21 September 2014, Dantewada, Parakram Rautela
It is almost one in the afternoon by the time she walks into the Dantewada district and sessions court – the court starts at 11 – where she is fighting the last of the seven cases that have so far been slapped against her.
Soni Sori starts her day by reporting to the nearest police station. Which is why it is almost one in the afternoon by the time she walks into the Dantewada district and sessions court – the court starts at 11 – where she is fighting the last of the seven cases that have so far been slapped against her.
She is, this time, accused of being on the verge of accepting a payoff by the Indian MNC Essar and ferrying it to the Maoists. (Soni has been acquitted in all of the other six cases.)
Before she became a member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Sori has been a government school teacher-turned-tribal activist. She fought the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Bastar, but lost. Somewhat more cynically, Soni is sometimes referred to as a ‘cause célèbre in liberal drawing rooms.’ While that might technically be true, it is also just as true that according to a report (by NRS Medical Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata) submitted to the Supreme Court, stones were inserted into Sori’s vagina and rectum while she was in police custody. And that – this is not part of the report – her husband suffered a stroke under mysterious circumstances while in jail, which reportedly led to his death.
But those are the perils of living in a conflict zone, and Sori’s life is in many ways emblematic of those dangers.
“Bahut danger hai,” she says when you ask her if it is dangerous to live in a conflict zone, where you’re stuck between the police on the one side and the Naxals on the other. ‘You have to listen to both sides – they’re both armed. In a conflict zone, the power of the police tends to get amplified.’ And that you’re never quite certain which side will fire the next salvo. Soni says for example that when her nephew Lingaram Kodopi was ‘picked up.’ She kept asking the men taking him away whether they were police or Naxals. But no answer was forthcoming.
Soni says that even turning into a “cause célèbre” did not necessarily make her life easier. Threats and intimidation continued. And that what finally did make a difference was the AAP nomination. That it was only the threat of her turning into a member of parliament that finally made local officialdom back off.
Soni recounts a conversation she had with a senior police official on her return to Chhattisgarh earlier this year after the Supreme Court gave her bail. The cop said to her: “You will say there is no need for outsiders to come into Chhattisgarh. We can solve our own problems. You will denounce these outsiders.” Soni’s answer was a ‘no’. That if she had got any help, fighting the charges against her and getting bail, it was because of outsiders. The cop said: “Outsiders will not come to your house. You will not meet with them there.” Soni’s answer again was no. That whosoever wished to come to her home was welcome to. That she is now a member of the Aam Aadmi Party, and the police cannot tell her who she can and cannot meet. How did the cop react? “He kept quiet,” says Soni.
Even today, most policemen tend not to want to talk about Soni Sori. “She is not a benchmark, and an acquittal does not mean a crime was not committed,” said a senior police official, without wishing to be named.
According to Shalini Gera, Soni’s lawyer, Soni is the way she is because “she has a strong sense of justice. And that she doesn’t easily back down.” Other battles lie ahead. Soni speaks of the other tribals she met while in jail, people who had spent as many as six years in jail as undertrials without getting bail – a distressingly familiar trope that you hear again and again in Chhattisgarh. “It is always the tribals who are stuck in jail, mostly on Naxal-related charges and you don’t get bail in those cases,” says Soni.
She adds that it is a difficult battle to fight. “Today, I will tell a tribal to fight the state because he has been locked up for so long, and he might agree. But tomorrow, the police will tell him to drop the case, and he will agree to that too. The tribal is usually a simple man, worried about jal, jungle, jameen, not rules and regulations.”
But Soni believes that an opportunity has presented itself with the recent arrest of Virendra Pratap Singh, a government school teacher like herself, who has been arrested for allegedly aiding the Maoists and is currently being held in Dantewada jail. “He’s a teacher like me. He’s not a tribal. He should want to fight. And it will be a good way to get word about the problem out.”
Soni says she went to the jail to meet him but that she was not allowed to because she was not family. And that she has been able to speak to his family over the phone but – she claims – that they’re scared, that they’re being pressurised to stay away from her. “I can understand,” says Soni. “They did the same thing with me.”