AS I¬†sit to write this, at 12.20 pm on 4 October 2011, an SMS pops up on my phone: ‚ÄúSoni Sori has been arrested by the Delhi Crime Branch.‚ÄĚ The inevitable has happened. The mighty Indian State has caught up with a frail tribal woman on the run.
Living in a city, it is hard to believe this is an Indian story. Living in a city, it is hard to believe this story is even a true one. It‚Äôs always hard to believe in the lives of those outside the orbit of one‚Äôs experience. Or even the periphery of one‚Äôs imagination.
But the story of Soni Sori, 35, and her nephew Linga Kodopi, 25, is one of the most urgent ones of our times. It captures the brutal chaos of India‚Äôs ‚Äúgreatest internal security threat‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ the Naxal crisis ‚ÄĒ as no official document can. It captures the chilling way in which two first-generation educated tribals are being punished and systematically crushed for their courage and outspokenness. Crushed by both Maoists and the State so no independent voice remains to tell the complex truths about life in Chhattisgarh.
Over the past two weeks, several newspapers have been carrying small snippets about how an Essar contractor called BK Lala was caught red-handed on 9 September in a Dantewada market paying Rs 15 lakh as protection money to a Maoist operative called Linga Kodopi. According to these reports, both Lala and Linga had been arrested from the market, while a third person in the transaction ‚ÄĒ the ‚ÄúNaxal associate‚ÄĚ Soni Sori ‚ÄĒ had escaped.
It would be easy to gloss over this news as an insignificant ripple in a distant war zone if that was all there was to it. But the story of Soni Sori and Linga Kodopi loops back much further ‚ÄĒ and deeper ‚ÄĒ than these news reports would suggest.
A few days ago, on the run, Soni Sori appeared in the TEHELKA office, desperate but resolute. ‚ÄúYou have to help me tell the truth to the world,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúMy wellwishers in Delhi are advising me to give myself up to the police and fight this in court but I‚Äôm innocent so why should I agree to be arrested? I‚Äôm educated and I know my rights. If I have done something wrong I‚Äôm happy to go to jail, but before they accuse me, shouldn‚Äôt the police show some evidence against me?‚ÄĚ
Soni‚Äôs eyes occasionally glint with tears, but she is no trader in self-pitying sorrows. She has trekked to Delhi in a dangerous and exhausting cross-country run from the Odisha border, disguised as an ill woman. She has left behind three tiny children aged 5, 8 and 12, scattered at relatives‚Äô houses and hostels. Her husband has been jailed for being an alleged Maoist. Her father lies in a hospital bed in Jagdalpur, ironically, shot by the Maoists for being with the police. Her nephew, of course, is in jail now for being an alleged Maoist extortionist. She herself is falsely accused in five daunting cases of Maoist violence. And the government school she used to teach at is beginning to disband as the police knock on its doors and harass her peers for information. (Almost 40 of the 100 children there have gone home in fright after she was declared an absconder).
Soni is a lone woman in a hostile world. Her life is in smithereens. And she is about as defenceless as anyone can get. But, even as the cruel ironies pile up and the police breathe hot on her heels with a ‚Äúpermanent arrest warrant‚ÄĚ, she sits dignified in borrowed slippers and simple clothes. Resolute and indignant. She refuses to disappear conveniently like hundreds of other tribals have, to rot in jails or die at police or Maoist hands. She wants her story told.
It took almost three-and-a-half years and a worldwide campaign (kicked off by TEHELKA) for Binayak Sen‚Äôs story to be heard and for him to get bail. It‚Äôs taken almost two-and-a-half years for Kopa Kunjam, another fearless tribal worker, falsely accused of murder, to get bail. And it‚Äôs been more than two years since activist Himanshu Kumar‚Äôs ashram was razed to the ground by the police and he was hounded out of Chhattisgarh.
In a sense, Soni and Linga were the last men standing in Dantewada district. Will it need as many years now for their story to be heard?
Running through the forest on 11 September, at the start of her journey to Delhi, a terrified Soni had spoken to TEHELKA correspondent Tusha Mittal on a breaking phone line and said, ‚ÄúThe police are trying to kill me. They fired at me today. I fled. I need to stay alive to keep the truth alive. They don‚Äôt want me to reach Delhi. I can‚Äôt let them kill me.‚ÄĚ
Of course, Soni did reach Delhi before she was arrested. This is why she wanted to reach the capital. This is what she wanted told.
