ANYTHING GOES...IN THE NAME OF NATIONAL SECURITY
ANYTHING GOES...IN THE NAME OF NATIONAL SECURITY
Case Study of a Tribal Woman in the Clutches of Chhattisgarh Police: Soni Sori
Newsletter Sep 2011 - Apr 2012
Unfortunately, Soni Sori is not a name we are likely to forget in a hurry.
Like Mathura, the 16-year-old tribal girl who was raped by two policemen in the Desai Ganj police station in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district in 1974, even as her relatives waited outside for her-only to have the Supreme Court let off the guilty on the grounds that there were no injuries to ‘establish’ that Mathura had ‘resisted’ the assault, and that ‘she seemed habituated to sex’.
Like Thangjam Manorama alias Henthoi, the 32 year old woman from Imphal who was brutally tortured, raped and killed by personnel of the 17 Assam Rifles on 11 July 2004 after she was picked up ‘for questioning’, triggering the iconic naked protest by a dozen Manipuri women in Imphal, who stood before the headquarters of the Assam Rifles on July 15, 2004, screaming “Indian Army Rape Us”.
Like Neelofar and Aasiya of Shopian who were abducted, gang raped and murdered in Kashmir in 2009 near a police camp, only to have the State and paramilitary machinery work to obfuscate the facts, protect the guilty and victimise the affected family and witnesses.
If Mathura’s case galvanised the women’s movement, a coming together of women, from all over the country to campaign for change in the laws related to rape, Manorama’s death created national awareness of the crimes committed by the paramilitary forces under the protection of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. But like the campaign for justice in Manorama’s case, the Shopian case too found itself pitched against the greater narrative of national security and interest. After all how can the suffering of a few women be reason enough to pause for a moment to reflect upon what is being done in the name of protecting the country and its borders?
And so it is in the case of Soni Sori, a 35 year old adivasi school teacher and the warden of a government-run school for tribal children in Jabeli, Dantewada, who suddenly became national news in early October 2011. The newspapers informed us of a dramatic chase between this ‘dreaded Naxalite absconder’ and the Chhattisgarh Police that led all the way from Dantewada District to Delhi, where she was arrested and sent back to her home state to face trial. Soni Sori found herself framed in a number of cases, tortured in police custody and treated callously by the courts. And those protesting against such actions of the State, have in turn been targeted and manhandled by the police.
What is the Soni Sori Case all about? A brief recap
In the conflict ridden state of Chhattisgarh, corruption, poverty, large scale displacement and oppression of tribal populations for the sake of economic development by private enterprise have led to cycles of violence and the systemic silencing of all those who speak out against the dreaded Salwa Judum, a counter insurgency programme of the State, or other forms of oppression. From Dr. Binayak Sen to the civil rights activist Kopa Kunjam (both out on bail for the time being), from the young journalist Lingaram Kodopi to the outspoken Soni Sori, the list of those incarcerated as ‘dangerous Maoists’ is almost impossible to keep up with.
Soni Sori has been harassed by the Dantewada police for more than a year now. She has consistently refused to be an informer for the Chhattisgarh Police. She is also the aunt of Lingaram Kodopi, a young outspoken journalist who was being hounded by the Chhattisgarh Police since mid-2009 after he resisted their efforts to enrol him as a Special Police Officer of the Salwa Judum (which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in mid 2011). Lingaram was arrested on 9th September 2011 and has been charged under the dreaded Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) among others. He is now accused of being a go-between for bribes being paid by Essar (corporate group) to the Maoists in return for protection. The police allege that Soni Sori is involved in the same case, and have charged her in this as well as in several other cases. Publicly available material clearly shows that the charges against both of them are false and politically motivated. As a journalist, Lingaram had acquired damning evidence of police atrocities which the Chhattisgarh police wished to suppress/discredit by filing false cases against him.
