Interview with Adivasi school teacher Soni Sori, the candidate for the Aam Aadmi Party in the Bastar Lok Sabha constituency
The Indian state’s war against Maoists has resulted in the incarceration of thousands of Adivasis in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere, many of them on flimsy charges. They continue languishing in state prisons, with very bleak prospects of speedy trials.
In Soni Sori’s case, it took a Supreme Court bench to finally grant her permanent bail last month, but not before she had spent about two years in various prisons. Ms Sori was a teacher in a government-run tribal school in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district when the police issued a lookout notice for her. They charged her and her nephew of acting as Maoist conduits. They alleged that the two of them had been in touch with a contractor and a General Manager of Essar Steel for facilitating funds for the Maoists. Ms Sori escaped to Delhi, but she was arrested from a bus stop on October 4, 2011.
After repeated requests, a lower court in Delhi allowed the Chhattisgarh police to take her on remand. Subsequent medical examinations revealed that she had been tortured in prison. A few months after their arrest, the two employees of Essar Steel were granted bail by a Dantewada district court. But the Chhattisgarh High Court, last year in July, denied the same to Ms Sori and her nephew.
After the Supreme Court’s intervention, an earlier restriction on Ms Sori to travel to Chhattisgarh was also lifted. She has returned home to take care of her daughters. Soni Sori said, in an interview with Rahul Pandita, that she will begin campaigning a day after Holi. She said she will go to all the interior villages where candidates of other political parties don’t venture into, to bring a little semblance of hope in the lives of the people there. Excerpts:
What made you decide to join politics?
I felt if I have to change things in Bastar, politics is the only way. I realised that it was only through politics that I can empower myself, and when I am empowered, I would be able to empower people in Bastar as well. The freedom of my people has been curtailed. I want to give their freedom back to them.
Why did you choose the Aam Aadmi Party?
I have fought a long battle. All this while, when I was going through an ordeal, no one from any political party came to support me. It was the AAP which approached me. Its leaders said they wanted to field me as their candidate in Bastar. I thought about it and came to the conclusion that this was the only way to reach out to the people. I have the party’s support and I want to bring about a change.
What are your priorities as a Lok Sabha candidate?
Bastar has turned into a battlefield today. Innocent tribals are being killed for no fault of theirs. Gunpowder has entered into the lives of people there. Bastar is my birth place. And my first priority will be to replace guns with education. Some of those who witnessed the recent Maoist attack in Jeeram Valley say many of the guerillas were women and children. They were carrying guns. Children should not be carrying guns; they should have pens in their hands.
Before I was imprisoned, there were 100 children enrolled in the school where I taught. Now there are only seven. Where have these children gone?
What kind of challenges do you foresee in your political journey?
The biggest challenge is that what the government did to me must not be repeated – not only to me, but to anyone else. I fear that the more I speak the truth, the more I’ll subject myself to danger. But I cannot keep silent any longer. I will not be deterred. What the government and the police have done to the poor Adivasis must be known to all. The truth has to come out.
Is there anything you’d like to tell the Maoists?
What do I tell them except that the gun solves nothing; the only way forward is through peace, through dialogue. Bastar has seen enough of violence. Let’s all work together to put an end to this bloodshed.
I want to make sure that hundreds of innocent tribals, who are currently in prison, are freed. They tell me: “Sister, we have been here for ten years. When will we come out? Help us.” And I ask them to have hope. I tell them that the world is watching.