I met Soni Sori in Raipur on Sunday. She is fighting a harrowing but brave battle!

Surabhi Singh

Writer and advocate of Human Rights, working as Communications Officer at Oxfam India- I strongly believe social justice, equality of opportunities and freedom of expression are the only true marks of a nation.

“In Bastar, a man dies once, but a woman dies twice- once, when she’s stripped of every ounce of her dignity, stripped, paraded, brutalized by a gang of uniformed mercenaries; and later, by a bullet. And yet these Adivasi women and girls, prefer to go out and face the consequences rather than sending their menfolk out to die like an animal. This, is how brave and dignified our women in Bastar are. How can a couple of thousands of armed mercenaries working for a corrupt government, take that away by bloodshed and rapes,” the words, spoken by Soni Sori should send a long ricocheting alarm down the anals of power corridor in this godforsaken state. But when saying truth, writing facts and listening to grasshoppers becomes a crime, when an administration sells itself to the dictats of corporate mafia, when forests, trees, mountains, rivers and the earth become not the meaning of life itself, but vessels carrying minerals, sand, timber and precious stones- the meaning of dignity, bravery, life, death and revolution- are lost in the rubble of boots and screams of innocents.

I met Soni Sori, the quintessential voice of justice for thousands of Bastar Adivasis in a somber event organized by PUCL on Sunday at Raipur. The event was an attempt essentially to recognize the commitment and courage of a few ethical journalists who have been writing against the humungous human rights abuse that’s going on in Bastar currently. In their attempt at disclosing the facts, they have faced excessive state repression, have been arrested and jailed more than once. Soni Sori, and Lingaram Kodopi, her nephew, the pioneering Adivasi journalist from Dantewada, were present. Despite the storm they have been through, and are currently living in, both seemed excessively distinguished, their faces set in quiet determination which was strangely contagious.

How does one begin to sum up brutality? How can someone put words to the hollowed eyes of Madkam Hidme’s parents that have seen her mutilated naked dead body in a polythene sheet and later in a brand new Maoist uniform? I could simply ask her, “What’s going on in Bastar? And where do we go from here?” To which, she smiled and said, “There’s only one thing left to do now. We will fight, till the end. Nothing else matters anymore.”

The author with Soni Sori
The author with Soni Sori

In the past six months, there have been three consecutive incidents in separate villages at Bastar, Sukma and Dantewada where more than fifty Adivasi women and children have been repeatedly gangraped by Auxilliary Armed Forces, Para Military personnel and local Policemen. On each occasion, the forces have landed in a village without warning, dragged the women out, stripped and raped them repeatedly before injuring them brutally. Not only this, the personnel have also destroyed their crops, burnt houses, tore up and burned their clothes, poured kerosene oil into the village wells and destroyed their cereals and other edible stuffs beyond redemption. On each occasion, the district administration has claimed innocence about the involvement of their forces, despite registering of FIRs and victim statements recorded after Court orders. No one, not even one Policeman or DRG personnel or CRPF jawan has been arrested yet.

Soni Sori adds that what is presently happening in Bastar cannot be attributed to a state’s righteous fight against the Maoists, as they want us to believe. It’s a purported, cold and calculative move to annihilate the Adivasis. To clean up the jungles, so the mining, bulldozing and deforestation can happen smoothly. This gargantuan human rights abuse, the maiming, stripping and raping is to scare the Adivasis out from the forests. “But, where will the Adivasis go? They have nowhere. No jobs, no education, no life sustaining tricks to fall back on. The schools have been closed long back. 3,000 this year. Crops are destroyed half due to drought, the other half owing to inherent corruption and nepotism in administration. These are the people who have survived depending only on the forest for their every need. They cannot be asked to simply leave their world. Hence, the violence,” she added.

