Why was Soni Sori attacked and women writers and lawyers were forced out of Chhattisgarh?

Jigna Kotecha

Jigna is an intersectional feminist interning at women’s human rights organisation in New York.

While the complicities of establishment media in Chhattisgarh — for stenograph-ing state administered lies about fake encounters and surrenders, gang-rapes, and unwarranted arrests of tribal men and women — remain consistent, totalitarianism in Bastar is morphing into its most violent form. With stunning uniformity, translation and propagation of press releases continue with little effort to investigate the elimination of five women — tribal activist and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Soni Sori, journalist Malini Subramaniam, lawyers Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal, and researcher Bela Bhatia — from the state within two days.

Concatenation of incidents, from assault on Subramaniam, her forced eviction along with Gera, Khandelwal, and Bhatia to attack on Sori, are corroborating evidence of state and police administration’s growing discomfort with these questions raised by these women about fake encounters and surrenders, impunity of security force troops gang-raping tribal girls and women, and series of police excesses. Particularly in Bastar region where murders are encounters, rapes are routine “combing” operations, whoever security forces finds in forests is a Naxalite, surrendered Naxalites are invariably inami, and challenging any of it is a sign of collusion with Naxalites.

On Saturday Sori was on her way to Geedam when three men blackened her face unidentified substance because she tried to lodge a First Information Report (FIR) against Inspector General of Police (IG) S R P Kalluri after three gang-rapes since October, and Hadma Kashyap’s encounter, which could be as fake as encounters of Meena Khalkho and Podia Emala considering the furtive modus operandi of security forces to stage encounters of unarmed men and women in forests.

Three years after Sori’s unwarranted arrest, custodial rape, illegal imprisonment, and murder of her father and husband, she along with her nephew Lingaram Kodopi continued their non-violent struggle to end injustices perpetrated on the tribal population under the garb of combating Naxalite violence. Sori has a two daughter and a son. When I went to meet her in April last year which was shortly after the release of Kawasi Hidme from Jagdalpur Central Jail, we discussed Hidme’s case sipping cups of tea her 9-year-old daughter brewed for us. While I was leaving, Sori said, “It is prison or death for us, and we are not scared by either.”

On the evening of February 8, after reading about the death threats Sori was receiving, I called her and she answered my queries saying,

“Women are being raped every day. After October’s incident when 15 women were gang-raped in village Peddagellur, more than 15 women were raped in Belamnandra and Kunna-Peddapara villages between January 11 and 14. Women have testified against the perpetrators in all the cases. Even after more than four months since the first gang-rape was reported, none of the accused police personnel are convicted. Police are targeting Salwa Judum affected families and using them against the other tribals. It is Salwa Judum-2. My effigies are being burned for raising voice against the atrocities and I am receiving death threats. But now I am not scared of anything.”

While Bastar Collector Amit Kataria argues that Sori is a “Naxalite”, Dantewada Superintendent of Police (SP) Kamlochan Kashyap said to The Hindu, “There was no attack on her. Wrong vocabulary is being used for the incident. There was nothing like that… everyone is lying here.”

Both of their statements are the proof of attitude of police administration — who are supposedly “protecting” the population from Naxalites — towards most visible crimes rendered inconsequential in the region.

Why Soni Sori was attacked and why the attackers warned her to give up raising questions about Hadma Kashyap encounter?

The reports of Amnesty International, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and testimonies of hundreds of tribals are evidence of hundreds of custodial rapes, fake encounters, fake surrenders, and loot and gang-rapes of women in secluded hinterlands of Bastar for decades.

While propaganda media of Chhattisgarh never developed a spine around these cases, Sori went to Delhi and narrated the truth. And she did not stop there. She started leading marches, investigating incidents, supporting victims and their families, and filing criminal reports. She became the face of thousands of tribals, which became an ultimate threat to the impunity of security force troops who repeatedly rape women. She was attacked because she started a movement in Bastar, where the terms ‘violence against women by armed security force personnel’ are abandoned and never considered a threat to security and repression of any form can be defended in the name of fighting Naxalites.

Most importantly, because she is the long-standing nemesis of perpetrators of crimes against the tribal population.

And two lawyers, Gera and Khandelwal became hindrance between rapists and gallantry awards. Arresting women is more convenient because along with claiming the honor of arresting “Naxalites”, women can be raped. And flexible laws in Chhattisgarh allows state police to arbitrarily arrest tribals and brand them “Naxalites”, and immunity from prosecution. On top of this, journalist Subramaniam started writing and Bhatia started researching about it. Within days, five women shook the wall of indemnity constructed around the IG Kalluri and henchmen. Which was uncomfortable and will be more discomforting in coming days.