After Lingaram Kodopi was arrested by the Chhattisgarh police in the Essar case, an attempt was made on Soni Sori’s life which she believes was by the police themselves. When she survived the shooting, Soni Sori feared for her life, and hence fled to Delhi to seek legal help and expose the police atrocities.
Since Soni Sori has consistently refused to take sides, she has also been the target of Maoist violence. They have shot at her father in an attempt to silence her – a matter in which she has filed a case against them with the same police who now have countless cases framed against her. The latest standoff between the Maoists and Soni Sori was when they tried to prevent her from raising the national flag on 15 August, 2011, and she refused to let them have their way. She has been fearless in standing up to them but clearly, the national pride of tribals like Soni Sori has little meaning for the State.
The Charges Against Soni Sori: Contradictory and False
Soni Sori has multiple false cases lodged against her—from being a participant in a Maoist raid at a Congress worker’s house to acting as an intermediary for the Maoists. All these cases were lodged by the police during the last year, with each of the charge sheets showing her as an “absconder” and containing statements by the police saying that all efforts were made to locate her, but in vain. Not only was Soni Sori regularly attending to her duties as a hostel warden all the time (as evidenced by the school attendance register), but she had also met with police authorities to complain about her own harassment, had come to Delhi seeking legal advice and had attended court hearings in the trial against her husband, who too has also been falsely implicated in a case.
Even a cursory examination of the charge sheets against her shows that these are crude fabrications of the Chhattisgarh police. Different charge sheets for crimes committed on different dates have identical testimonies by different witnesses. It is also difficult to fathom why, if she were a real Maoist, her father’s and uncle’s house would be burnt and looted by the Maoists, and her father shot in the foot by them at the same time during which she was allegedly joining the Maoist, in a rampage throughout the countryside.
The Threat to Soni Sori’s Life: From the Chhattisgarh Police
Soni Sori was arrested in Delhi on 4 October, 2011, before she could initiate legal action. But what she had managed to do by then was talk to journalists of Tehelka and conduct a sting operation: a telephone call in which she spoke to Constable Mankar, who confessed that the case of her being a conduit between Essar and the Maoists was fake (as was that against her nephew, Lingaram Kodopi). (For the complete piece, go to: (http://tehelka.com/story_main50.a sp?filename=Ne151011coverstory). Fearing vengeance from the police, whose workings she had exposed before the media in Delhi, she pleaded with the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Saket District Court, and the Delhi High Court for permission to stay in Delhi for an additional few days till she could file her petition in the Supreme Court (The delay was due to the court holidays on account of Dussehra). In the courts, she also vociferously challenged the claim of the Chhattisgarh Police that she had absconded by saying her school records would prove she had been attending work, and that in fact, she had been in and out of the local Police Station to follow up her father’s case!
Despite all her pleas, Soni Sori was remanded to the custody of Chhattisgarh Police by the courts, albeit with explicit directions to the Police to ensure her safety and an order that a report be filed before the Delhi High Court, outlining steps taken to keep her safe.
However, her fears were to come true only too soon. In flagrant contempt of the directives of the court as well as various provisions of the law, the Chhattisgarh Police brutally tortured her for the two days she was in their custody before she was to be produced in front of the Dantewada Magistrate on 10 October 2011. Soni Sori, who had been in perfect health on 8 October 2011 when she was remanded to police custody, was in such a bad condition that she could not get down from the police van and go to the courtroom. Her statement was taken by a court clerk, and the Magistrate, in a clear travesty of justice, passed an order without even seeing her. The police claimed ‘she slipped in the bathroom and had hurt her head’. The examining doctor at the District Hospital said ‘she was brought in unconscious, the X-ray showed injuries on her head and back, and black marks were observed on her fingertips’ – indicating that she had received electric shocks. A video clipping of her appeared online on the same day, showing her writhing in pain in the hospital, confirming fears of custodial torture.
Initially Soni Sori herself said that she had fallen in the bathroom. Later, it emerged that this was because she had been threatened by the police that her brother, the sole caretaker of her three children (since her husband is also in jail on charges of being a Maoist), would be arrested if she spoke of her torture.
