“Our fight is not just for the Adivasis, but for everyone in the country. Without the Adivasis you have no hope of protecting your nature, your resources or your humanity. We might be ‘illiterates’ for you, but we Adivasis are your source of courage and bravery that is essential to fight injustice.” – Soni Sori, Human Rights Activist from Bastar.
Soni was interviewed by GX recently at a meeting she attended in New Delhi.
GX: Do you see any change in the ground situation in Bastar, post the replacement of BJP Government in the state by the Congress after last year’s Assembly elections?
SS: I am often asked if there has been any change in Bastar. One thing is true — the new government has returned Tata’s land to the farmers. They say that the Congress government has returned land to the adivasis, to the people of Lohandiguda. But in fact the farmers in that region have fought long and hard for this land. They have been lathi-charged, they have gone to jail, they went all the way to the Supreme Court for this issue. It was the SC that directed the earlier BJP government to return the land, which they hadn’t done when they were in power. Once the Congress government came into power, they basically followed the Court instructions and returned the land. In the same way, we wish that the adivasis of Bastar who have been in jail for five to ten years — who have been put there by the BJP government — are released from jail by the Congress government. Though they had promised this before the elections, they still haven’t formed a committee yet to look into the matter or release of political prisoners. On the other hand, they have been conducting ‘encounters’ of innocent adivasis like the one this February. How can we then believe that things have changed?
Please tell us a bit more about the February killings
On 7th February, the Maoists were conducting a cultural program in Tadiballa, Bijapur, situated in the hills of Abujhmad. And as is usual in such cases, many villagers from around came to participate. This included many who were themselves not party or squad members. There were around 150 to 200 people who had gathered for watching the program. When the security forces got to know of this event, they cordoned off the spot and opened random firings on the crowd, mowing down at least 10 non-combatant Adivasis. I agree that there were armed Maoists in that program, and they also opened fire when they came under attack.
But the Government should have narrated what happened truthfully. Instead, they declared that these 10 people were Maoists themselves, and showed guns that they were supposedly carrying. This is a complete lie. They didn’t just kill, they also raped 5 women after shooting them on their legs. Villagers from around rushed to the spot when they heard the cries of these injured women as they were being raped, and pleaded with the forces to let go of them. But they went on with their acts, and after they were done, they killed these women. Further, when they produced the bodies, we saw that their breasts were cut off, their noses and ears were chopped off, cloth pieces were stuffed into their sexual body parts.
In another ‘encounter’ on 2nd February, 3 women were attacked by the forces. One of them was a young woman, named Sukri, who had 3 children with the youngest one only 2 months old. They had gone to the forest to collect wood. The forces opened fire, even after the women screamed that they were ordinary villagers. Sukri was hit on the chest and fell down. Another woman who was hit on the thigh, and the third one who somehow avoided bullets, fled to their village that was nearby, within 500m. On receiving the news, women from the village rushed back to the spot and found that the security personnel were dressing up Sukri in a Maoist fatigue. Sukri died soon after.
Earlier, 3 security personnel raped a woman who was 5 months’ pregnant. They had cordoned off her village. She couldn’t run since she was pregnant. They caught her and did this to her. Not only that, they also videoed the act. Your ‘security forces’ are doing such things. Later the police offered her money as compensation, which she refused to take.
In another incident the police forced one Adivasi villager against his will, to check out a spot where a Maoist pamphlet had been cited. Turns out there was an IED device that was planted at the spot. When this person reached that part of the road, the device exploded and his body was torn to pieces. Who is responsible for this?
The police keep people randomly in custody, completely illegally for months, without even officially arresting them, or without producing them before the court. The jails of Bastar are stuffed with people, there is no space left in the prisons.
You mentioned the Committee to look into the release of prisoners, that hasn’t been set up by the Government yet. Will you and your people be represented on such a committee, if it ever comes up?
The government has not approached us yet. If they do, we will definitely join the committee because we know how adivasis are branded ‘Naxalites’ and jailed… We want the adivasis who are innocent to be released from jail.
As soon as this government came to power, ten adivasis were killed. We know that they have fired at women. We know that our adivasis have been detained in camps and police stations for months on end — this isn’t right. I stood for elections on behalf of the AAP but I felt like the elections were a fight between two parties: the BJP and the Congress.