She believed it would get her justice. And freedom.
ON 8 SEPTEMBER,¬†one day before contractor Lala and Linga were supposedly arrested in Palnar market exchanging money, Mankar, a constable from Kirandul Police Station had accosted Soni and asked her to convince Linga to ‚Äúcooperate‚ÄĚ with the police in nabbing Lala. They wanted Linga to pose as a Maoist, take some money from Lala, then hand it over to the police. If she convinced Linga to do this, Mankar promised Soni‚Äôs name would be dropped from all the police cases that had been concocted against her.
A damning phone chat caught in a TEHELKA sting validates Soni and Linga‚Äôs innocence in the high-profile Essar pay-off case
Soni refused angrily but, according to her, Mankar still grabbed her phone and made a call to Lala himself impersonating a local Maoist. Unsure whether this was a ploy for the cop to make some money on the side, she held her peace. The next day, on 9 September, at about 4 pm, she says a car full of plainclothes men came to her father‚Äôs house in Palnar and forcibly took Linga away. She insisted they reveal their identity, but they refused. Shocked, Soni called Mohan Prakash, deputy commander, CRPF, 51 Battalion, and asked if they were his men. He said they weren‚Äôt. Soni and her brother Ramdev then went to the Kirandul Police Station and asked station in-charge Umesh Sahu if the plainclothes men were from the police. He denied it and suggested Linga may have been picked up by Naxals.
(It is strange that Sahu apparently lied about this because it is he himself who filed FIR No. 26/2011 against Lala and Linga on 9 September, saying he had acted on a tip-off and arrested them in the market.)
Soni‚Äôs family spent a worried night wondering who had picked up Linga. The next day, they read in the papers that Linga had been arrested for taking money from Lala and that Soni had been declared an absconder. Aghast, but knowing she would be arrested next, Soni decided to flee.
After a gruelling journey, she reached Delhi and sought help from human rights activists. At the TEHELKA office, to prove the veracity of her account, Soni called constable Mankar on the phone. Tearfully, she asked him why he had entrapped her and Linga into this messy affair. She repeatedly challenged him to tell the truth: ‚ÄúIt was you who called Lala from my phone, isn‚Äôt it?‚ÄĚ she asked. ‚ÄúYou know the police arrested Linga from our house and not from the market, isn‚Äôt it?‚ÄĚ; ‚ÄúBK Lala also was arrested from his house and not the market, isn‚Äôt it?‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúThey were not exchanging money. It‚Äôs you who framed us, isn‚Äôt it?‚ÄĚ she says.
In an explosive and shocking admission, constable Mankar not only admits to all of this repeatedly, he also further states that the money was actually seized from Lala‚Äôs house and advises her to stay in Delhi for a few months. The police have no real evidence on the case, he assures her. The case would soon fall apart in court and then she could return. Till then, all she had to do was hold her silence and not talk about what had happened.
This damning phone conversation caught in a sting recording, which is with TEHELKA, not only corroborates Soni‚Äôs account and validates both her and Linga‚Äôs innocence in the high-profile Essar pay-off case, it also shoots the lid off the murky and illegal workings of the police in the war zone of Chhattisgarh.
But this is not all. The police‚Äôs extrajudicial exertions to frame Linga and Soni ‚ÄĒ and in this instance Essar ‚ÄĒ is also exposed by another highly damaging and publicly released video testimony by Jairam Khora, sarpanch of Badapadar panchayat in Odisha.
According to Khora, he was arrested by the Odisha Police on 14 September and handed over to the Chhattisgarh Police for questioning. The Chhattisgarh Police detained him illegally and tortured him brutally for eight days. ‚ÄúThey tied my feet like this,‚ÄĚ says Khora in his statement, and crosses his hands, ‚ÄúThen they put a stick between my legs. Two policemen then hung me up and two beat me with a stick. They beat me a lot‚Ä¶ then they took me to the Dantewada SP and forcibly took a statement from me…‚ÄĚ Khora was kept in illegal detention till 19 September when he was produced before a magistrate and later released on 21 September.
In the statement forced by the police, Khora was made to say that he had gone with Lala to meet the Naxal commanders and hand over the money. But according to Khora, no such thing had happened. His only connection with Lala is a plant that the latter owns in his panchayat; and the he had got Lala to perform for his village: 15-20 tubewells, a new school building and the repair of an old one.
