started by those Adivasis who had been troubled or wronged by Maoists. All these people came together to raise their voice against injustice and violence. When the Government observed the strong sentiments brewing amidst tribal communities, they gave them weapons. You were here during Salwa Judum. You witnessed it all. Could you tell us about your experience?

Perhaps, Salwa Judum was started with good intentions. Maybe Mahendra Karma thought that he could spearhead a unified front to bring about a massive change and put an end to conflict in Bastar.

However, the Government gave it a nudge in the opposite direction. I agree that this movement was started by those affected by Maoist violence. Did it entail burning down villages and homes of adivasis? Did it advocate killing people? If yes, then why did the Government support it at all?

For the sake of argument, let’s agree that those families who suffered at the hands of Maoists had anger and resentment brewing within them. Even if they accused someone who belonged to a particular village of murdering their kin, nobody had any right to destroy lives of all those people who resided there. What is the Government’s responsibility? They should have ensured that the fight didn’t take a violent turn; that conflict was resolved through non-violence.

There was anger and a sense of vengeance in the air. And, the government didn’t do anything to stop them.

My father was attacked by Maoist cadres. He is physically challenged. His entire home was destroyed by them. All our vehicles were set on fire. My father had a tractor and three motor cycles. He had three brothers each of whom built separate homes for themselves. We had a thriving farmland. We also had cattle and goats. My father’s property was valued at 40 lakhs. Around 200 to 300 Maoists barged into our land and destroyed everything that we ever had. Life has become increasingly difficult for my father. He even filed an FIR against one of the men Bhadru who was involved in the attack.

Today, Bhadru is a surrendered Maoist.

When he terrorised these lands and adivasi people, the police assured everyone that they would arrest him. As soon he surrendered, they embraced him as if he were one of them.

My father said to the police: I filed an FIR against Bhadru. Why won’t you arrest him? To that they replied that he was now a government man. They couldn’t do anything to him. all crimes were forgiven!

How will my father get justice? Today, he is agonized and filled with anger. We have arguments all the time. He constantly questions my struggle and fight for justice.

He is 70 years old. That day, they tore his clothes and threw him out of the house. Bhadru dragged him by his leg over sharp stones. He then shot my father. They accused him of being a police informant. The taunted him throughout the ordeal. ‘You have now become a landlord,’ they said to him. Since some of the villagers supported their stance, my father never got justice.

If I would have further fuelled hatred within his heart, our village wouldn’t have survived today. Taking advantage of his misery and agony, miscreants would have set it on fire.

I explained to him that this cannot be the way we fight for justice. These villagers had no role in him being shot or tortured. If police is conducting an enquiry, then you support your people! What will you do by turning your own villagers against you? I am begging you to save the people who were not involved in this attack! Your fight is with Bhadru. Therefore, you should focus on him.

All innocent people were released subsequently. Similarly, the government should have handled the anger and frustration of villagers during Salwa Judum. They should have pointed them in the right direction in their pursuit of justice.

However, they didn’t do that. Instead, they handed them guns and encouraged them to take revenge on those tormented them. they took advantage of their vulnerability. They knew what they were doing all along! Go kill them and burn their homes! Beat up those who wronged you! they said to the villagers.

So, why did the Government do this?

My naïve adivasi brothers will never understand such shrewd strategies. The Supreme Court ordered Salwa Judum to discard their weapons. Then, how can the Government claim they did the right thing?

I do not agree with what happened in those years. Whose loss was it anyway? Several adivasis died in the process. Many of them left their homes and villages. They migrated to bigger towns. Several villages were burnt down. Many died.

This movement might have been started by some tribal people who thought to themselves: Our brothers and sisters are dying. We will not let Adivasis die anymore! But what happened in the end? Neither did they survive nor did their adivasi brothers and sisters live to tell their tale.

Loss and death, that’s all we have!

You were attacked with a chemical substance in 2016. However, instead of helping you and catching the perpetrators, the police accused your own family members. Could you tell us what happened?

I believe this was orchestrated by the police department. The attack couldn’t have been masterminded by the village panchayat or the Maoists. They have no reason to attack me.

The police wanted to discredit my fight. I received support from adivasis and other people across India and the world. The department tried their best to prove that I had carried out this attack on my own life to remain in the spotlight and establish my name.

They harassed my own family. What they didn’t know was that my family had now gathered enough courage over the years to fight them back. They were beaten up incessantly by the police. They tortured them and hoped that they would eventually crumble under pressure. They tried coaxing them into giving a written statement claiming responsibility for the attack.

