Binit Agrawal & Aditya P. Bhattacharya speak to Soni Sori in an exclusive interview for LSPR
Soni Sori is a renowned Adivasi-rights activist from Bastar, Chattisgarh. She is also the recipient of the prestigious 2018 Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk.
In this exclusive interview, LSPR asked Soni a total of 10 questions, in an attempt to understand her activism and political career. What emerged was a shocking tale of systemic failure that plagues the Adivasi population.
LSPR – “You were severely tortured in jail. Is this an exception, or is this a regular phenomenon in jails in Chattisgarh?”
Soni Sori – “It’s a common practice, it happens with everyone. However, this is especially true in the case of tribal leaders who are tortured brutally. They take in common people and charge them as Maoists. In my case, I was a teacher in a village school, and they did the same with me. Before the case is taken to court, they torture the detainees in the police station. This is meant to not only break the person physically but also mentally. Often in the jails, many tribal leaders come together to protest against the jail authorities. But then they intensify the torture us, they rape us, keep us in unsanitary conditions, do not serve us any food etc. Children and teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18 are also imprisoned. They are branded as child terrorists and Naxalites.
The law says that the prisoner must be presented before the Judge within 24 hours of the arrest. But this is not the reality. In one instance, a teenager I know was kept in jail for 15 days, and subjected to all kinds of torture. The police discarded all standard legal procedures. Further, due to the nature of charges, like terrorism, Naxalism, and anti-state activities, which are sensitive categories, Hence Judges are also fearful to oppose Police action, and give decisions in their favour.”
LSPR – “The SC has held that under-trial prisoners have multiple rights: right to inform family members of the arrest, right to legal aid etc. Are these rights being provided by the State in prisons in Chattisgarh?”
Soni Sori – “Obviously not. Actually, this is our very demand. We understand that Naxalites are at the centre of a problem which the State wants to resolve. But that is no reason for the State to not provide us with our basic rights. For instance, the State claims that they cannot inform the family members about the arrest, because they are all illiterate. But we are not fools. Each village has a Patel, a Sarpanch, and a Kotwal. The State can communicate the news of the arrest to any of these people, and the families will get to know. But the reality is that the State does not want to give us these rights. This creates a lot of hardships for the family, given that the Red Corridor is spread across four to five districts, and the family members have to frantically search for their relatives who have been arrested. When such disputes arise in city areas, the families are educated and hence they know how to solve the disputes quickly. But in village areas, people do not have that kind of information, and hence they are stuck in these problems endlessly. Also, they do not allow activists like me and families of the prisoners to access the place where the arrests have been made. For instance, I travel to these places in rented cars. The police stop the car and threaten the driver with prison time etc., and the drivers refuse to drive me any further. Since these places are usually far away, by the time we reach, the police have informed the media about false charges and they have tortured the prisoners, which places the prisoners in a very disadvantaged position.”
LSPR – “Is the legal fraternity in Chattisgarh assisting your cause in any manner?”
Soni Sori – “There are hardly any tribal lawyers. Some of the lawyers who hail from the tribal communities do not even recognise us. But some lawyers, like those working in HRLN, do help us with great passion. But most of the lawyers are just chasing money. They know that these cases are easy acquittals, and so they extend the cases meaninglessly for 5-6 years, charging at least Rs. 5000 for each appearance in Court. Poor tribal women are forced to sell all their assets to fight the cases. Local lawyers are intimidated by the police, and therefore, do not want to associate with us. But lawyers at the national level do not face this kind of intimidation, and therefore, some of them do help us.
We also have high expectations from the Judges, but they too fail to uphold the values of justice. Even when our case is strong, and our concerns are legitimate, they do not support us. In one instance, when a marriage procession was returning to their village, twenty people were randomly arrested without any valid charge. We immediately sent a fax to the Commissioner and uploaded news of the same on Facebook. Two days later in Court, when the Judge asked the police when the detainees were arrested, they lied and claimed that the arrest had been made that morning at 8 am. But we had evidence in the form of the fax and FB posts to counter the lie. When the Judge confronted the police about the same, they denied any involvement in the same and passed on the blame to another police station. The Judge finally let only six people go, and retained the remaining fourteen in custody.”
LSPR – “Who is the group that benefits from all of these misdeeds: politicians, police, or zamindars?
