You recently met Soni Sori. How is she coping with her situation? Where does the case stand now?
I met Soni Sori as well as her nephew – the adivasi journalist, Lingaram Kodopi – both in Jagdalpur jail as well as Dantewada court. Soni had six cases against her. She has been acquitted in four for lack of evidence and she’s already got bail in one case. There’s one more left though, where bail is pending. Ironically, in this case too, B K Lala, the alleged contractor who was to give the money to get his work done, as well as the manager of Essar company who is supposed to gain if there is such money are out on bail. The only two people who are still in jail in this case are Lingaram Kodopi and Soni Sori, who have no evidence against themselves. To my mind, as a lawyer, even if we admit the entire chargesheet – there’s no case to be made against either Soni Sori or Lingaram. They are being falsely implicated and framed.
I speak for Linga and Soni, and they are asking, “Why are we being targeted, why are we being abandoned?” I think the answer lies in what the lady prosecutor said in a very brief argument in the court. Her argument was that all the offences were made out against the accused. Secondly, that these were grave crimes. Thirdly, that it was a Naxal-affected area. As far I see it, the first one is her legal opinion. Second one is a statement of fact. Third one is not a statement that can be made in the court of law. Whether it is a Naxal-affected area or not should not influence a court of law. Each case has to stand on the basis of evidence presented to the court. In this case, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act as well as the charge of waging war against the state have been used to overwhelm the court – to make the court think that these are Naxal leaders. They are only interested in continued incarceration.
Her husband Anil Futane died last month. There were allegations that he had suffered torture…
In Soni’s case especially, this state project of victimising adivasis has reached inhuman levels. At the court, I met her father, who had come walking on crutches. He had tied a piece of cloth on his foot, which had swollen. He has a bullet wound on his leg, which is not healing and the fate of the leg is not looking good. He was shot in the leg by Naxals as he had refused to be a Naxal informer. Soni Sori’s husband Anil Futane also had several cases against him before he got acquitted and released. He spent several years in jail and suffered torture. He died of ill-health – which must have deteriorated during his time in jail, owing to the poor diet. Soni Sori wasn’t even granted an interim bail when her husband’s funeral was performed. They were all projected as Naxalites. Here’s a family that’s playing out the human tragedy that adivasis in Chhattisgarh are experiencing. They have three children – who have been destituted and are without any parental care.
In Soni’s case, how do we understand the way courts behaved and ask questions without inviting contempt?
I will not comment on the court that’s currently seeing the particular case. But in Jagdalpur, I met with a few judges and prosecutors to understand the situation here. I also met a lot of undertrials in Dantewada jail. After conversations with judicial officers, lawyers, undertrials and prison officials, it’s clear that observations are the same – most of the adivasis in these prisons have been charged under what are called ‘Naxal cases’. Off the record, these people will tell you, these adivasi villagers, whose village the Naxals visit, are not Naxalites. It’s undeniable that Naxals operate in those areas. The forces do not go into interiors and they do not risk keeping proximity to Naxals as they fear loss of life. The villagers are later picked up in large numbers. Witnesses don’t turn up to give evidence – not because they are petrified of adivasis – but because most witnesses are police and public officials. Hence these cases drag on and on for years. In south Chhattisgarh, the conviction rate in all Naxal cases is 3 percent. In this case too, what is the link the prosecution is making between Lingaram, Soni Sori and the Naxals? Where is the criminal conspiracy? There is a line in the chargesheet without evidence or witness statement. It goes, “They have other Naxal cases against them.” How can a court say I will convict you here because you have other cases elsewhere? The irony here is that they have been acquitted in all other cases. The two, who have nothing to do with the case, are languishing in jail.