But Soni Sori was not to be silenced forever. In her subsequent statements to relatives and a letter addressed to the Supreme Court, she has clearly stated that she was ‘pulled out of her cell at the Dantewada Police Station at midnight of 8/9 October and taken to the Superintendent of Police, Ankit Garg’s room.’ There she was stripped and given electric shocks. When she woke the next morning she had severe aches and pains all over her body, injuries to her neck and spine and acute pain in her lower abdomen.
As the physical evidence of her torture began to mount, she was being pressured to withdraw her allegations and her extended family was being threatened and prevented from accessing her. Additional cases have been heaped on her nephew Lingaram Kodopi, her brother is facing imminent arrest and the compensation money due to her father for his injury is also being withheld.
Soni Sori Tortured in Custody: Indicting Evidence
Evidence in cases of custodial torture is extremely rare to come by, since torture is usually inflicted in circumstances fully controlled by the perpetrator, i.e. the police. However, this is one of those rare cases in which there is incontrovertible proof that the victim was subjected to the most brutal forms of torture.
In response to a petition filed on her behalf in the Supreme Court, a three-Judge Bench observed that the injuries against her person did not appear to be as simple as the State was making them out to be, and ordered an independent medical examination in NRS Medical College Hospital in Kolkata. The report, presented in Court on the 25 November 2011, states that two stones had been found inserted deep inside her vagina and one inside her anus, which was the primary cause of the acute abdominal pain she was suffering. Quite naturally, she also had inflammation in both areas and the MRI scan also shows annular tears on her spine.
Taken together with her verbal and written testimony, what we are looking at is damning evidence of custodial sexual torture by the Chhattisgarh police while she was in their custody.
The Government of Chhattisgarh Responds (and how):
In the face of undeniable evidence of custodial torture, the Chhattisgarh government, instead of initiating action against the perpetrators, has been actively shielding them.
Despite Soni Sori’s complaints of severe lower back pain, her inability to stand, tenderness in the lower back and difficulty in walking, none of the three hospitals in Chhattisgarh which claimed to have examined her found inflammation of her private parts or stones lodged in her vagina and rectum (at least the hospital in Jagdalpur recorded inflammation on her spine and black marks on her fingers). On the other hand, Dr. Vivek Choudhary, Medical Superintendent of the Ambedkar Hospital in Raipur, was quoted in the Hindustan Times as saying: “Medical tests reveal Sori is a malingrer.”
This denial extended to the highest levels of the Chhattisgarh government. At a meeting with Principal Secretary, N. Baijendra Kumar in Delhi on 14th October 2011, concerned women’s groups were assured that she was ‘safe in jail and that her wounds were not serious.’ He also said that the Health Secretary had ‘confirmed the fact’ so there was no need for concern about her safety; that he had been told by Dantewada Superintendent of Police Ankit Garg and state DGP Anil M Nawaney that Ms. Sori had not been ill-reated!
When Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh, arrived in Delhi on 1st December 2011, several Delhi-based women’s groups, democratic rights groups, and progressive individuals staged a protest at the Chhattisgarh Sadan, comprising of around 40 representatives from various organizations demanding justice for Soni Sori, Lingaram Kodopi and various tribal activists in the State. Instead of meeting the protestors, the Chief Minister instead ordered the Delhi Police to forcibly remove them from the premises and have them dragged out of the way so that he could proceed to ‘his next meeting’.
So far, no step seems to have been taken against any of the errant police officers – not against Constable Mankar, who has been caught on tape by the news magazine, Tehelka, admitting that false cases had been registered against Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi, nor against the Superintendent of Police, Ankit Garg, in whose custody Soni Sori was subjected to brutal torture, including sexual violence.
