The campaign to free Soni Sori broke new ground on Wednesday 12 December, with the first street protest for her immediate release being organised at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. It was a small beginning, with fewer than 200 college students and a handful of civil society activists carrying out a march; a turnout blamed by organisers on college exams. âThis is only the beginning,â said Madhushree Das, one of the organisers, âand we will continue the protest and plan something big for January, when the students are back on campuses.â
One man, however, was not in the least disheartened with the turnout. Piyush Guha was a tendu leaf businessman in Chhattisgarh with little involvement in politics, when he was arrested along with Binayak Sen and Narayan Sanyal in 2007, and charged with sedition in what became the biggest political trial in recent memory. Jailed in the same Raipur Central Jail where Sori continues to be lodged, Guha was released in 2011 after the Supreme Court granted him bail. âI never imagined so many youths would come to support Soni Sori,â he says of the low turnout. âIf there’s anything this era has taught us, it’s that we are on our own. But there is a potential in this crowd for a bigger campaign. Our generation of political leaders either never did anything for us or failed in the attempt, but the young men and women who came today to support a woman they do not know show that there is still humanity in the next generation.â
There are parallels between Guha’s and Sori’s incarcerations. Neither was considered a Maoist by the state establishment, yet both were arrested; a sign that the State is expanding its campaign to silence even the voices on the periphery of the conflict, anyone it considers collaborators or sympathisers, he says. âThe government wants the people on the periphery not to speak, not to think.â The parallels breed empathy âreason Guha was at Jadavpur for the rally. âWhen I was in solitary confinement, my biggest fear was that the people had forgotten us,â he says. âHearing about the nationwide campaign for our release gave us succour, and the initiation of this campaign will give her hope.â
Guha recounts the horrors of the jail hospital, which denied Sori medical aid as her health deteriorated and proceeded to give her a clean bill of health. âYou get nothing in the jail hospital,â he says. âEven though there are nominally three doctors responsible for it, it is actually run by a compounder. No inmate ever gets treatment there. People are afraid to go there, as even minor ailments can become fatal. We saw countless people dying from lack of treatment in front of our eyes. I remember one inmate who committed suicide because he was being denied treatment even when the Raipur Medical College is just across the road.â
Medical care is available, he says, but at a price. âIf you can pay Rs 100, you’ll get an injection. Cough medicine comes for Rs 50. If you can pay Rs 500, you can even be treated at the medical college. Of course, if you are branded a Maoist, you can forget about that.â The entire prison, he says, runs on bribes, with career criminals scouring the local newspapers for news of wealthier people being arrested. âThere are a lot of simple village youths in custody on false charges of being Maoists,â he says. âThey cannot afford to get even the basic necessities in jail.â
Even release from prison has not been kind to Guha. Prison meant the end of his tendu business, as his partners were unable to sustain it in Chhattisgarh after his arrest. âEconomically speaking, I only have my loans,â he says. âEven if my creditors don’t pressure me to return their money, I know it’s at the back of their minds. I’m starting not from zero, but from minus [sic].â He lost both his parents in the course of his arrest, famously not being allowed to attend their last rites, even by the Supreme Court. âThe police repeatedly raided my house after my arrest,â he says, âand my wife and parents had to move house three or four times. Eventually, my parents decided to move back to their village, as the police hounding had made living in Kolkata an unsustainable proposition. It was impossible to continue my father’s treatment in the village, and he died of a cardiac arrest two years later.â
Guha, however, insists he has no regrets. âI understand that I faced some personal losses,â he says. âAnd I do regret those, sometimes. But jail gave me time to think. My years in prison have strengthened my conviction to stand up against injustice. I cannot forget all those unknown people who helped me. I have to stand up for all those other people I don’t know. It is my social obligation.â
I ask him whether he intends to become a full-time activist. “First I need to survive,” he says.