They believed that if the newspapers carried such headlines stating Ajay, Soni Sori’s brother-in-law, staged the entire attack it would humiliate my entire family. People often believe what they read in the newspapers. How then will they decide who is telling the truth? Is it the Government, news papers or the villagers? Unless we make an effort to understand ground reality, we will never know whom to believe!

My sister was harassed by them. My daughter was troubled throughout. They even threatened to harm her. My nephew Lingaram was tortured to a point that he felt broken. He wanted to commit suicide. He felt dejected after fighting for so long. It took a toll on him.

The police were humiliated before the entire nation. Why did they suddenly stop the investigation?  Such tall claims and accusations were made about my family orchestrating the attack. Why weren’t they arrested?

They seem to have forgotten about the case today. Can’t they arrest the person who attacked me? I was rushed to the hospital immediately after the attack. They didn’t allow my family to visit me! Even my son was denied permission. Around 200 to 250 policemen surrounded the hospital. I couldn’t open my eyes. I kept screaming for my family. I told them they must inform my party members. I yelled for help. Why was I being treated like a criminal? I wasn’t administered appropriate medication.

It’s good that Aam Aadmi Party took immediate action. I was flown to Delhi where I sought adequate medical treatment. The police did not expect this to happen! They assumed they could just bully my family into writing a false statement. They probably wanted me to die. I am fighting for the truth. Even if I die tomorrow, I have no remorse.

I knew why I was attacked.

In February, 2016, Hadma was abducted by the security forces at 3 am from Mardum. I received a phone call from his wife. We never met before. I witnessed what they did to her husband. There were bullet wounds on his body. They killed him simply because they wanted to, because he didn’t matter.

I gathered his seven children, his wife and other family members together. We went to meet the Director General of Police (DGP). At night, the twins kept crying and struggled to fall asleep. Hadma’s wife Gallo couldn’t breastfeed them.

She broke down when I asked her why. She hadn’t eaten anything ever since they abducted her husband. I told my party members to arrange for some milk at 1 am. The next morning, the children suffered from dysentery.

It was in that state that Gallo and her children met the DGP. According to the official reports, he was a Maoist and had a bounty of Rs 1 lakh on his head. He was a farmer. This is his family, I said to him. He even built a home using Indira Awas Yojana scheme. How could he be a Maoist?

We asked them to show us proof that he was in fact one of their cadres. The DGP didn’t utter a word and immediately wrote a letter demanding an enquiry into the incident.

I was then attacked and threatened not to pursue this case any further.

Anyone who tries to raise concerns about human rights violations in Bastar is often labelled as a Maoist supporter or sympathizer. Do you think this is a strategic approach to silence such voices?

If the locals try to resist authorities or criticise them, they either get arrested or framed in Maoist-related incidents. If outsiders want to understand the reality of Bastar and perhaps spend time with adivasis in their remote hamlets, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is everyone’s right to pursue the truth. Instead, they are labelled as Maoist supporters. And, almost immediately there are numerous cases filed against this person without any evidence or documents to support these allegations.

For instance, if the police claim they have killed four Maoists in an intense encounter, why do they have to fear when human rights activists or social workers visit hamlets to investigate the incident? Everyone has the right to protect themselves. It shouldn’t be an issue to furnish proof and relevant evidence indicating that the people gunned down by the security forces were in fact Maoist cadres. The government should be more prepared to face the media and others instead of trying to drive them away.

The establishment often resorts to unethical and immoral means to handle operations here in Bastar. Why else would they be frightened of such enquiries?

They constantly accuse me of being a Maoist sympathiser when I visit villages. How could I support these people? They attacked my father. Time and again, I have made my stance clear to both the police and Maoists. I will not be a slave to either of them!

I serve my people. Both the government and Maoists use massive armies, weapons, artilleries and violence to fight with one another.

I have nothing. I have joined this people’s fight without any weapons. I have courage, honesty and the power of truth.

Many a times, you have accompanied villagers to get FIRs registered and yet you were denied by the police. When someone files a case against elements in the Government or security forces despite all evidence gathered, despite victims coming forward to give their testimony, it is often rubbished as anti- Government propaganda being peddled by Maoists. Therefore, the common people are confused between these two narratives: one shared by villagers and human rights activists and other by the Government. What are your thoughts and observations regarding the same? How do you think this confusion could be addressed? Also, what must be done in order to help people separate the truth from fake news?

After every encounter, the police file an FIR. It is their version of events that gets recorded in official statements. By law, we are allowed to file an FIR stating our version of events and furnishing appropriate proof too. 

