Soni Sori has become a poster child for all that ails Chhattisgarh’s police and legal system.
One evening in September this year, 36-year-old Soni Sori made her way through the trackless forests of Dantewada until, finding herself in the footprint of a cellular transceiver, she telephoned her way into the national papers. “It’s all false, it’s all false,” she said, when she called this correspondent, “We are being framed by the police. I’ve escaped.”
The next morning, dailies reported claims that the police had arrested B.K. Lala, a mining contractor, and Ms. Sori’s nephew Lingaram Kodopi in a crowded marketplace in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district and had accused them of ferrying money from the Essar Group to cadres of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) in a deal to protect the company’s assets in rebel controlled territories. Spokespersons for Essar and the Maoists denied the allegations.
A woman Maoist, the police claimed, escaped in the confusion; the woman was Soni Sori, a teacher in a government school in a forest village of Jabeli, and her testimony that Mr. Lala and Mr. Kodopi were apprehended in their homes, rather than caught red handed in a market place, would return to haunt the police investigation.
As the police interrogated and arrested suspects, including the general manager of Essar’s iron ore beneficiation plant in Dantewada, Ms. Sori slipped through Chhattisgarh’s porous borders, kept journalists aware of her movements, and recorded a video ‘sting’ operation with Tehelka magazine. The clip, now uploaded on YouTube, shows her speaking on the phone with a policeman [off camera] who claims that the entire Essar investigation is a hoax. Ms. Sori was arrested soon after, on October 5 in Delhi, and continues to be heavily covered by the press.
What began as a side story to the Essar case has developed into a full blown media storm that has sidelined an investigation into alleged pay-offs between one of India’s largest corporate houses and a rebel outfit frequently described as India’s greatest security threat.
As a co-accused in the case, Ms. Sori’s allegations must be treated with due caution, as must the video sting which is yet to be independently verified. Yet, Ms. Sori’s actions reveal a thoughtful, strong-willed woman teetering on the precipice of public visibility, fighting against the oblivion of incarceration and judicial delay.
On December 31, 2010, the prison population of Chhattisgarh stood at 12, 923, sixty per cent of whom were still under trial and presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Dantewada, the district where Ms. Sori was presented in court last week, had 557 undertrials and only 4 convicts crammed into a jail designed for 250 persons.
“A convicted man knows when he will be freed. His clock switches on the moment he steps into prison,” said a senior jail officer seeking anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the press, “But an under trial is a coin tossed up in the air, he doesn’t know which way he will fall.”
In 2010, the number of arrests in Dantewada had inspired a grim joke that the police, inspired by Gandhian modes of protest, had launched a ‘jail bharo andolan’ of their own. A series of high profile Maoist attacks such as the Tarmetla ambush in which 76 CRPF troopers were killed, and the bus blast at Chingavaram that claimed 15 civilians and 15 special police officers, had given the police plenty to investigate.
The Tarmetla First Information Report (FIR) named no less than 80 people; the first of whom to be arrested was Kartam Joga — a CPI worker and a lead petitioner in a writ petition filed in the Supreme Court that holds militias armed by the State of Chhattisgarh responsible for 500 murders, 99 rapes and 103 acts of arson. In September 2010, The Hindu reported that the statements of at least two eye witnesses, produced by the police in connection with the Tarmetla attack, were compromised when they said they had never spoken with the police in this regard. In January this year, 379 inmates of Dantewada jail went on a two-day hunger strike to protest against false charges filed against them.
One such under trial is a man called Anil Futani, accused of participating in a Maoist raid on Congressman Avdesh Singh Gautam’s home. Mr. Futani is Ms. Sori’s husband and has been in jail for over a year now along with six Communist Party of India (CPI) workers who were arrested in connection with the same incident. In a conversation in court, Vijay Sodi, a congress worker, jailed more than a year ago for allegedly participating in the Chingavaram blast, said he had no idea when his trial would conclude.
Since her arrest, media reports have sought to resolve the paradox of Ms. Sori’s life: she, her husband and her nephew, Lingaram Kodopi, have been jailed for supporting the Maoists, while Maoist fighters shot her father through the leg last month for not obeying the party’s diktats. In an audio clip sent to this correspondent, Maoist spokesperson Gudsa Usendi, has distanced his organisation from the Sori clan.
In a ‘Tightrope Walker’, a1923 lithograph by German painter Paul Klee, a stick figure looks over his shoulder as he balances himself on a wire strung over a clutter of interconnected linear forms that just offset each other creating a moment of profound tension. In the light of events past, it isn’t hard to see Soni Sori as that figure finding her footing on a wire strung high above the intersecting paths of rebels, troopers, mining companies and kinsmen; her balance bar held somewhere between guilt and innocence.