[Cross-posted at People of Color Organize]
Soni Sori is an adivasi schoolteacher from the state of Chhattisgarh in India. On October 2011, she was arrested by the state police under several false charges. During police custody, she was beaten, tortured and sexually assaulted. As of the writing of this post, she remains in prison with no court date set for her hearing.
This is her story.
When I was being stripped, I wished someone would come and save me. But this did not happen. In Mahabharata, when Draupadi’s honour was at stake, she saved herself by calling upon Krishna. Whom should I have called? It was the courts, themselves, who handed me over to the police. Today, I will not ask you to save my honour because I have nothing left. Yes, but I do want to know from all of you — why was I tortured? — Soni Sori, in a letter dated Feb. 4th, 2012
After running across the country, fleeing for her life, on October 4th 2011, Soni Sori was arrested by the police in Delhi. She repeatedly pleaded to judicial custodians to let her remain in Delhi because she feared for her life in Chhattisgarh. The Magistrate of the Delhi High Court calmed her fears. He ordered the Chhattisgarh Police to keep her safe, and explained to Soni Sori that “not all police are bad”.
She was taken away. The next time the public would see her was at her court hearing on Oct. 10th, only a few days later. Soni Sori was in so much pain that she was unable to get out of the police van to appear in court.
She was taken to a hospital for an examination and a video of her pain was leaked and widely disseminated. When asked to explain her condition, Ankit Garg, the Superintendent Police from Chhattisgarh, told the media that she had lost consciousness, slipped and fallen in the bathroom.
Police officer, S. P Ankit Garg, after stripping me, tells me “you are a whore, a bitch, and a motherfucker who pleases naxal leaders by selling your body. They come to your house every day and night. We know everything.” He added, “You claim to be a good teacher, but you sell yourself, even in Delhi. What’s your status anyway? You are only an ordinary woman. Do you think these big-big people will stand with you?” — Soni Sori, in a letter dated Feb. 4th, 2012
On the night of Oct 8th, Soni Sori was pulled out of her jail cell and taken to S.P.Ankit Garg’s room. A court-ordered medical report has documented what happened to her body that night. She was stripped, given electric shocks and batons and stones were inserted into her private parts. During her medical examination, doctors had to remove stones that had remained deep inside her vagina and one from her rectum. An MRI scan has revealed tears on her spine.
The Supreme Court reportedly felt “anguish” after seeing the medical report. But they were not distressed enough to let her stay in Delhi, much less release her. They sent her back to Chhattisgarh where she remains still, awaiting her next court hearing.
At the beginning of the year, a group of women from various groups all over India went to visit Soni Sori in jail. Despite following procedures that gave an initial permission to visit her, the women’s group were denied access to her. Instead they were shuttled from one authority to another who uniformly dodged their requests before finally denying them all visitations. The reason given was “security concerns”. The State Human Rights Commission does not believe that Soni Sori’s denial of access to advocates should be considered a human rights violation.
In fact, the Indian government has recently displayed an unprecedented understanding of human rights. It has awarded Ankit Garg — the SP named by Soni Sori as one of her torturers — the President’s Police Medal for Gallantry. It is one of the highest medals of honor and courage thus awarded in the country — signed off by the Prime Minister of India.
According to the Indian government, it takes bravery to watch, participate, and supervise a woman being beaten and sexually assaulted by a group of men.
History is witness that whenever there is war in any country, it is women who give to the nation. Jhansi Lakshmi Bai fought with the Britishers, did she sell herself? Indira Gandhi, as the prime minister of India, governed the country, did she sell herself? Today all the women who are working in their respective areas, are they selling themselves? All of us are bound with each other in unity and support, then why is no one coming to help me? I would like to have an answer from you. Who has made the world? Who gave birth to the powerful, intellectual fighters? If there had been no women, would it have been possible for India to get her freedom? I am a woman, so why did this happen to me? Answer me. — Soni Sori, in a letter dated Feb. 4th, 2012
Violence dehumanizes. Always. It is necessary to turn a person into a symbol, into an idea, in order to maim them. Their humanity first has to be flung aside. And nowhere is humanity denied more routinely than during conflict and to women. It is a colonial relic — a trick — that we share about our land and our national identities. Our collective sympathies are bargained for, a case is made for metaphoric pain, for the hurt a nation’s pride must bear. The non-existent grief of systems and institutions is weighted and balanced opposite real human wounds and scars, which in turn become symbols for oppression.
Adivasi bodies, poor people’s bodies — their spaces, their voices — are political narratives first, human later.
Except for Ankit Garg, we do not know the identities of the other faceless police who strip her, stomp her and beat her. Their crime is hidden behind state police uniforms, authority — individual culpability traded in — they are tools of war. A sovereign nation is never a man, land is always a conquered woman. These post-colonial habits gain new meaning as we witness more non-symbolic bodies bear non-symbolic suffering.