Do you know how many times have we tried?

In Nilavaya, the security forces killed Bhima Madavi during one of their area domination exercises and abandoned the dead body in the woods. They had been walking through the forests for a week as a part of their operation and were too tired to carry his corpse back. If they had taken Bhima with them, perhaps they would have dressed him in the uniform worn by Maoists.

The next day, when I went to Nilavaya, I told the villagers to get an autopsy done before cremating or burying Bhima. The forces might accuse villagers of killing him later when they face enquiries. This was standard procedure: get an autopsy done, and file an FIR stating that the police killed him. It was quite late so I told them I would return the next day. At 10 pm, I called up a young local journalist who is currently in jail and informed him about the events that transpired in the last two days.

As soon as the news was published, the police released a statement in the press indicating that an intense encounter had taken place two days ago. Why didn’t they mention it in their records until then? Why didn’t they reveal that one alleged Maoist cadre was killed that day?

Later, I learnt that they returned to Nilavaya at 5 am and threatened the villagers, the next day. ‘There is complete chaos here. The police is scaring everyone. They are asking us to not call you anymore. If you set foot in Nilavaya, we will be thrown in jail,’ the men said to me over phone.

If the postmortem examinations were not performed, those villagers would have been framed for the murder. At first, I thought they were lying. How could the soldiers reach the village so quickly? I was confused and I decided to head to Nilavaya immediately. Upon reaching the hamlet, I noticed there were 400 armed personnel roaming the forests. Some of them stood in our way. They tried to block our entrance to the village. I asked my driver to keep moving the vehicle gently. They steered out of the way gradually.

The corpse was nowhere to be found. The entire village was deserted. I wondered what had happened and where everyone was. I found two children herding cows. They told me the police had taken it to their traditional burial site. When I ran to the spot, I realised they had placed the corpse on the pyre and one of the villagers was about to set it on fire.

I said to the soldiers: What are you doing in the cremation site? You killed a Maoist cadre here according to your official statement. Have you come to pay your respects to the fallen comrade? Why are you here? Who gave you the right to cremate his body without post mortem? This is a crime. What you are doing is illegal! You are misusing the law.  

In a calm manner, they responded: We are not cremating the body, Madam. You are.

I asked the villagers who transported Bhima’s lifeless corpse to the cremation ground. The soldiers forcefully gathered villagers against their will to perform the final rites. According to customary laws, we cremate our dead after sunset. We got into a heated argument with the armed personnel.

They forbade us from clicking any photographs and even tried to snatch away Bela Bhatia’s camera. By now, the villagers were fed up. They didn’t have the strength or will to carry the corpse back to the hamlet. They decided to conduct the last rites.

Hours later, at the police station, the officer informed me that they registered a complaint against us for cremating the body without performing an autopsy. I told him I had visual proof against those police officers who threatened villagers to conduct the funeral. I told him to write down our version of the story. He agreed. Bela then showed him photographs and videos of the cremation ground where villagers and soldiers had gathered together. He immediately stopped writing. Now, they couldn’t refute our claims. They disregarded the case. If I go to jail, their colleagues wouldn’t be spared. We had proof of their involvement!

Over time, they altered their strategies. Now, they either dress the dead in military fatigues worn by Maoist cadres or ensure that the cremation process is completed before I reach the hamlets. They have now begun to fear me slightly. They know I will come up with alternate ideas to foil their plans.

Some tribal communities bury their dead. Once, around 13,000 people took out a rally protesting against the murder of Bhima Nupo from Rewali by security forces. The police, however, claimed that uniformed Maoists killed him. Bhima and his wife Budhari had gone to the stream when soldiers shot him twice. At that time too armed personnel arrived unannounced and told the villagers to cremate the dead body. They threatened them and asked Budhari to forcefully sign a statement claiming that her husband was killed my Maoists. ‘You shot him dead before my eyes,’ she kept screaming at them.

The Police officer mentioned to me that these rallies were futile.

‘They have cremated the body. What proof will you furnish now?’ he asked me.

‘I have spent 2.5 years in jail. And, I have managed to learn quite a few things by observing you people. The body is buried. They didn’t cremate him!’ I said to him.

They were now very worried. They agreed to our demands on the spot and didn’t let the rally proceed any further. They are yet to deliver on some of the promises they made that day.

Three days later, they barged into the hamlet at night and looked for Bhima’s body in the community graveyard. They couldn’t find it at all. For, we had buried it elsewhere. By then, we had established their patterns and knew what they would do! His grave still lies there untouched. Even today, once can find two bullets lodged in his bones.