Though we keep talking about [BJP’s] Raman Singh Government’s atrocities in the state for 15 years, we shouldn’t forget that the Congress was responsible for creating Salwa Judum, which caused a lot of damage. Hopefully this time around the Congress Government in the state will deal with the adivasis of Chhattisgarh more reasonably and with more compassion. I have not lost hope, and neither have my people. This ‘hope’ is only because of what Bastar had to suffer under Raman Singh. Hooliganism has become the defining feature of the BJP — it has suffocated everyone there. So many women have been sexually assaulted in Bastar.
This still remains only a hope, though?
The ones in jail, we hope that they are released, or given access to lawyers, and that special courts be constituted to ensure speedy processing of cases. Even in my case, my co-accused the Essar General Manager and one of their contractors, were given almost immediate bails whereas me and my husband were kept in prison and brutally tortured in indescribable ways. When they finally released my husband after 3 years in prison, he was turned into a vegetable from the torture he had to go through. He died soon after. I had then applied for bail because I wanted to take care of my husband. But the CG High Court denied my bail application. Thus, who gets bail and who doesn’t clearly doesn’t depend on the charges, but on who you are. If you are an Adivasi in Bastar, you will have to rot in prisons for years, you will be tortured like an animal.
The state of the jails is terrible. It was like this during the BJP government, and it remains the same under the Congress government. Our adivasis are treated in these jails like insects, they are left hungry.
Take a detainee from Sukma, if she must be detained then she should be detained in Sukma itself! If you detain her in Jagdalpur, which is hundreds of kilometers away, then how will her family meet her? This was the hope, that things like this would stop happening once the Congress government came to power. So far, there has been no change. I don’t know if the government will actually do anything for adivasi people.
In the current government, are there adivasis in positions of power or influence? How many are they?
From the adivasi people, Lakma Kawasi was made a minister. He represents Sukma.
I appealed to Kawasi after three adivasi women were fired upon by the police on 2nd February. He is a member of the adivasi community and a resident of Sukma. I appealed to him to conduct an investigation into how and why these women were shot at. I appealed to him to go look for himself, and reminded him that he was a member of the adivasi community first, and that he only became a minister later. He hasn’t gone until today.
He didn’t release a statement about the shooting either?
All he said was that those who died in the shooting would get five lakh rupees and those who were wounded would get one lakh rupees. Money isn’t everything here, there was no investigation into why the police fired at these women. He should have done this within the first two days of the incident. In this matter too, he has not been fair. This is despite him being an adivasi.
When I met Rahul Gandhi before the Assembly elections he had a simple, clear answer which I liked. He said Bastar’s adivasis should be paid attention to. He said that the MLAs have to start listening to the people, and that he would ready them to do the same. I heard this and I was filled with hope, that maybe with Rahul Gandhi’s leadership the ministers and the party would start thinking the same way.
But no effort have been made to improve the lives of adivasis in any direction. If this [inactivity] continues, this government will be no different from the previous BJP government.
After the Congress government came to power, they tried reinstating the infamous IPS officer and Raman Singh’s right hand man, SRP Kalluri. What are your thoughts on this?
He has been transferred now. There was widespread outrage when this was announced, and we even went to meet the Chief Minister. We told him that if Kalluri is given a position of power once again, it would be a grave injustice to the people of Bastar, especially women. Kalluri has brought every family, every person in Bastar a lot of pain which they will never be able to forget. Many social workers and activists had written about this and this helped put pressure on the government.
As a human rights activist, your freedom to move about, conduct fact-finding missions, etc. was severely impeded by Raman Singh’s government. Has that continued?
The Congress government is the same even in this regard. One considerable difference though is, during the BJP rule it was literally impossible to speak to any of the ministers. But now I can fight and argue with the current government’s ministers and ask them ‘Why my car is being stopped? What is the difference between your administration and the BJP administration?’ I am still not allowed to access certain regions of Bastar, there are parts of the jungle I am stopped from entering. But things are now slightly better since there is communication between me and officials from the current government. But that’s about it.
Has the AAP formed a base in Bastar?
Not in Bastar, not yet.
Do you have a strategy for the upcoming election?
I didn’t have a strategy the last time and I don’t have one now.
But there must be other AAP candidates from Bastar?
There were other candidates last time, I don’t know about this time.
The SC recently had a judgment regarding the Forest Rights Act. What effects has this judgment had at the grassroots level in Bastar?
