New Delhi: Three unidentified motorcycle borne youths attacked tribal activist and Aam Aadmi Party leader Soni Sori with an acid like chemical in the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh on Saturday, leading to immediate demands for action against a senior police officer and others who have of late been trying to intimidate into silence various rights activists, lawyers and journalists writing about and seeking protection of the rights of tribals in this region.
Sori, a teacher and tribal rights activist, was headed for Geedam from Jagdalpur on a motorcycle along with two associates when she was attacked near Jawanga village around 10-40 p.m.
In her statement Sori said the culprits stopped her motorcycle a little after Bastanar Ghat and asked all the three occupants to alight. Then one of them suddenly splashed her faced with a liquid, which did not disfigure her face but caused a burning sensation. The trio then sped off.
Sori was subsequently taken to Jagdalpur hospital, where she was kept under observation. The police said she had been attacked with a liquid that “seemed to be grease diluted with chemical”.
Coming close on the heels of the forcible eviction from Bastar of a freelance journalist and a group of women lawyers providing free legal aid to the tribals, the attack is being seen by many as an attempt to intimidate rights activists in the region.
An online signature campaign, launched soon after the attack on Sori, averred to a systematic campaign to oust rights activists from the State. The petition said “in the past few months, lawyers of JAGLAG and journalists Malini Subramaniam and Bela Bhatia too have been subjected to numerous attempts to coerce them into leaving Bastar for the reason that they give voice to and defend those who are victims of State oppression.”
It observed that as per media reports, “in all these instances, the police authorities have either elected to take no action against the miscreants or have indirectly been party to their actions.”
The attack on the adivasi activist, who has emerged as a face of democratic protest in Bastar, came two days after a legal aid group of woman lawyers and a freelance journalist were forcibly evicted from their residences allegedly at the behest of Bastar police boss SRP Kalluri.
Critical of a “systematic campaign to silence Soni Sori and others who oppose government policies and actions”, the petition has demanded “that the police in Dantewada immediately take action to identify and arrest those who have physically assaulted Soni Sori in order to silence her voice.”
The petition also claimed that Sori had had “long been the target of the state, especially the Bastar IG S.R.P. Kalluri”.
In fact, Sori had claimed recently that she had gone to Raipur on February 16 to get a complaint against Kalluri registered for instigating people against her, but the police refused to do so saying he (Kalluri) was a tribal and could not be booked for atrocity.
Kalluri, who finds himself in the eye of the storm, had also defended the action to evict the women lawyers on the ground that they had been “snatching the employment of locals” leading to an “atmosphere of tension” in Bastar.
The petition has therefore also called for “immediate registration of an FIR against Kalluri for his continued intimidation as well as an independent judicial enquiry into the matter and that he be suspended and removed from a position of power till the conclusion of this enquiry.”
In the case of Sori, the state administration is also being accused of harassing her. Some civic officials had approached her as recently as Friday in Dantewada and cautioned her that her house in Geedam town could be demolished as it had come up on “encroached land”.
The attack on Sori immediately drew a sharp response from rights activists and politicians. Delhi Chief Minister and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal tweeted: “V painful. Whats happening everywhere? Hope she recovers fast. Chattisgarh govt shud nab culprits immediately.”
The party also announced its intent to shift her to New Delhi for treatment. Another party leader, Ashish Talwar tweeted: “Today evening, Activist and AAP leader Soni Sori will be brought to Delhi for medical treatment. Let us all pray for her speedy recovery.”
The social media went abuzz with condemnation of the attack. Several academicians, journalists and rights activists criticized it. Social Media Editor of The Washington Post Rama Lakshmi termed the attack on Soni Sori “silencing an inconvenient woman who speaks inconvenient truths about incredible India”.