The tribal people of Chhattisgarh are in an extremely dangerous situation, caught as they are between the state forces and the Maoists.
THIRTY-SIX-YEAR-OLD Soni Sori, an Adivasi schoolteacher from Chhattisgarh, was arrested in Delhi on October 4 on charges of acting as a conduit between the Essar group and the Maoists, the former accused of giving protection money to the latter. On October 7, she moved the Delhi High Court to prevent the Chhattisgarh Police from taking her back to the State as she feared for her life. Her appeal was rejected.
When Frontline visited her, she was lying prone, chained to her bed, in a Jagdalpur hospital, where she had been admitted with head and spinal injuries, apparently sustained in police custody. The police maintained that she had slipped in the bathroom and sustained the injuries. On October 20, the Supreme Court directed the Chhattisgarh government to shift her to a hospital in Kolkata, West Bengal, for further treatment.
Earlier, on September 9, her 25-year-old nephew, Lingaram Kodopi, a freshly trained journalist, was arrested in Palnar in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh, on the same charge.
Madru Ram, Soni's father and Lingaram's grandfather, too, lies in a hospital bed in Jagdalpur, in pain, and anxious about the fate of his family. On the night of June 14, armed Maoists had burst into his home in the village of Bade Bedma and shot him in his right leg. They ransacked the place and spirited away the family's belongings gold, sacks of grain, even the 30 cows tethered outside.
Are Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi really Maoists, or even Maoist sympathisers? And if they are, why were Madru Ram and the rest of the family attacked so brutally by the Maoists? Were the aunt-nephew duo framed in the Essar pay-off case, as a sting operation conducted by Tehelka magazine suggests?
These are not questions that have simple answers.
In Battleground Dantewada today, as it has been the case for the past few years, Adivasis who wish to continue living in their villages do so at their own peril. They can become Special Police Officers (SPOs) and join the dreaded Koya Commandos (members of the once legal Salwa Judum, a vigilante group created by the state, now declared illegal by the Supreme Court) and terrorise fellow Adivasis. Or they can join the Maoists and terrorise fellow Adivasis.
In the sun-dappled, sylvan glades of Bastar, there is no third choice unless you are prepared to give up on life itself, as Madru Ram told a journalist recently.
Last year, when Soni and Lingaram were accused of being party to the attack on Avdhesh Gautam, a local Congress leader and wealthy contractor, Madru Ram went to meet S.R.P. Kalluri, then Dantewada's Senior Superintendent of Police.
According to a newspaper account, when Kalluri asked Madru Ram why Soni lived and worked in an interior area, he replied that she needed the job to feed her three children. To this, Kalluri responded that she must be going to the meetings of the Maoists and giving them supplies. Madru Ram's riposte was: Sir, doesn't everybody? The SSP then asked, Do you? And he replied, No, but then I am an old man, I can afford to die.What could be more tragic than this?Lingaram's crime
This writer met Lingaram for the first time in the last week of January 2010. He was living in Delhi at the time as the guest of a non-governmental organisation, having fled from his native village of Sameli shortly after he was released from police custody, thanks to a habeas corpus petition that was filed for him. At that time, too, he had been charged with transporting goods to the Maoists. His real crime? He had refused to become an SPO.
On the few occasions this writer has seen him since then, he said that his ambition was to farm his land in the village, teach fellow Adivasis new farming techniques, and ferry villagers in a jeep to the town so that they could do their chores. As someone who had cleared Class IX, he might have seemed overqualified in Dantewada, where the literacy level is the lowest in the country. But in Delhi, Lingaram told this writer that he was not fit to be more than a domestic worker, even though he came from a well-to-do family. If he was forced to return to Chhattisgarh, he could be safe only if he became an SPO or joined the Maoists, who, too, had made overtures to him. But neither life, he said, would suit him.
In Delhi, he was wracked by guilt at having left behind his family and neighbours who he felt he should be helping. He finally took courage and went home and later returned with some Adivasi victims of the high-handedness of the security forces in Dantewada. He wanted them to give their testimonies to a civil rights tribunal. Spotlighting the abysmal conditions in which the Adivasis lived in the jungles of Bastar, he felt, might prick the conscience of some urban listeners.