We won’t give up our ‘jal, jangal, aur zameen.’ I have led five-six thousand women in a march, and we said we’d rather die than give up our water, our forest, and our land. They say that it is because of us that the animals are being affected or dying out, how is this fair to say? We adivasis live in the forests among the animals, we live in harmony with them. There is no question of the animals being negatively affected by us. We Adivasis are the kind of people who feel pain even when a tree is chopped. On the other hand these people lynch other humans if a cow dies. Their hair doesn’t even twitch if a human being is killed.
We have figured out that the government is deliberately leading people astray with this narrative and trying to evict us from our land. They are unable to do it otherwise: they have tried beating us, they have tried calling us Naxals, they have tried burning our houses, but they haven’t been able to get rid of us. This is why they are using the law now, to try and do the same. Lakhs of Adivasis have already been driven out of Bastar over the years, into neighboring states like Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Now they want to empty the entire region of human beings.
The Government-Corporate interests say Adivasis don’t want ‘development’. We ask, what do you mean by development? Why won’t Adivasis want development? We look at our Gram Sabhas precisely as bodies to chart out the process of development. But these people have hijacked the Gram Sabhas with the power of the gun. Now they are trying to use the law to suffocate and kill institutions such as the Gram Sabha. We reject the kind of ‘development’ that the Essars, Tatas and Ambanis want to force upon us. And we will fight till our last breath to protect our jal-jangal-zameen and our Gods from these people.
For them Adivasis are not just ‘anti-development’, but also therefore ‘anti-Nationals’…
Yes. Take the example of the Adivasi woman called Hidme, who was picked up by the forces, raped in the forest, and then killed. We fought hard against Hidme’s murder. We took out a 180 km long padyatra on 15th August, led by Hidme’s mother who carried the national flag, all the way through so-called ‘Naxalite bastion’. She thought this would ensure justice for her daughter, that the law establishment would do something about her murder. Hidme’s mother became the first woman in Bastar to flung the tricolor. She said this is not for her daughter alone, but for her entire village. This was a region where the tricolor had not been hoisted in decades. But what happened next? Security forces killed 14 more people subsequently, at the same village. After this, the villagers called me and asked me to take back the national flag. “Your national flag is also not capable of ensuring justice for people like us, take it back with you,” they said.
Coming back to the ‘FRA judgment’, is there any government program or effort to empty the forest of adivasis, post the judgment?
Not yet, no. The Chief Minister has said that if there is talk of evicting us from our land, then the state government will, on behalf of the adivasis, challenge it in court. Whether they actually do this when the time comes is a different matter, of course.
Could you elaborate on the new communal clashes in Bastar that you discussed in your talk?
There was a Muslim boy from Dantewada who, in a public bathroom, put up a picture of Goddess Lakshmi. His intention was not to offend or insult Hindus. Rather, this was a section of the bathroom where people weren’t meant to urinate, and people still went ahead and urinated there, making the place very unclean. His hope was that people would see the image of Goddess Lakshmi and refrain from urinating there. This is something that the Hindus do all the time. In this case, since this person was a Muslim, it became a communal issue, a group of Hindus found out about it and cornered him at his house.
Were they mostly non-Adivasi Hindus or did the group which attacked also include Adivasis?
It was a mixture of both. They caught this Muslim boy and beat him up. The Muslim boy is from the city and he comes from a good family. It is very strange, his father is actually a BJP party worker. They shut down the Dantewada market, and I was told that these Hindu boys were laying siege to the local mosque.
I immediately brought this to the attention of the local MPs but no one listened, so I went there myself. I stood in front of the masjid and noticed that there were no security personnel in sight, despite the market being shut down for two days. I called the SP and asked why there aren’t any security personnel here, since this group of boys is planning to enter the mosque with the intention of damaging and desecrating it. The SP said he wasn’t going to send any police, that I was wasting my time, and that I should leave the premises immediately. I refused, and said I’d file a complaint against him — they want to use this issue to further polarize people. I said I wouldn’t move, and that I’d make sure everyone in the country knew how the tensions were allowed to exacerbate. He then backed down and sent the police, who then surrounded the mosque.
I then spoke to the group of boys who were from the RSS, and tried to diffuse the situation.
In your opinion, is this new or has this always been happening? And if so, how scary is it?
This is new. It is scary because Hindus and Muslims have always had conflicts like this, but now adivasis are being used in this conflict. Adivasis have never discriminated on the basis of caste or religion, but now they are being dragged into this kind of hate politics.