Your husband was quite unwell when he was in jail. The police denied you the permission to meet him. You told us that Hurre’s case reminded you of the time you struggled in jail. What was going through your mind?

At that time, I had faith that I will be allowed to meet my husband towards the end. So, I kept waiting. The next day, I found out that they had already cremated him. I was heartbroken.

He was so close to death and they didn’t show him any mercy or compassion. However, I didn’t let my emotions cloud my judgement. It was a difficult time. Yes, I remember. There were moments when I thought about revenge. Despite being on his deathbed, the court refused to grant me permission to meet him.

On the other hand, people like B K Lala and Verma were granted bail taking their circumstances into consideration. It just goes to show how the court neglects and ignores us because we are adivasis. All this caused me immense distress and agony. I was determined to continue to work for our people and ensure that no one suffers the same fate.

Years later, I came across the tragic case involving Hurre and Hunga from Badegudra. And, it reminded me of my own suffering and struggles. In my case, I lived but my husband died in custody. Hurre ran from pillar to post to ensure her husband got justice. She died and he lived to tell their tale.

She longed to meet her husband. One night, she placed her head on my lap and expressed her concern. I told her not to be worried and that they will be united soon. She was in a critical condition. I tried everything I could. Maybe if he had just seen her once; maybe if she had heard his voice; she would have lived.

I refused to accept defeat. I couldn’t let Hunga live in regret for the rest of his life. It became personal! I had no one to fight for me. I couldn’t be there for my husband. After countless attempts, the magistrate granted Hunga permission to cremate Hurre.

Despite the court stating clear instructions on Hunga’s fundamental right to partake in the funeral proceedings, the police stopped him from performing the last rites. I wasn’t there when it happened. I assumed we had time and thought I would travel to the cremation ground a while later. Hunga was in chains. He wasn’t allowed to hug his children. He wasn’t allowed to touch Hurre. Hunga’s child is alive and well. I must do something for him.

This is what the police do! The blatant disregard for court orders is inexcusable. How then can they expect the public to trust them?

You have been troubled by both the police and Maoists. At any point, did you ever feel that you were used unfairly in this fight by both sides?

I was never used by anyone. I never allowed it! In this fight of mine against injustice, neither the police nor the Maoists have supported me. It was the people of this nation and across the world who fought for me when I was in jail.

So far, the Government has not shown any compassion or sympathy towards me. When Maoists attacked my father, they took away his land and declared it in their custody. Although the government lent their support, my father did not receive adequate medical treatment. He had no home and he lost his land. My brothers could have been compensated with jobs. My father suffered because he was in support of the government. And, they failed to protect him!

Once I was released from jail, I helped him apply for ration card and built a home for him. We demanded to receive help through the Indira Awas Yojana scheme. Then, I looked for Maoists and asked them to free our land. ‘We have suffered enough. We can’t reverse what happened. You tortured my father. Return our land. Let us farm in peace,’ I said to them. They decided a particular day and time to call for a jan adalat and deliver their verdict. They kept their word. Last year, we sowed rice on our own farm.

Today, the Government offers me protection and claims they have provided me security details. Perhaps, the Personal Security Officers (PSO) are here to keep an eye on me and report back to their bosses about my meetings and other activities. I have seen what the police department and government are capable of. I don’t fear villages and Maoists either. I have no fear of death. There are many people in this country who will keep this fight alive even after I die.

There are good people within the Government structure. Many individuals have joined these institutions with the genuine will to serve the people. When we question the Government or Police in a generic manner and blame them for these atrocities, the good people in these structures might be attacked too.

Not every person is wrong. Some of them might be good people but they are all slaves to their orders. The police officers and constables are human beings too. My fight is for humanity.

Police is merely following orders passed by the Government.

I understand that law enforcers and uniformed soldiers are all a part of the system. Many of their peers might misuse the system for their own selfish gains. But there are some of them who cross all boundaries and resort to corrupt, immoral and unethical means. One can’t be blind to injustice and death. With Kalluri, the government had found an ideal man to follow their orders.

He is completely unaffected by death. His own men perish in battle. Does it bother him? I wonder sometimes. Does it matter to the government that adivasis are dying every single day?

Once, Ankit Garg had arrived to the police station where I was being tortured incessantly. There was a female constable present in the room. I was asleep. They woke me up and took me to the room where he made his presence felt. He was in an inebriated state and smoked cigarettes. He took a drag, and blew the smoke on my face. Why did the SP come to the police station at night? Nobody questioned him.