Then Lingaram's luck appeared to turn. Shubranshu Chowdhury, a journalist, and the mainstay of Chhattisgarh Net or CG-Net, a group of people working in the central Gondwana region of Chhattisgarh to promote community participation in development through the Internet, organised a scholarship for Lingaram to do a one-year course at the International Media Institute of India in Noida, near Delhi. Lingaram was to become a trainer for Gondi-speaking Adivasis who aspired to become journalists through the CG-Net Swara project, a community platform that uses mobile phones for news dissemination in the region ( Frontline, August 12, 2011).
Lingaram received his diploma in April this year, but even before that he had begun capturing the sufferings of Adivasis in Dantewada on his video camera. Some of his reports, such as the one on the torching of Tadmetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram, can be viewed on YouTube: in their reports Adivasis say they just want justice, not a revolution. Lingaram's advantage over the few urban journalists who have ventured into the wilds of Dantewada is that he is a native Gondi speaker familiar with the terrain and also a journalist who would have stuck with his story.
Is that why he was arrested? Just as Kamlesh Paikra, another of Chowdhury's Adivasi protgs, was way back in 2006? Kamlesh was a print journalist working out of Bijapur for some Hindi newspapers. He was arrested, the then District Magistrate of Dantewada told this writer, for the crime of being found in the jungles after midnight, a time when the administration felt he should have been in bed.Kamlesh is no longer a journalist.Soni Sori
This writer met Soni Sori on January 30, 2010, first in Kirandul, the headquarters of the Bailadila iron ore mines, in Chhattisgarh, and then a few days later at her home in the village of Sameli.
She headed an ashram school (a residential government school for tribal children) in Jabeli, a village three kilometres from Sameli, earning Rs. 6,000 a month to support herself and her three children her daughters aged 12 and eight and son aged 10. Her husband, Anil Putane, lived in Geedam, to where he had fled to escape harassment by the police. There he plied two jeeps to ferry passengers across the small towns and villages of Chhattisgarh and also ran a small restaurant. Today he, too, is in jail, accused of being a Maoist.
Life was never easy for Soni and her family in Dantewada despite their relative prosperity, living and working as they did in an area where the state had abdicated its responsibilities a long time ago. In this district, there are very few schools or health facilities; foodgrains from the Public Distribution System (PDS) rarely reach the villages. Most anganwadis, as a result, are defunct, and children at the ashram schools often have nothing to eat. The nearest hospital from some villages is 80 km away and the seriously ill have to be carried there on a stretcher. Even basic medicines are not available in the district; malaria- and diarrhoea-related deaths are common, while malnutrition among children is more the norm than the exception.
Worse, Adivasis like Soni have to cope with visits both from armed Maoists, looking for recruits/police informers and the occasional meal, and from SPOs, state police and members of the Central paramilitary forces.
When this writer last visited Dantewada in early 2010, the villagers said that the SPOs had been on the rampage, looting, raping and killing. Many of the testimonies related to the events of just one day, January 23, when a combing operation by SPOs left several suspected Maoists all unarmed dead and many villages without food. Young widows, each with eyes more dead than the other's, carried infants on their hips. All barring one, who had aged before her time, looked like teenagers. Each related a horror story about a husband executed summarily by SPOs. Villagers spoke of the theft of goats, chicken and rice by the SPOs, which seemed to be a common practice.
A year and a half later, the stories from that area have not changed, as Lingaram's amateur videos reveal.
Soni Sori stood out in this sea of hopelessness like a beacon. She was determined not to be a victim, like most other Adivasi women.
Here in this conflict zone, the women can be roughly divided into three categories. One, victims of state forces, like the widows, or victims of the Maoists many have lost husbands, fathers and brothers to the armed rebels. Two, victims of a negligent and callous state: in a region where women are traditionally more active, you can often see lines of women returning from Andhra Pradesh where they go in search of work. In Dantewada, projects under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) do not exist, even though money has been spent on large cement makers, all along the roads, announcing the scheme. Three, close to half the Maoist rebels are women: the majority of them took up arms after suffering at the hands of agencies of the state.
Soni, on the other hand, wanted to fight within the democratic framework. Even after her husband fled from their village, which is about 45 km from the district headquarters of Dantewada, she continued to live there despite the uncertainties of life in a conflict zone. Their son lived with her husband in Geedam and attended school there. The elder daughter lived with her in the village, while the youngest child, who requires an annual blood transfusion, lived in a school hostel in Jagdalpur. Today, with their parents in jail, the children have taken shelter at the homes of relatives.