There are laws protecting adivasis against abuse, both verbal and physical. Even such laws are being used as anti-Adivasi anti-Muslim political weapons. For example, there was once a fight between a Hindu man and a Muslim man. The police took action against the Muslim for swearing at an adivasi, under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. The Muslim man came to my house and explained that the fight was between him and the Hindu man, that the Hindu man brought the Adivasi into the fight and had him file an FIR against him. Meanwhile, the Muslim man brought another Adivasi along and had him register a similar counter complaint against the Hindu man. My adivasi brothers said that the Hindu and the Mulim men had brought them to the station to file FIRs against each other. I said I would file complaints against both the Hindu and Muslim men for using Adivasis as political cover like this. They were both wrong, they were both misusing the laws intended to protect Adivasis. In this way adivasis are being dragged into this conflict.
What is the stand of the Maoist Party in regard to the upcoming election? Have they called for a boycott?
No calls for a boycott so far. We have all been saying that the government should change. They hadn’t boycotted the Assembly elections as well. Like many others in Bastar, the Maoists also believed that the Raman Singh regime was the worst that could have happened to the people there. The Maoists and rest of us in Bastar saw how disastrous the Salwa Judum was, and the Congress created the Salwa Judum. Despite this, everyone hoped that Congress forms the government post the Assembly elections.
But the recent murder of ten adivasis has deeply hurt the people of Bastar. The Maoists have said clearly that there is no difference between Bhupesh (Baghel) and Raman (Singh).
Was this the official Maoist position or is this hearsay?
This is a statement that came out after the murder of those ten adivasis by security forces, in February. The people of Bastar are also saying the same thing.
What has been the effect on corporate-funded right-wing vigilante groups like Agni, etc after the loss of the BJP in Chhattisgarh? Has their funding been affected?
The government isn’t doing anything about them now. The situation isn’t being exacerbated, but it isn’t going away either. They are perhaps not as active now. But nor has the new Government taken any legal action on any of them despite serious allegations.
The Congress Government has only been using official security forces then, and not the vigilante groups?
Yes. The Congress used to say that if they come to power, those wrongly imprisoned would be freed, encounter killings would end and that they would stop sexual assaults on women. They said adivasis wouldn’t be killed like this. They said so many things like this. But right after they come to power, they murder ten adivasis. We live with discomforts in our hearts, the people of Bastar all feel it. We don’t wish to see a repeat of something like Salwa Judum. The tensions will escalate then and we worry about it. But for now, they have been only using security forces.
Over the past five years in national politics, a lot of things have escalated — attacks on Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, etc. One particular feature has been the escalation of organised violence against women, across communities. This fight against patriarchy is of course much bigger than an election, it is a fight for social change. What are your thoughts on this as an adivasi woman activist? What is your vision of how this fight should be fought?
Just the way we fight against oppression in Bastar. There is no difference between the Congress and the BJP when it comes to the question of women. But as far as the Congress is concerned, if it really wants to do something positive for women, it should first of all promote women candidates in the upcoming elections. There is hope of fighting against oppression of women if there are more women representatives in the Parliament.
As an adivasi woman, do you feel like in the upcoming elections the voice of women from Bastar, specifically Adivasi women, needs to be amplified such that it reaches Delhi?
There are women activists in Bastar who are fighting. They fight every day. They live in constant fear. Their days and nights are spent in fear of being sexually assaulted. They are really very brave, they are fighters. If the government doesn’t stop us, we can bring them to cities like Delhi and give them the freedom to speak. We can do this in Bastar as well. Once they start speaking, all the truths will come out.
How is your relationship with the AAP?
They are a national party, and you can imagine that people from Bastar are not exactly the highest on their priority list. I have met Arvind Kejriwal a couple of times, but when things happen in Bastar they do not react. It pains me, and I tell the party members to communicate the happenings in Bastar to Mr. Kejriwal, but not much has ever happened for the women of Bastar. The problems of adivasis cannot become a political plaything, I will not let it happen, because their suffering is real. Personally, I am first a social activist, and then a member of a political party.
One thing is important to point out, our fight is not just for the Adivasis, but for everyone in the country. Without the Adivasis you have no hope of protecting your nature, your resources or your humanity. We might be ‘illiterates’ for you, but we Adivasis are your source of courage and bravery that is essential to fight injustice.
Feature image source: Youth Ki Awaaz