He then called the male and female guards, and asked them not to mention what happened in the room that night. If they do, they would suffer the same fate. He threatened them. The constables agreed meekly. He stripped me off my clothes. I stood there naked while he passed lewd comments on my body. He forced them to do unquestionable things to me. The torture continued for a while. He had no remorse or concern! Nothing whatsoever…

He wasn’t done. He stepped out of the room and ordered the men to rape me. Nobody touched me that night. I saw shame and agony in their faces. When he returned a while later, he asked them if they enjoyed their time with the prostitute. They lied to him.

How can this behavior be justified as merely following orders? Who are these officers who pass such orders to their subordinates? Ankit Garg was a terrible human being but that doesn’t mean we attribute such traits and deductions to every officer.

I never filed a complaint against him. People kept coaxing me to register cases against those men who raped me in custody. The constables who refused to violate my dignity hide their faces when we cross paths at times today. Had they followed their superior officer’s orders, I wouldn’t be alive! I assured them I wouldn’t file any case against him. Some of them fear that if I win elections, I will ensure they get prosecuted for partaking in such a heinous crime. I wouldn’t hurt them.

I have nothing against the Police department, and my brothers and sisters serving in the security forces. My fight is with people like Ankit Garg; with those who perpetrate and encourage violence and such immoral behaviour. I have been waging a war against him for what he did to me while the Government presented him an award.

Did you any point anticipate that your life would turn out to be this way? You once mentioned to us that you are at a grim, slightly serious phase of your life. How do you manage to keep hope alive and continue fighting?

Anger resides in my heart. However, I haven’t allowed it to take the form of vengeance. When I hear about cases like Belamnendra, my own torture and struggle give me a lot of strength. By sharing my own plight with victims of violence, I hope to instill courage and strength within them. Once, we went to meet the collector in Sukma. Women spoke in Gondi and raised their garments before him. He was perplexed at what he witnessed. ‘What are they doing?’ he demanded to know. I told him: they are explaining in Gondi that chillies were inserted in their private parts.

When my Adivasi brothers and sisters are falsely accused and imprisoned, I fight for them. In that moment, I am devoid of all fear. Sometimes I feel exhausted. I tell my children that I can no longer continue this battle. I feel I haven’t done enough for them. My kids have seen struggle their entire life.

When I was released from jail, I had no job. I had no home. I had nothing. My children ate once a day. At that point, the government offered me jobs that would entail compromising on my fight for humanity. They were ready to give me money, home and even ensure that my children get a decent education. They even accepted that what happened to me was wrong! My children forbade me from considering their propositions. ‘When you were in jail, we starved for 2.5 years. Never break faith of those who rely on you. We will live with whatever we have,’ they said to me. They are my biggest source of strength.

Attachment with children can weaken a mother. Even after my daughter was threatened with torture and assault, my children remain unfazed. I know that it is possible I can be taken away, raped and even killed. But if you can face all of this, can’t I? I am not scared: she tells me. When she goes to the market alone, I can’t help but worry.

Sometimes, I recall the arguments that my husband and I would have inside jail during visiting hours. He told me in his last moments that he was tortured mercilessly. They asked him to reach a compromise. He tried to convince me to a certain extent and asked me to abandon my fight.

We will be out of the jail soon. We will take our kids and leave Bastar. We can go abroad. They are ready to give us money. Why won’t you listen to me?: he told me

I tried to explain myself. He never agreed. He assumed I was wrong.

In the end, the distance between us increased many folds. The entire ordeal took a toll on us and our relationship.

I once told him: Once you are out of jail, you can marry someone else! I will not leave my fight because only I know what I have been through. I will never forget.

By then, I had witnessed the extent of police torture and brutality in these regions. There were many more people like me who continue to suffer. So, I set my husband free and told him to live his life according to his own terms.

A few days later, his condition deteriorated. He was in a critical state; half of his body was paralysed. He was severely beaten up. He suffered from brain hemorrhage. Since I refused to give up, the police soon realised they didn’t need him anymore. They destroyed all evidence of torture before I could see him. There was nothing left of my husband.

I remember his last words. Soni, never abandon your fight. The police and government are responsible for my plight. You were right, and I was wrong. Fight till the end. Don’t give up. Only then, will you be known with pride as my wife!”

When he first heard about what happened to me in custody, he felt ashamed. He was angry. In the end, he stood by my side and asked me to never give up.

I never met him after that.
I never got to say goodbye.

 

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