Adivasis inside the forests are not scared anymore. They have decided to fight it out, Sori claims. However, what goes on in the mind of an entire generation that has been living under the shadow of violence forever? How does one salvage them from breaking? There is endemic fratricide that has taken the centrestage in the war against Adivasis, which began with the ghastly Salwa Judum movement. Since 2007, the dastardly act of turning Adivasi youths against each other through the lure of money or through excessive threat of violence has been defined and redefined on numerous occasions. And each year, the state government has signed hundreds of MoUs with Adani, Ambani, Tatas and Essars.

Lingaram Kodopi, who was himself tortured and excessively brutalized by Dantewada Police in the past, branded a Maoist, after he refused to dance to the tunes of administration, says,“ There is a need for many more local leaders in my community. Just one Soni Sori or Lingaram cannot fight the war. But, they are scared, frustrated and muted right now. The menfolk hardly ever venture out of the house, it is the women who go everywhere, even to the local markets. They are living under the shadow of death for too long. When the force comes, they escape to the jungles, and then return back to their villages soon after. They will not break, but, they are not ready to take the helm of this movement into their hands. It’s the ethical journalists, the lawyers of JagLag, Social Activists like Himanshu Kumar and Nalini Sundar who have helped us so long. What we need now is a mass movement, a storming of bastion inside the jungles. A Bastar Satyagraha to create a chaos so loud, that a nation’s conscience is jolted into recognizing this spectre of macabre bloodbath.” The conversation halted for some time, before it was time for both Sori and Lingaram to leave for Bastar to prepare for the next step in exercising justice to Madkam Hidme.

As I returned home, I wondered, can the outsiders help the cause as much? Here is a city Raipur, located roughly four hours from Bastar, where life goes on unabated, except for a few occasional protest demonstrations; where women, men and children venture out of homes without bothering whether they will ever return back or not. Where malls, multiplexes and international schools actually employ professionals to churn out new tricks to keep the diaspora’s imagination clicking, cos there is so much money and time, people actually get bored spending both? Can a population so removed from the brutal realities of an Adivasi life, actually wake up to the oppression of Bastar and stop the annihilation? A simple idea- dignity of life-a right to not be raped, or shot and killed, or to protect the forest and mountain- can actually make me a Maoist in Bastar, out here in Raipur, its called being a left ideologue, or an Environment Activist. Out here, its peaceful because inside the jungles- it’s a bloodbath waiting to happen. This living breathing twisted oxymoron cannot be a state, or a nation’s reality cos it is pulled apart by two ends of a spectrum that has survival, dignity and life of thousands at stake. What do we choose? Peace or Chaos?

 

 

  • I strongly believe that outsiders should join their hands to support Adivasis, but that means also the people from Bastar itself. Last November, I was giving a lecture in a tech school. These young students were supposed to be educated. But when I asked them: “who are Adivasis for you?”, they directly answered “dirty”, “uneducated”, “dirty clothes”, etc. It was SO negative and this is a big problem: until even the population of Bastar will think that Adivasis are less than them, most of them won’t care about what happen to them and won’t move or will think it’s normal to treat them that way. When I realised it, I spread some messages of tolerance and respect for the local people, culture and Adivasis on my social channels. Respect of the differences. I told them: “it would be so easy for me to make fun of you because of your clothes and traditions that are so different from mine. But I don’t do it because I respect you, your difference. And I think this difference makes the World so beautiful. You all have a different education. That doesn’t mean we are uneducated, and Adivasis know so many things on Nature. They brought us so many things as the first inhabitants of this Earth. I strongly respect them for that.” I also benefited of each interview to spread these messages. I know it inspired some people outside Bastar to discover the tribes of their country. It’s a small step…
    On the other hand, your article raises a lot of questions for me. I often hear my friends from Bastar saying that the area is more and more safe and the conflict almost finished. They also say that tourism is the solution to end the conflict. But from what I can see, they are developping some infrastructures without consulting local people. I only hear them talking about business, even my friends who are supposed to have a social work.