Given the daily horrors of living in a village in Dantewada, why did someone like Soni choose to live in the village when she, unlike many others, had the option of living in a town? It is because of her commitment to her fellow Gonds, her people as she called them, people whose voices needed to be heard. As one of the few educated persons in the village, she felt she had a responsibility towards her community. In the Dantewada context, educated translates to having cleared the Class X examinations or even less and possessing a knowledge of Hindi which, in turn, means the ability to communicate with the wider world.
Soni's continued presence in the village had made a difference to its residents and to those from the neighbouring villages. This writer was once witness to Soni taking a substantial amount from her own stock of rice, wheat and potatoes for the children of the ashram school she taught in: no foodgrains were coming for the residential school and the children would starve if she did not take something for them, she said, as though it was the most normal thing to do. What about her own depleted stock? I'll cope, she had said, smiling.
That was not all. For instance, when a local sarpanch was killed in 2009 by Maoists, she was the one who gave succour to the man's widow and 18-year-old daughter, who, devastated by the tragedy, abandoned her Class XII examinations. Similarly, when Lingaram was picked up by the police as a Maoist, she made daily trips to Dantewada town to get him released. On another occasion, when a local youth was taken away by the Maoists to be executed for acting as a police informer, she rushed to plead his case, pointing out that they had promised that they would execute offenders only after the third offence and this was just his first offence: she won the argument and the youth lived to tell the tale.
Soni's home in the village was, not surprisingly, an all-woman household. To all intents and purposes, it was like any regular home bustling with activity, filled with the aroma of cooking and the sounds of conversation, laughter and music. A television set played Bollywood fare non-stop. There were Soni's young daughters the eight-year-old was just back from a stay in hospital. And yet, clearly, it was not your average home: for the others staying there included two anganwadi workers whose husbands were not living in the village anymore, two 18-year-olds, one whose father had been executed and another who dreamt of becoming a policewoman not an SPO, not a Maoist.
Soni had learnt to cope with the Maoists and the police as well: Most people, she said, make the mistake of lying to the police when they are asked whether they have ever seen a Maoist. The best course of action is to tell the truth say Yes, they knocked on my door and asked me to give them food to eat. Since they were armed, I did not argue with them.' But if you tell the police that you have never seen a Maoist, they become suspicious.
Now, of course, her luck has run out, with her personally honed survival strategies failing her.
When this writer met her last year, Soni gave a clearheaded analysis of the situation. She said she occasionally had to be in touch with the Maoists to help fellow villagers and to protect herself and her family, but she did not believe in the revolution or violence. She also said she had no faith in the security forces or in the local administration which, she said, was in cahoots with their traditional oppressors, the wealthy Thakur and Marwari traders and contractors. The Central Reserve Police Force men, with rare exceptions, were not humane, she said.
The exception included a CRPF officer named Bruno who would visit the villagers often, listen to their problems, take sick children to hospital, explain why the Maoist ideology would not work for them and, most important, punish any policeman who had harassed them. But after he was posted out, the harassment began again.
To counter it, a Sameli resident became a sangham (Maoist) member to save the village.Essar case
In the Essar pay-off case, the Chhattisgarh Police have arrested four persons, including B.K. Lala, a contractor for Essar, and D.V.C.S. Verma, Essar's general manager. Whether money actually changed hands has not been established, but it is common knowledge that businesses, both big and small, flourish in the most difficult parts of Chhattisgarh, thanks to the protection money given to the Maoists, and with the blessings of the State government.
This writer discovered last year at the home of a prosperous Vanvasi Kalyan Kendra (a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh affiliate) leader in Raipur, who was entertaining a cross-party mix of local politicians and businessmen.
A Congress municipal councillor, who ran a bus service among other things, said private business prospered in all districts controlled by the Maoists, the so-called class enemies of big business. If the government wants, he said, the Maoists can be finished off very quickly. But no one wants that, neither the Bharatiya Janata Party nor the Congress. The traders and businessmen operating there are so happily ensconced that they do not want to leave. Our host nodded in agreement, as did everyone else in the room. Most businessmen in the State, they said, paid their taxes to the Maoists and, in return, were permitted to function unharmed.
Communist Party of India (Maoist) Polit Buro member Kishenji confirmed as much in an interview he gave Tehelka in November 2009. He said that the Maoists regularly collected taxes from the corporates and the big bourgeoisie and justified it by saying that it's not any different from the corporate sector funding the political parties.
It is in this administrative and political vacuum that Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi challenged the cosy nexus of local officials, policemen, contractors, big business and politicians and the Maoists that passes for the state here, and demanded a fair deal for the largely uneducated Adivasis.