Soni Sori: The State is lawless

Soni Sori, a human rights defender and an Adivasi school teacher from Chhattisgarh, was in Mumbai recently to talk at an event organised to commemorate Justice (retired) Suresh Hosbet's 25 years of contribution to the human rights struggle in India post his retirement. This event was orgainsed by Majlis, a women's rights organisation in collaboration with Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) and People's Watch. Sori, who has endured serious custodial torture for nearly two years, spoke at length about her experience working for her community in Bastar.

Soni Sori Bastar
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Following is the translated transcript of her speech delivered on October 1 in Mumbai:
My warm regards to everyone gathered here. I am extremely happy to be present before you all for such an important event commemorating Justice Suresh's 25 years in activism. His contribution is commendable, both as a judge and as an activist. Justice Suresh had recently travelled to Chhattisgarh. I was informed by one of the fellow activists about his visit. I did not know about Justice Suresh then.

Even when I was told he is a senior person, I thought of him as one of the several other activists and human rights lawyers who come from cities to support our cause. But when I saw him in Bastar, I was completely astounded that a man at such a ripe age wants to still travel to remote corners of the country to defend their rights. Although, he had managed to reach Bastar, I was not sure if he could take the travel ahead to those inaccessible villages in the region. When I suggested he should take it easy and not venture to far off villages, he promptly replied, "I have travelled all the way to examine the condition of Adivasi communities in this region, I will travel ahead." I, in fact, even tried to warn him of the possibility of long walks that he would have to undertake to reach some villages. He was very willing and asked me to not sweat over his travel. We went to one of the remotest villages which involved both travelling in a vehicle on the rickety road and then covering a long stretch on foot. But, nowhere did he appear tired. He was zealous and wanted to meet as many villagers as he could. When people got to know a retired judge had travelled from Mumbai to hear them out, they got hopeful. Villagers gathered in large numbers to talk to him and put forth their grievances. Justice Suresh patiently listened to each and every person gathered. He took note of every complaint made and patiently tried to address them one by one. His visit not only inspired people in general, but also helped some of them to take immediate steps.

Justice Suresh
Justice Suresh Hosbet. Image credit: The Indian Express

At the gathering, a pregnant Adivasi woman called Hurre had also come. She was heavily pregnant. Her husband Hunga was arrested a few days ago for his alleged involvement in a blast case. Hurre had pleaded for her husband's innocence before the police, but they did not relent. They took Hunga away, leaving Hurre distraught. The police had hit her on her stomach with the rifle butt when she tried to prevent Hunga's arrest. She had suffered a deep injury. Hurre knocked one very door in search of justice. When she reached the police station inquiring about her husband's arrest, the police claimed Hunga was taken to the court. When she reached the court, she was told her husband was locked up in the jail. So, she rushed to the jail. She aimlessly kept shuttling between the police station, court and jail for several days. Fed up, she contacted me and sought my help in finding her husband. Amidst this, she delivered a premature child. After the delivery, Hurre who was still frail and fatigued, insisted on meeting her husband. Hurre and I went to meet him at the Dantewada jail. After a lot of persuasion, we could finally meet Hunga in the jail. Hunga had not seen his newborn boy before. It was an emotional moment to see Hunga meet his son in the the jail. Hunga advised Hurre to not visit him in the jail and focus on making their thatched hut sturdy. He wanted the money they had painstakingly saved to be spent on the house as planned and not on travelling to visit him. Hurre returned to her village and a few days later she succumbed to the complications that developed due to the harassment by the police. After Hurre's death, our focus now is on her infant child.

Since Hunga is in jail and Hurre is no more, we had to find ways to keep their child alive and healthy. On Justice Suresh's suggestion, we decided to move to the High Court for arrangements to be made for the child's food. The court passed a favourable order and asked the collector to make necessary arrangements for the child. That one visit by Justice Suresh helped us find a way to help Hurre's family.

When I saw him there, helping our movement, I was reminded of my father. It is very courageous of someone his age to travel into the remote area and help people.

Seeing him, I was reminded of an incident from the time I was in the prison. My old father, who was shot in his leg, which rendered him handicapped would come to the court for every hearing, and stand at a corner. I would insist he didn't come to the court and keep standing like this. He would reply that he stood there since he cannot help me in any other way. He would say he had no money, no power to save me, but still the courage to stand by me. He once told me, "I want you to remember that your crippled father is standing here for you every day. I do not want you to lose hope. If I can stand under the scorching sun, you can't lose hope. You have to fight back." So when I saw Justice Suresh in my village, I was reminded of my father's efforts. There is a lot to learn from Justice Suresh and his undying spirit.