I got my education at the Gandhian School Rukmani Kanya Ashram, Dimripal. I strongly believe in the power of my education. Whether its naxal problem or any other, I can face it. Education is my tool for survival and pen is my weapon of choice. Still they have put me in jail as a naxal supporter. Mahatma Gandhi also had the same tools. If Mahatma Gandhi was alive today, would he have also been put behind bars as a Naxal supporter? I want to know from all of you. — Soni Sori, in a letter dated Feb. 4th, 2012
At the heart of the conflicts in Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and many other parts of India is the government and corporate need to control and dominate the mineral rich forests of central India—tribal land, adivasi land. Despite special protections conferred by law to adivasis and tribals, the government of Chattisgarh has filed and closed hundreds of thousands of cases against tribals for forest misdemeanors like gathering firewood or plucking leaves.
Meanwhile, since the late 1970s, the region has been gouged open by multinationals, accompanied by the displacement of tribals who have lived there for generations. The term used is “captive mines” — meaning they are dedicated mines for private, multinational corporations such as Tata, Essar, Jindal and Mittal under the umbrella of the National Mineral Development Corporation. Needless to say, these lucrative public-private partnerships benefit enormously from state repression of local communities.
Soni Sori and other tribals like her are caught between state government, corporate and police interests. She is not a Maoist sympathizer, nor is she willing to play the role of the police informant. She is a school teacher who, before she was arrested, fought to raise the minimum wages of tribals, fought for the rights of mine workers and called out senior police officials who took bribes in the illegal teak trade. Her nephew, Lingaram Kodopi (also arrested) was one of the first adivasi journalist to come out of Chhattisgarh.
There is a staggering degree of evidence that the charges against Soni Sori are false, including a video of Chhattisgarh police admitting that they framed her. And yet, both Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi remain imprisoned while the criminals in their case walk free.
Why are only the villagers, the tribals being put in jails as Naxal supporters? Why are false cases made up about them? Many other people are also Naxal supporters. Is it because they are illiterate? Uneducated? Simple people, living in huts in forests? Is it because they do not have money? Or is it because they have the capacity to tolerate torture much more? Even for 1-2 cases, people are being kept in prison for 5-6 years. There is no judgement, no bail nor is there an acquittal. Why?
Is it because we, adivasi people do not have the strength to fight the government? Or is it that the government is not with adivasis? Or is it because adiiavsis are not the sons or daughters of big political leaders. How long will adivasis be exploited? I am asking all citizens of India, answer me. In Jagdalpur and Dantewada prisons, 16 year old boys and girls were brought and now they are 20-21 years old. And yet their cases are not being heard. — Soni Sori, in a letter dated Feb. 4th, 2012
The majority of people who are wrongfully imprisoned and tortured in the Indian prison system (and all over the world) are not political prisoners. Stories of people who have been illegally detained or imprisoned for minor infractions (i.e. petty theft) or on mere suspicion (i.e.state terrorism) are overwhelming. These people often have no political or activist affiliation, and not surprisingly many do not have the funds to ensure adequate legal advocacy. They have never gone through a due process accorded to them by every law.
Any democracy that claims to honor the political will of its people cannot tolerate political prisoners. It is the absence of dissent that should signal our alarm. There is a truly staggering number of political prisoners currently lost to the system, away from the scrutiny of the public eye.
As attention and public interest inevitably wanes, these prisoners continue to be held captive despite obvious political motivation and lack of evidence. By the time, a case gets media attention and public pressure builds, the person in question has already suffered enormously.
Justice is not a commodity, it cannot be left to the fickle mercy of public and media attention.
In the context of international development, “improving” poor adivasi, tribal and lower caste communities become a shining example of our technological and financial benevolence. It is then a useful exercise to abandon any challenges to our own social conditioning and biases around caste and race. Consequently, within India, crimes committed in Chhattisgarh, Manipur, Kashmir, Assam and other state sanctioned atrocities get white-washed away. If at all acknowledged, state violence is an inconvenient side story, an example of a lumbering bureaucracy as opposed to a systematic, deliberate and profitable abuse of power.
Exotification, nationalism and development all collude to help us erase the political histories of tribal people, adivasis, dalits and other racial and cultural minorities in India.
The petition from Amnesty International calling for the release of Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi is here.
By giving me (electric) current, by stripping me naked, or by brutally assaulting me by inserting stones in my rectum – will the problem of Naxalism end? Why so many atrocities on women? I want to know from all my countrymen. — Soni Sori
[Note: A complete English translation of her letter dated Feb.4th, 2012 can be found here. The Hindi transcript can be found here. Audio recordings of her letter can be found here (in Hindi)— read aloud by Kamayani Bali Mahal — an advocate and an activist.
The letter used in this article is one of four letters that Soni Sori has written from jail. Only parts of the letter were used.]