‘Prisoner Of Conscience’

Travail Of Soni Sori

Biswajit Roy

Had Soni Sori been a Supreme Court judge's daughter, would the apex court allowed Chattisgarh government to deny her bail on flimsy ground for almost three years even after her acquittal in six out of eight cases? Had she been a rich man's daughter, a Bhramin instead of a tribal or a member of New Delhi's middle class glitterati, would the President Pranab Mukherjee have conferred the gallantry award to the SP Dantewada even after the medical confirmation of the terrible custody torture that the mother of three children suffered?

The questions were echoed at a convention in Kolkata on 19 June demanding the release of the tribal primary school teacher and a suspected Maoist undertrial prisoner from Chattisgarh's Dantewada. Soni Sori Mukti Morcha, an umbrella of 20 organizations, which have been campaigning for her release since last August, organized the well-attended convention.

The main speaker, noted Gandhian activist Himansu Kumar threw up the question. Kumar had worked among tribals in and around Dantewada and knew Sori from her student days. He has witnessed her ordeal at the receiving end of State terror—vengeful police brass, Congress-BJP bipartisan Centre-state agreement on crushing any dissent and an acquiescent criminal justice system.

The reply came from Bharati De, the convener of the Morcha and leader of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, an organization of the city's sex worker community. "The poor, tribal woman is suffering at the hand of the police, government and judicial system because she belongs to the marginal communities like us. That's why we have taken up her cause," De said at a press meet earlier. Dr Vinayak Sen, Harsh Doval, Wilfred De Costa, Ajoy TG and others also addressed the convention.

Recalling the plight of Sori, Kumar said that she became a victim of police vengeance because of her role in freeing her nephew Lingaram Kodopi. Police wanted Lingaram to be a Special Police Officer, a euphemism for the tribal youth who joined the government-funded and armed vigilante campaign Salwa Judum. It was an illegal auxiliary arm of the security forces, which spearheaded the government's forcible land acquisition for mining and other corporate interests. The combined armed offensive was aimed at coercing recalcitrant tribals to leave their land and homes and stay in government-run roadside ghettos.

Before the Supreme Court disbanded the 3200 SPOs in July 2011, the vigilantes indulged in wanton violation of human rights including murder, rape and arson against tribals and their defenders—underground Maoists as well as non-Maoist activists who dared to question the government-corporate joint plunder of mineral resources in this part of tribal-dominated and resource-rich central India.

Linga was locked up in a toilet in a Dantewada police station for 40 days as he refused to be a SPO. Her aunt, Soni contacted Himansu Kumar to get Linga free which she eventually succeeded after the family filed a Habeas Corpus petition in the local court. Police fell flat on its face after claiming Linga had volunteered to be an SPO. The young man denied it in the court. This defeat enraged the then superintendent of police in Dantewada, Ankit Garg and he threatened Soni with dire consequences, Kumar said.

Linga was sent to Delhi to get rid of local police and study journalism since he had aspired to be a journalist. But back home, police made him as well as her aunt an accused in a case of Maoist attack on a local Congress leader in July 2010. He further infuriated police by recording the version of the victims of security force's arson and rape in a village. Both Linga and Soni were framed in a case of collecting money from a contractor of Essar Steel, an influential corporate group, as Maoist conduits. SP Garg claimed that Linga was caught red handed during the money transfer on 9 September 2011 while Sori escaped with Maoist men.

Both Linga and Sori were booked under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and charged with helping terrorist activities and war against state. Both are languishing in jails till today. Interestingly, two Essar men arrested in this connection got bails long ago. It is equally bizarre that the government portrayed Sori as a dangerous Maoist but earlier Maoists had attacked her father as a suspected police informer.

Police picked up Sori in Delhi on 4th October in 2011 when she had gone to meet Kumar and media seeking their help to save herself from police vengeance. She appealed to a Delhi court not to send her to Chattisgarh fearing police torture. But the court did not bother and she landed in Dantewada police custody. The said SP and his four henchmen allegedly undressed and beaten up her, administered electric shocks to her legs, made her immobilized and inserted small stones in her private parts.

Police did not produce her in the local court as she was writhing in pain and could not walk. But the law enforcers claimed she had suffered injury by falling in custody bathroom. The magistrate did not bother to enquire with the victim and sent her to judicial custody. As her condition deteriorated, she was shifted to a Raipur hospital. Sori's well-wishers went to Supreme Court appealing for proper medical check up and treatment. The SC directed to send her to Kolkata's NRS hospital after her lawyer preferred the city.

The medical report of the NRS hospital confirmed that insertion of stones inside Soni's private parts and extracted two and one stone respectively from her vagina and anus. Before the report could be placed, the apex court sent her back to Chattisgarh, to Raipur jail instead of Dantewada. She is still languishing there.

The NRS medical report was placed before the apex court on 2nd December but Sori was not brought to Delhi. The division bench headed by Justice Altamas Kabir (who became the chief Justice of India and retired recently) asked the Chattisgarh government to reply within 30 days. The bench was supposed to hear her case on a priority basis. But that did not happen for months together. Though the NRS had asked her repeat check up, Sori was never sent back.

She wrote to her lawyer from Raipur jail on 7 March narrating her plight following the denial of medical treatment to her in Raipur jail despite the SC order. "The Chattisgarh government wants to kill me... The government’s biggest success lies in torturing the tribals and killing them... help me to survive".

On 2nd May 2012, the SC bench expressed its sympathy to Sori referring to the NRS medical report. It dismissed the affidavit of the accused SP Garg that Kolkata's civil liberty activists like Kiriti Roy of Masum had influenced the NRS report. Following her lawyer's prayer for immediate medical intervention, she was directed to be admitted in Delhi's AIIMS within seven days.