In Bastar, law has its own way of functioning. When a woman is raped anywhere in the country, the Supreme Court intervenes, asks for an immediate action, an immediate FIR and investigation. But this is not the case in Bastar. There is no law, no system, and no sensitivity in handling women in this region. Let the Supreme Court say anything, let the high court give any directions, the police here will do as they like. They do not care for law or for its people. If you take cases of sexual assault by the police in Bastar, you will find even after an FIR, the police do nothing. On the contrary, the victims live under constant terror here. And the police continue to unleash its terror on people here. If the state machinery continues to work like this and the government neglects lives here (Bastar), people will continue to die here. It appears that the system is built to harass people here and the police continue to operate with complete impunity.

Take the recent case of killing of two young school-going boys. One of them was sleeping in the house. When the armed force entered his house, he kept saying I am a school-going child. Look at my Aadhar card, look at my school I-card. I am not a Naxal. Even as he continued to beg, the policemen dragged him out of the house, thrashed him badly and took him far away from the house and gunned him down.
Even in case of such a brutal, cold blooded murder, there is no FIR against the police, no investigations. What law is this, which allows the state to kill without any accountability, with such impunity? If there is a justice system in place, if there are courts to deliver justice, then they should have to function too. Then why doesn't it work in Bastar? His family is running from pillar to post seeking justice.
Another villager called Karma was killed by the police and declared to be a Naxalite. His family produced his citizenry documents to establish he was a law-abiding citizen and had no link with the arms movement. If a person has lived all his life in the village, and has been publicly present, how can police then declare him a Naxalite and that too after his death? We ask when did he go underground, when did he pick up arms, when did he become a Naxalite, when did the government declare reward on his name? Even when they brutally murder our people, we still hold on to bleak hopes that someday, we will get justice. Instead, the same police officers unabashedly come and threaten us. They threaten women of dire consequences. They threaten to kill young boys of the family. What type of state is this which hates its own people?

Soni Suri
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It has become so easy for Chhattisgarh government to declare anyone and everyone a Naxal. Those assigned with the task of upholding democratic principles in this country are busy killing it. Murderers are secure in this democracy, but the victims are not.

Women particularly are easy targets here. Young mothers in Bastar mostly step out to nearby areas to work as agricultural labourers. They time their work in such a way that they are able to take periodic breaks to breast feed their infants who are left back home. As these women take these breaks and head home, they invariably are apprehended by the police. The police interrogate them as if they were Naxals.

Even when these young mothers tell the police they are headed home to breastfeed their children, the police do not relent. To prove their innocence, the women are forced to bare their chests on gun point and squeeze out milk. Even after all the abuses she is made to wait, she cannot go and feed her hungry child. Can her frail body regenerate the milk once again in such a short time span? These daily abuses leave her humiliated and her child hungry. These abuses are not even accounted for. As if Adivasi lives are so dispensable that anyone can come and do whatever they like. There is no accountability of any kind.

We are not asking for some special protection for our people. We are only saying if there is an established legal system in this country, then the state should function within the limits. If the government wants our land and our wealth, doesn't it have the responsibility of protecting our interests too? Should development be an inevitable agenda, then the government should first have a system in place ensuring that every Adivasi life is protected and their interests secured. If government wants to procure our land, there is a law in place. Whether good or bad, the law exists and the government should at least try to stick to its own laws. How can this government kill Adivasis and speak of development? How can this be even termed as development? You cannot vacate villages, displace every one and claim that you worked towards development. If the government is really serious about development, it must focus on making lives of villagers better. There is no electricity, potable water, schools in most villages. Shouldn't the State focus on providing these things to the villagers instead of killing them?

The State is killing Adivasis in the name of development. Madkam Hidme of Gompad village is one of the recent victims of the State brutality. She was picked up from her house while she was sleeping, brutalised, gang-raped by policemen and then shot dead. We still decided to opt for a legal battle. On August 15, I along with her mother and sister went to her village and addressed the villagers and urged them to understand the values of democracy, their legal rights and the need to assert our constitutional rights. As planned, we looked for a place to hoist a flag in the village. We looked around entire village but could not find a single school or aanganwaadi there. We finally went to one open space and hoisted the flag there. This is state's development! They can send policemen to Adivasi houses, brand them as Naxals and brutalise them, but cannot set up a single school in the village.
When Adivasis speak of development, there is no one to hear their voice. If they approach a collector for setting up of a school, they are sent away. The collector doesn't even give Tribals an opportunity to make an appeal. They want forest-dwellers to remain in the forest forever. They are not interested in our development. But when they want our lands and forests, they unleash terror on us and kill us.