Soni Sori – You must understand that the main motivation behind all of these misdeeds is money. The primary beneficiaries are zamindars. The Constitution grants special rights to tribals in terms of land. This creates impediments for big corporations like Jindal, Adani etc. so they harass us to take over our land. We are forced to sell or transfer our properties to these corporations.
The second class of people who benefit are the politicians, because they claim a greater number of arrests and suppression of terror under their rule, thus, gaining political capital which is necessary to win elections.
The third class of beneficiaries is the police, who arrest completely innocent individuals, frame them as Maoists, and then claim huge cash rewards and promotions for the same. We often ask them for the details of these awards but receive no credible response. They also benefit from bribery and extortion.
The last class is the lawyers, who use tribal cases as cash cows.”
LSPR – “What is the role of Naxalites in this crisis? How much are they contributing to the suppression of tribal rights?
Soni Sori – Naxalites have a self-declared mission of helping the tribals by saving their Jal Jameen Jangal (Water, Land, Forest). But this does not reflect in reality, as their approach is completely wrong. They often end up brutally murdering their own tribal brothers. This has not benefited anyone. It is better for them to adopt other measures rather than fighting using illegal means. They should adopt legal methods as far as possible. Our fight will only be successful if we take the law along. In a classic instance of how Naxalites sometimes do more harm than good, you must be aware that some villagers turn into informants for the State, and when the Naxalites get to know, they convene community courts, and kill these people.”
LSPR – “What is the role of the media in this struggle? Is the local, state, or national media helping you in any way?”
Soni Sori – “The local media fears the police and state authorities. Only when pressure comes from the national media, is the state and local media compelled to publish stories from our narrative.”
LSPR – “There are two major parties in Chattisgarh: BJP and Congress. BJP has been in power for the last 15 years. Do you see any change if the Congress comes into power?”
Soni Sori – “I do not know if the Congress has changed its strategy and policy now. But when it first came to power, they certainly did not help the tribals and followed similar policies as BJP today. They too crushed us. They initiated the policy of ‘Salwa Judum’ to rehabilitate tribals in camps, but they did not undertake successful implementation and did not fund it adequately. No measures were undertaken to support the tribals who actually migrated to these camps. This plan backfired completely. Those who migrated to the camps live a more miserable existence than the rest of the tribals who chose to not migrate. Congress now has many tribal leaders from the Red Corridor who are members of the Vidhan Sabha, but none of them raise any tribal issues in this forum. So I do not have much hope from a prospective Congress Government either.”
LSPR – “You also happen to be a member of a political party: the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). How would you rather describe yourself: as a politician, or as a social worker? How has your experience with AAP been?”
Soni Sori – “Firstly, I would like to make it clear that when I was released from jail in 2014, I received a huge number of death threats. I needed to join a political party as a safety measure. When I became a member of AAP, the State could not directly physically attack me. Secondly, I do not identify as a politician. I am a social activist above all else. When I lost the election, it did not matter, because I had still received a sizeable number of votes, and that’s all that mattered to me. But I do want to add here that I have personally met with Kejriwal Ji several times, and I respect him for the degree of autonomy he gave me. I do not want to be identified as a politician, because it severely restricts my movement and ability to access remote regions, and does not enable me to connect with people at the absolute grassroots level. Further, my main objective is to not be the primary leader, but to nurture and train young leaders, so that thousands of strong-willed individuals can take my place when I am gone.”
LSPR – “For our last question, we want you to make one suggestion to the government to help them resolve the Bastar crisis.”
Soni Sori – “Our demands are fourfold: Jal, Jangal, Zameen, and adherence to the dictates of our Constitution. Nothing more. Nothing less. We want them to adhere to the law as it is laid down in the Statutes, and the Courts. This is all we ask. And I am sure we cannot be branded as anti-national for this.”
LSPR – “Ma’am your story, and that of Bastar is a moving narrative. There are many students in law schools across India who want to work in Bastar to understand its plight better. Is there any way they can reach out to you, come down to Bastar, and work with you?”
Soni Sori – “This is great to hear! I will speak to HRLN regarding this and ask them to set up an internship office in Bastar immediately. Meanwhile, please feel free to come to Bastar now. I will be more than happy to host such bright young minds!”
LSPR – “Thank you so much for your time. It has indeed been an honour to speak with you. From all of us at LSPR, we cannot thank you enough!”
Image Source: Macrobusiness.com.au