Dividing Lines: Sori’s story – How an adivasi turns fugitive

Ms Sori claims laws and policemen turn every adivasi into a poacher.

The history of disasters brings with it a new narrative of heroes and heroines, men and women whose life, whatever the flaws, becomes an epic of the times. The battle against Sardar Sarovar Dam created Medha Patkar, the Chipko movement gave us Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Manipur produced Irom Sharmila and the struggles of Rajasthan created Aruna Roy and others dreaming of a Right to Information Act as a way of reinventing democracy. Each of these activists have also been theorists and storytellers, capturing the pain and poignancy of their times. Police atrocities in Chhattisgarh added another eloquent Cassandra-like figure: Soni Sori. Soni Sori is an adivasi, a woman raped and tortured by the police, who survived rape and torture to create a new poetics of resistance.

There is something candid, open and courageous about her; a phenomenal reflectiveness created by thinking about pain confronting the violence of the State. Ms Sori has an easy conversational style, candid about violence, uncanny about evil, matter of fact in her metaphors. She is a woman who can quietly call a spade a shovel, and lucidly spell out the violence in Chhattisgarh. My activist friends from the Campaign for Peace and Justice in Chhattisgarh (CPJC) allowed me to listen to a set of conversations with her. Listening to her sense of care, concern, courage and detail, one sensed one was in the presence of an extraordinary figure. Ms Sori introduces herself as an adivasi and a woman, a teacher in an aganwadi, who once dreamt the traditional middle-class dreams of a secure job and a house, content with her lot. She explains she was an ordinary adivasi who was tortured and then became the “face” of adivasis confronting atrocities in Bastar.
She explains how violence and governance survive amid lies. She says the very use of the word “Naxalism” hides a lie. The State uses “Naxal” as a blanket word for the seditious, those threatening security, who don’t believe in democracy or the prevalent system. The word “Naxal”, in this sense, becomes a death sentence — an invitation to torture and rape. It is only a pretext to eliminate adivasis. The genocide of adivasis begins with a lie, she claims, as what the government wants is land and the adivasi stands in the way. What is real estate or rent to the State is “jal, jungle, jamin” to the adivasis. Ms Sori always uses these three words together, because as a triptych they show connectivity. It is an ecology of soil, water and forest, a way of looking at life and a livelihood. The adivasi can’t think of a universe without land and the forest. It is a cosmos, a sacrament, a commons, a label for all the rituals of everydayness. Ms Sori is matter of fact: “Jal, jangal, jamin” is leading to the elimination of adivasis. She adds that an adivasi lives within nature, which is his asset and competence. “If you take away our land, and take away our future, why won’t we fight you?” asks Ms Sori.

Then she laughs. “You people want land to build an airport. You want to create an airport so people can fly to Mumbai. An adivasi in Chhattisgarh doesn’t go as far as Raipur, what does he need an airport for? The planes are for the rich to roam around.” She talks of Salwa Judum, a state-supported militia which unleashed violence before the Supreme Court reined it in. “During Salwa Judum, over 800 villages were cleared. They are with the sarkar. We can’t return to the villages and today the government has imposed Salwa Judum-2, unleashing a regime of terror and extermination against the adivasi.” Ms Sori explains pain, suffering and atrocities become a rite of passage from innocence and vulnerability to resistance. She thinks about her own story, her sense of shame after she was raped. Sitting in prison, she met two other women who had also suffered police atrocities. They told her candidly and in a spirit of comradeship that she was not the only object of torture. They took her near the bathroom and opened their bodies, which had been subject to electric currents.

“The government calls us a law and order problem when it is violating the rule of law. My humiliation made me brave. I knew I was hardly literate, but I sense the humanity in me that wanted to fight. In that sense, I am Gandhiwadi. I won’t pick up the gun, my ideas are my revolution.” Then, almost in a reverie, as if she was talking to herself, she told her interviewer: “Dada, I have thought about it many times over, (on) why I am not scared of them any more. I try to recollect the way they tortured me, to push myself to feel the fear. When I was in hospital after the recent attack, I even thought about my daughter having to go through a similar experience of being violated. Even that thought is unable to spark any fear in my mind. What to do? Is it that I am mad that I have stopped fearing the State and the likes of (IGP) Kalluri and (SP) Ankit Garg?” She adds: “The law in Chhattisgarh only exists in books.” Think when an adivasi objects to a police camp on his land, the police is stunned at his temerity. He only claims his land, yet the police calls him a Naxal sympathiser. Ms Sori claims laws and policemen turn every adivasi into a poacher. For her, a tribal takes the wood he needs.

The companies destroy through greed. It is the government that is the chief violator of laws, she says. Ms Sori admits suffering recreated her. “Torture,” she says, “is like a blacksmith’s forge. You beat iron again and again till it is right. Torture is a forge that created the adivasi struggle. Maarke paka diya.” Ms Sori sits quietly: a woman, a housewife, a teacher, an anganwadi worker and activist. She captures the everydayness of struggle: being, prudent, courageous and optimistic. It’s a heroism that governments are afraid of. She captures the suffering of millions and their silence in an act of poetic resistance. No authority can erase that.

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