After the gang-rape incident of Delhi, entire nation joined hands seeking justice for her. I am not saying that the incident was not brutal and we should not have come together for her, but such incidents happen every day in Bastar. Adivasi girls are assaulted every day in Bastar. But there is no one to fight with us. They rape us and then brand us as Naxals. But no one comes ahead in support of us and speaks against the State atrocities. What happened in JNU with Kanhaiya and Umar Khalid was terrible. But when it happened to those two young boys of Bastar, there was no uproar. The boys were simply killed and not one protested was organised anywhere outside Chhattisgarh. They were school-going kids. Imagine if this were to happen to some students in your college, how the entire nation would have joined hands against the state and demanded immediate justice. Why doesn't the youth of this country assert itself when children are killed in Bastar? Will the government not kneel, if a concerted effort is made? Our children don't deserve justice?

Just when I was leaving for Bombay, five Adivasi youth (from the same village where two school kids were killed) came to me seeking help. They are afraid, the police will kill them. We have moved a petition before the High Court. I asked them why are they so afraid. They said, the thanedaar has threatened them that on the first opportunity, he will get rid of them. Of them, three men have already been to jail. Other two have even surrendered under police pressure. Still they are not spared. The police now want to have them killed. Engulfed in fear, those men spend every night in the forest. Since police mostly strike at night, these men stay away during the night time. They go deep in the forest, wait for rains to subside, find some dry space and sleep. Such is the terror of police here. One can't sleep in their house, can't visit the market, and can't lead a normal fearless life.
Worst affected are young girls of 12-13 years of age. They are forced to tie mangalsutra around their necks. Hoping to be let off by the police, almost all girls are forced to move around with those black beads around their necks. Even then girls are not spared. The police continue to attack them. They are publicly humiliated, spoken to inappropriately in highly sexual tone, and many are even sexually assaulted.

This state claims to be protecting its Adivasi population. Is this the way to protect its people? In the name of Naxalism, they are openly brutalising us and will eventually wipe out our existence.
There is a dire need to have more and more participation of civil society from rest of the country. While people are actively working in other parts, it is essential that they pay more attention to what is happening in Bastar. Media has an important role to play here. You have seen how attempts were made to completely crush the media here. But that should not discourage us. If some journalist travels from Delhi or Bombay or Kolkata, our stories will defintely travel outside.

Representational picture. Image credit: NDTV

 An entire drama has been staged in the name of surrender. Young boys and girls are randomly picked up from villages and are shown as surrendered Naxals. These youths are given only two ultimatums, either to die or sign those papers. What do these terrorised youths know? They think signing those papers is a wise decision to make. Only to realise later that those papers declare them as surrendered Naxals.

As news spreads, the Maoists punish them. If the police let them go, the Maoists kill them. Adivasis are stuck between the police and Maoists. Either ways they get killed.
Another case of a boy named Arjun recently came to light. He was sent to jail in 2015. He was released on bail after spending few days in jail. On every court hearing, he would diligently be present before the court. Not once did he miss the court hearing. Suddenly one day, the police went to his house and arrested him. They declared a Naxal who carried three lakh rupees reward on his head has been arrested.

This boy Arjun, who was arrested in another petty case and was released on bail, was not even in hiding. If the police wanted, they could have arrested him much earlier. He was lawfully released on bail by the court. There was no mention of the reward amount until he was re-arrested. His sister, who tried to speak up against the police, is now taken into the custody. It has been over 15 days since her illegal arrest.
This is the condition of Bastar, of Chhattisgarh. No voice of dissent can be raised; no Adivasi can raise her voice for justice. This State is lawless. No law, no rule applies here. The law that applies and governs the middle class, the ruling class and the upper caste in the rest of the country, does not protect the Adivasis of Chhattisgarh.
I have personally suffered a lot in past few years. It is not possible to fight the might of this State. But I will continue. This is no more my individual fight. It is the fight of every Adivasi here. We are threatened every day, our voices crushed; but we will continue to fight.
The speech was transcribed by Sukanya Shantha.
(This article was first published on Round Table India.)



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