So why were the police so bent on framing Soni, Linga and the Essar group? To understand this, to understand the real Kafkaesque horror of what Soni and Linga have been going through; to understand why they are being targeted; to understand the horribly snarled nature of the battleground in Chhattisgarh, one has to go back to the beginning.
UNLIKE THE¬†usual stereotype of the dispossessed and voiceless tribal, Soni Sori comes from a politically active and well-to-do tribal family. Her father Madru Ram Sori, a respected and kindly man, has been a sarpanch for 15 years. Her uncle is a former Communist Party of India MLA. Her elder brother is in the Congress. And Linga, her nephew, is a luminously intelligent boy, who studied journalism in Delhi at an institute in Noida, to arm himself with the necessary skills for truth-telling.
Soni herself is an irrepressible woman. She was taught and mentored by Himanshu Kumar both at her own school and at his ashram. Currently, she is a government employed school teacher at an ashram for tribal children in Jabeli. Sitting in the TEHELKA office a few days ago, she said proudly, ‚ÄúI want to go back and help my people. I want to use my education to empower them and help them stand on their feet. If we don‚Äôt learn to speak for ourselves, we tribal people will be wiped out.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúLinga is also like that,‚ÄĚ she continued. ‚ÄúHe has this flame inside him. He doesn‚Äôt want to be either with the police or the Naxals, he just wants to fight for his own people.‚ÄĚ
Witnessing such guileless zeal can evoke a pang. As Binayak Sen, Himanshu Kumar, Kopa Kunjam and dozens of other lesser-known activists found out, being outspoken or idealistic can be dangerous business in a theatre of war. And the desire for principled neutrality in such a space is not only a wishful impossibility, it is at the tragic heart of the assaults on Linga and Soni. And others.
Two senior CRPF officers from Dantewada, both of whom wish to remain unnamed, confirm this. ‚ÄúYou have to take sides here,‚ÄĚ they said. ‚ÄúYou have to be either with the police and the paramilitary forces or with the Naxals. You cannot try to be in the middle.‚ÄĚ
Dantewada district, especially the area in which Linga and Soni live ‚ÄĒ Palnar, Sameli, Jabeli, Geedam ‚ÄĒ is a Maoist stronghold. The region is thickly forested and has both Naxal and CRPF camps: a radioactive zone for suspicion, ambushes, killings and counter-killings.
As Himanshu says, ‚ÄúTo live there has itself become a crime.‚ÄĚ If you side with the police, the Maoists will kill you as informers. If you humour the Naxals, you are constantly fair game for the police.
Soni and Linga wanted to be neither. They wanted their Constitutional rights: equal citizenship and rule of law. They wanted to reclaim their home from the exploitative jaws of contractors, politicians, police ‚ÄĒ and even the Maoists. They fought to get minimum wages of tribals raised from Rs 60 to Rs 120; fought for the rights of mine workers; and kicked up a row about senior police officials pocketing huge money from the illegal teak trade, generated in the name of ‚Äújungle clearing‚ÄĚ to thwart the Maoist movement.
Their assertions brought them into the radar of both the Maoists and the police. The Maoists invited Linga to join their ranks but he apparently refused. In fact, he once wrote a strong letter to Ganesh Ram Ukey, a powerful Maoist commander and head of five divisions, berating him for their methods and the troubles Maoist attacks brought on innocent tribals. Both he and his aunt also quarrelled with local Maoist leaders when they wanted to bring down the Indian flag on Independence Day this year at Soni‚Äôs ashram and raise their red one.
But that was only one front of the war. Their assertiveness in the neighbourhood also brought Soni and Linga into conflict with Avdesh Gautam, a powerful local Thakur contractor and Congress activist, who had started out as a constable and had strong links within the police. Gautam had old political enmities with the Sori family. Their growing clout in the area made him very uncomfortable. When Soni got an independent contract from the district collector to build her own school, Gautam allegedly began to resent her inroads into his core business.
Realising their potential as key eyes and ears in an impenetrable zone, the police began to pressure both Soni and Linga to become full-fledged informers. On 30 August 2009, Linga was forcibly hauled from his house and kept in a police station toilet for 40 days. The cops denied he had even been picked up till Linga‚Äôs elder brother Masaram and Himanshu filed a habeas corpus petition in the Chhattisgarh High Court. He was released on 10 October.