The vengeful Chattisgarh government sent her to the hospital on the last day of the court deadline. She received treatment there for five weeks but was sent back to jail before she could recuperate fully. The retributive arrogance of the state government was manifest from the continued cruelty to Sori. The terribly sick prisoner was taken back to the state capital in an unreserved train compartment and forced to travel standing all the way in a cramped milieu. She was not offered water during her 24-hours journey. Most shocking part of the thing is that apex court's failure to listen her case on a priority basis. "Every week her case has been listed for the hearing. But till today, it never came up. Perhaps Sori is not worthy enough for the famed judicial activism of Indian higher judiciary. Perhaps, end of her plight and early release would be detrimental to the cause of the big corporate groups and the governments in Delhi and Raipur which together want to teach terrible lessons to those who dare to question or dissent their might," Kumar said. Now that justice Kabir is retired, it's not clear when the much-delayed hearing will be resumed.

In the meantime, the accused SP was conferred President's gallantry award for his role in combating Maoists in Dantewada despite protests from civil society groups and intellectuals. Noam Chomsky and many others from international rights bodies had joined leading Indian activists like Aruna Roy, Arundhati Roy, Jean Drez, Harsh Mandar in writing to prime minister Manmohon Singh to protest police torture on Soni Sori and delays in hearing of her case. Amnesty International called her 'prisoner of conscience' and Human Rights Watch drew attention of the prime minister.

She herself tried to draw attention to her plight by repeated hunger strikes in jail and sent letters to the SC beseeching it's immediate intervention to save her life. But that did not wake up the conscience of the guardians of great Indian democracy, either in the government or judiciary so far. The only silver line, Kumar and fellow activists found, despite the tardy progress in the lower courts, in her acquittal in six cases and granting of bail in another out of total eight cases that police fabricated against her.

Sori and Linga are the two faces of many a tribal/non-tribal who are either rotting in Indian jails, suffering endless persecution from government internal security agencies or already got liquidated in "encounters". ‘The Hindu’ in a report on 30 May 2013 noted that 'close to 2000 tribals are languishing in jails since two to seven years' as undertrials in south Chattisgarh.

All the speakers at the Kolkata convention pointed out that anybody opposed the Centre-state joint developmental model had ended in dungeons or would face the risk if they cross the Lakhsmanrekha of dissent drawn by the governments. Binayak Sen, the public health expert and human rights activist who got bail from the SC after suffering long imprisonment but still fighting the Raipur session's court's sentence for life against him on charges of sedition et al put Sori’s plight in the larger context.

Urging the audience to read the Supreme Court's July 2011 order which had countermanded the recruitment of SPOs as illegal and unconstitutional, he said, the apex court's scathing denunciation of the government's mining and allied policies vindicated the tribals’ complaints in Chattisgarh. But the state chief minister Raman Singh dodged the Supreme Court ban on SPOs by absorbing them in regular police force within three days of the SC order.

"The observations in the SC order and subsequent government moves make it explicit why Soni Sori is still in jail. The governments are hand in glove with corporate groups in plundering natural resources, minerals, land, water and forests. On the other hand, they are denying tribals access to common properties, sometimes violently and some times through other means. As justice Markendeo Katju has observed, the governments are pursuing a policy of tax breaks for the rich and bullets for the poor," Sen said.

"Our ruling elites talk of growth of economy at the cost of tribals and other poor. On the other hand, lack of nutrition is high among tribal men and women conforms to the famine indicators of the World Health organization. This mismatch between the government's growth-obsessed developmen-talism and the stark ground reality of hunger, dispossession and displacement of millions was never so alarming," he added.

Kumar recalled Gandhi's warning against the adoption of British colonial model of development that was based on the plunder of colony's resources and violence against people and nature. "The East India Company and later British government's developmental policies were imposed on the strength of guns of its army. Gandhi cautioned against aping the Brits in independent India since it would inevitably lead to war against our own people. But our rulers did not listen to Gandhi and developmental violence has become the order of the day," he said.

Blaming the government for making ground fertile for the Maoists who are waging a war to overthrow the existing Indian State, Kumar said: "The ruling elites are destroying the credibility of democratic institutions by denying justice to tribals and other poor. The tribals do not understand State and its laws and courts. They have little idea about larger India beyond their hills and jungles. We tried to instill faith in them, about the State institutions. But does the government expect tribals to have their faith in the system after what has happened Soni Sori and thousands like her? They will be more with the Maoists who stand by them." the Gandhian warned.

Harsh Doval of Human Law Network pointed to administrative-judicial bias against tribals. "Almost all tribals in Chattisgarh are suspected as Maoists. Soni and Linga were denied bail because of this bias," he said. He highlighted the increasing erosion of the 'middle ground' between the governments and the Maoists. "This is a disturbing feature that any citizen who is questioning the government and opposing the state violence is facing the government's wrath even if he/she does not subscribe to Maoist path. There is hardly any middle ground left for democratic dissent. Even well-meaning Gandhian like Himansu Kumar was thrown out of the state and his ashram was demolished," Doval commented.

Wilfred De'costa of Delhi Social Forum put Sori-Linga case and Chattisgarh tribals' plight on the larger pan-Indian as well as global canvas. "The same plunder of natural resources and gagging of peoples' protests are going on across the country and the world. In Kudankulam at Tamilnadu-Kerala border, charges of sedition and waging war against the state have been slammed on thousands who have joined in popular protest against nuclear power plant there. Same has happened to leaders of anti-land grab movement for Posco project in Orissa. It's clear the ruling elites in India do not bother for democratic niceties any more. They are hell-bent on crushing people's movements irrespective of Maoist involvement or not," he observed.

Vol. 46, No. 6, Aug 18-24, 2013

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