Is the Attack on Soni Sori Part of a Larger Plan for Bastar?

As journalists, scholars, lawyers and political activists documenting the unfolding tragedy in Chhattisgarh are systematically hounded out of the region, fears mount for what’s in store for Bastar’s adivasis

Soni Sori. Credit: Beijing +20 WHRD Campaign

Soni Sori. Credit: Beijing +20 WHRD Campaign

An atmosphere of terror prevails in Bastar in Chhattisgarh.  Every update from the ground is chilling and reminds us that the administration is clearly against those who are trying to revive the corpse of democracy in the area. Four recent developments on the ground highlight how the state government is intent on hounding hope out of the region.

Adivasi activist and Aam Aadmi Party leader Soni Sori was attacked by some unknown assailants near Kodenar in Bastar on the evening of February 20. Three men forcibly stopped her vehicle on the road and threw some black substance on her face, causing intense burning and pain. She was taken to the Geedam hospital and later moved to Jagdalpur hospital.

AAP leader Soni Sori, being treated in hospital after unidentified assailants threw an unknown black substance on her face. Credit: Alok Putul

AAP leader Soni Sori, being treated in hospital after unidentified assailants threw an unknown black substance on her face. Credit: Alok Putul

Sori had been receiving continuous threats for her work to affirm the rights of the adivasis.

In the past few months, several attempts were made to terrorise her. She was hounded by mobs. Her house was raided. She was issued death threats. On Saturday, the police asked her to vacate her house on the claim that the title to her house was defective. This was done even when no house in the area has been issued a patta by the state.

Lawyers evicted

This attack on Soni comes on the heels of the forced eviction of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group .

The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, known as ‘JagLAG’, came into existence in July 2013 to do legal research and provide legal help to the people of the Bastar, Dantewada, Kanker, Sukma, and Bijapur districts of Chattisgarh who regularly face imprisonment and false cases as a consequence of the state’s counter-insurgency operations. Since then, they have been providing legal aid – a fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution of India, to hundreds of tribals in the region. Due to their persistent work as people’s lawyers they have managed to intervene in cases of blatant human rights violations and ensure the acquittal and release of many. However this has also resulted in the state administration vilifying them as ‘Maoist supporters’.

The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group at work, from left to right: Guneet Kaur, Isha Khandelwal, Shalini Gera, and Parijatha Bhardwaj. Credit: Manish

The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group at work, from left to right: Guneet Kaur, Isha Khandelwal, Shalini Gera, and Parijatha Bhardwaj. Credit: Manish

A recent urgent appeal issued by JagLAG on February 18, 2016, mentions how the police administration at Jagdalpur has been pressuring the landlord of the group’s office to evict the lawyers. The landlord, who is a driver by profession, was taken to the local police station and his car was impounded. On being brought back by the police, he informed the lawyers that he had no option but to ask them to vacate the premises and office within a week.

On Thursday, the legal aid group released a statement that said, “All who are challenging the official narrative are being silenced. Social mobilisations are being orchestrated by the police to provide a cover to their illegal harassment of journalists, lawyers, activists… Unable to stop us from continuing our work here, the police have now resorted to threatening others associated with us.”

Such intimidation of lawyers by the state deters them from performing their roles and is tantamount to obstructing the administration of justice.

With no place to work from, the group left Jagdalpur yesterday.

Scholar targeted

Apart from Soni Sori and JagLAG, the well-known scholar, Bela Bhatia, is also facing pressure to pack up and leave. A PhD. from the University of Cambridge, Bhatia lives in Bastar has been working for Adivasi women’s rights. She was instrumental in getting the first FIR for sexual violence lodged against a security personnel in Bastar. As part of a team from Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), she co-authored a recent report on looting and sexual violence by the security forces in Bijapur, south Chhattisgarh.

Now, pressure on Bhatia to leave Jagdalpur is mounting. She was threatened and subjected to sloganeering of a self-proclaimed anti-Maoist group called the Samajik Ekta Manch. She approached various representatives of the local administration who while admitting the hounding was bad did not provide any assurance to put an end to the same.

Journalist hounded out

The ouster of JagLAG and the pressure on Bela Bhatia is chillingly similar to Malini Subramaniam’s eviction.

Former head of the International Red Cross in Chhattisgarh, Malini Subramaniam is a journalist who writes about the region for Scroll.in. She extensively reported on human rights violations including tribal protests against police atrocities, allegations of sexual violence by the security forces and fake encounters in Bastar.

On February 7, she was warned by the Samajik Ekta Manch, to not tarnish the image of the police. They demonstrated outside her house, raising slogans like “Naxal samarthak murdabad” and “Bharat Mata ki jai”. The same night, unidentified persons threw stones at her house and shattered her car’s rear window.

The police took two days to register an FIR. Neighbours who supported Subramaniam’s claims were threatened. A Scroll editor met the state CM Raman Singh and requested him to intervene. Following this, the inspector general of police in Bastar, SRP Kalluri, and district superintendent of police RN Dash, visited Malini’s house and assured her that the investigation would be fair and her family would be safe. They told her that she could continue her work without any fear.

However, SEM kept on demonstrating against her. Her landlord was summoned from Raipur to Jagdalpur by the police. Her domestic help was subjected to several hours of interrogation. A day later, she received an eviction notice from her landlord. By evening, the SEM was demonstrating outside her lawyer’s house. Fearing for her safety, she left Jagdalpur.

The big picture

These attacks on journalists, the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, Bela Bhatia and now Soni Sori mean one thing – the small window that Bastar had to communicate with the world, to be heard, is being shut down ruthlessly. Prior to this, the administration has also put pressure on the Communist Party of India and its leaders and activists. The notorious Salwa Judum, which was banned by the Supreme Court following a PIL, is being revived in all but name. This makes it clear that what we are witnessing are not random incidents of violence but a larger, well thought out plan to silence the Adivasi population of the region.

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    The minute I read about Soni’s attack I knew its a part of bigger conspiracy as a day before scroll.in journalist Malini and JLAG lawyers had packed their bags due to forced eviction. And Today, the PM didn’t mention anything about Bastar. How could he not say a word about Chhattisgarh’s most news making piece being in Chhattisgarh? He’s all praise for the CM and I ask why? How can one praise him when a larger portion of his state is under threat not only by naxalites but by the CRPF and police as well. Our PM said his government is for poor and dalits and yet no mention of Bastar. These people are already tormented by the naxalites who are nothing but goons in uniform and now other goons in different uniform are taking over them. Where will these people go? It makes me cry everytime I read about them, they have no life in this era where India is seen as a competitor to developed nations. Here we are going to movies, malls and partying even on non occasions and there they take turns to sleep in the jail cell because there’s no space. They are picked up by the naxals to be cut into pieces after dont know what kind of torture, they are piked up by police without FIR, they are picked by CRPF because “they are too stressed living in jungle” and yet they are not worth mention in PM’s speech in their land.