Shockingly, the very next day, the police picked up Masaram and accused him of securing the release of a ‚ÄėNaxalite‚Äô. Himanshu went back to court and Masaram was let off. But such harassments continued till Himanshu finally convinced Linga to leave Dantewada and come to Delhi before one or the other war front destroyed him.
With Linga gone and becoming increasingly vocal in the national media about police atrocities and unsustainable resource capture, the police began to train their guns on Soni, harassing her to urge Linga to come back. Having failed to turn him into an informer, they now wanted to declare him a Maoist under any pretext.
Linga wrote to a powerful Maoist commander berating him for his methods. Soni and Linga also came into conflict with a local Congress activist
One of the CRPF commanders puts it most starkly and unequivocally: ‚ÄúSoni and Linga were targeted to protect the interest of the non-tribal majority against the aboriginal minority. Earlier, the tribals didn‚Äôt have a voice, but these two people changed that. Lingaram becoming a journalist was a grave threat to them as he could expose them. A tribal asserting his or her right is a big issue for them. They want to make sure there is no tribal voice.‚ÄĚ
IN JULY¬†2010, all these simmering tensions came to a head. A terrible incident set a vicious cycle into motion that could ensure that at least these two tribal voices will either be silenced forever or tamed into submission.
On 7 July 2010, the Maoists struck Gautam in a brutal attack. Close to 100 Naxals and 150 villagers led by commander Ganesh Ukey circled his house. Gautam‚Äôs son was injured; his brother-in-law and servant were killed.
One story goes that the Maoists had asked Gautam to collect Rs 2 crore from the area as protection money, which he had failed to do. This was a warning note. Another story goes that Gautam was trying to centralise all the PDS distribution in the region from his own house, using the Maoists as a curtain and they wanted to teach him a lesson. His argument was that too much of the rations were being forceleaked to the Maoists and operating the ration distribution from his house would ensure the correct people would get it. Gautam hotly denies this. ‚ÄúI have never dabbled in rations or the PDS,‚ÄĚ he told TEHELKA.
Gautam, however, used this undoubtedly tragic assault to settle scores with his own rivals. He named 60 people as the accused in his FIR, some of them perhaps genuine aggressors. But he also named Soni Sori and her husband Anil Putane. According to Gautam, Putane (who owns a restaurant business in Geedam) was driving his Mahindra Bolero in circles around the house while it was being attacked.
(Javed, an independent photographer from Mumbai, who has been fearlessly recording the conflict in Chhattisgarh, was also apparently named among the attackers. Another voice to be silenced.)
Soni and Putane have alibis. That night Putane and his Bolero were apparently in Jagdalpur, where he had gone to visit his sick mother-in-law in hospital. Soni was at her ashram in Jabeli.
But more tellingly, even Gautam himself is cagey about having included their names in his FIR. When TEHELKA asked him how he had managed to spot them in all the bloody mayhem, he evasively said some of the names had only been included after police probes. He insisted he had seen Putane‚Äôs Bolero in the glow of the streetlights, but would not elaborate on Soni.
He has a reason to be cagey. The police arrested Putane and seized his Bolero on 10 July but did not move against Soni.
Three days later, on 13 July, in a ludicrous and blatantly motivated press conference, the notorious SSP of Dantewada, SRP Kalluri, declared Lingaram Kodopi to be the ‚Äúmastermind‚ÄĚ behind the attack on Gautam. The police also claimed that over the past few months, ‚ÄúKodopi had received training in terrorist techniques in Delhi and Gujarat (SIC)‚ÄĚ and that Linga was ‚Äúin touch‚ÄĚ with writer Arundhati Roy, activist Medha Patkar, and Nandini Sundar, sociology professor at Delhi University.
‚ÄėLinga becoming a journalist was a threat to the non-tribal majority. They want to ensure that there‚Äôs no tribal voice,‚Äô reveals a CRPF commander
Linga, of course, was in Delhi studying to be a journalist at the time of the attack. The huge uproar over Kalluri‚Äôs defamatory and untenable accusations forced Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwaranjan to retract the statement.
But neither Soni nor Linga‚Äôs troubles ended there.
UNION HOME¬†Minister P Chidambaram recently said the Naxal conflict claims more lives than terrorism. But weirdly, life is only one of the sad casualties of the low-intensity war raging through India‚Äôs heartland.