The Campaign for justice for Soni Sori Gains Steam
Ever since Soni Sori’s arrest, there has been deep concern about her safety and the threat she faces from the Chhattisgarh government. If nothing else, the incarceration and harassment of so many human rights activists by the state government has shown us that there is no alternative but to speak out. To keep throwing the spotlight on what is happening in the state, to keep unravelling the web of lies systematically put out by the state, to keep unearthing the truth.
Towards this end, women’s groups including Saheli as well as civil rights’, democratic rights’ activists and countless other concerned individuals and networks from all over the country have been making the following demands:
Prompt and exemplary action against the SP Garg and other officials of the Dantewada police station involved in the custodial sexual violence and torture inflicted upon Soni Sori on the night of 8/9 October 2011.
That the state government stop challenging her demand to be moved out of the State on the grounds that she fears for her life in Chhattisgarh.
Immediately stop the persecution of Soni Sori, Lingaram Kodopi and the rest of their family.
Put an immediate end to the offensive that has been declared on the tribals and activists in the region.
Additionally, ever since her medical condition has been deteriorating, we have been demanding urgent medical attention for her without any further delay.
However, almost three months later, little has been achieved. The National Human Rights Commission, despite receiving many complaints and officially registering them, has not taken any action. Ditto for the National Commission for Women which has so far only requested an Action Taken Report from the Director General of Police, Chhattisgarh. Meanwhile, the state level commissions have not even acknowledged violation of rights. The Chairperson of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) is quoted as having said, “Being fettered to a hospital bed does not qualify as human rights violation.
We will take action when something happens”. Apparently, what has happened to Soni Sori is not yet enough torture to warrant the intervention of the SHRC!
Our protests at the office of the Resident Commissioner of Chhattisgarh in Delhi, and petitions to the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh, signed by over a hundred organisations and individuals have also not been responded to. And what happened when we tried to meet him in Delhi is another story. (See box item on page 6).
Considering the impunity with which the Chhattisgarh police has acted so far, Soni Sori is in an extremely precarious situation. If anything can save her, and indeed, others like her, it is only pressure from the outside. We need relentless campaigning that keeps clear sight of the price individuals are paying for having the courage to stand up for what is right, and the larger context in which the voices of educated, empowered tribal women like Soni Sori are only being suppressed.
Box 1: DELHI POLICE CRACKS DOWN ON PROTESTORS DEMANDING JUSTICE
It was 1 December, 2011. The CM of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh was arriving in Delhi for a spate of meetings, and ironically to address a session on ‘Good Governance’ at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. An opportunity, we believed, to confront him about what is really happening in his state, and question how he can justify the treatment meted out to Soni Sori while in custody, irrespective of the charges she is facing.
11.30 am. His cavalcade sweeps in towards Chhattisgarh Sadan in Safdarjung Enclave unaware than around 40 representatives from various organizations and individuals demanding justice for Soni Sori, Lingaram Kodopi and various tribal activists are standing in wait for him. As we see them approach, our slogans, placards and banners fills the air. The cars swoop into the premises as fast as they can and the gates slam shut behind them. Chants of “Raman Singh, Bahar Aao, Bahar Aake Baat Karo” (Raman Singh, come out, Talk to us!) ring out loud, only to be met with the stony silence of the officials on duty. For about an hour and a half we hold our own, and as our numbers grow, so do those of the Delhi Police. Soon, they are dragging us ruthless out of the way of the esteemed CM! Women and men, being ruthlessly pulled out of the way so that his honour can go on to his next meeting – to sign a new MOU maybe, or expostulate on such good governance, we guess!
Box 2: WOMEN’S TEAM VISITS RAIPUR AND IS DENIED ACCESS TO SONI SORI
A team of women representing various women’s groups from across the country was in Raipur on 12-13 January 2012 to meet Ms. Soni Sori, currently lodged in Raipur Central Jail. Even after applying for permission as per procedure and repeated requests to various concerned officials, the women were denied permission to meet her, despite an assurance from the Principal Secretary, Mr. Baijendra Kumar, during his visit to Delhi in October.
For two whole days the team was shuttled from one authority to the other and back. With each and every official avoiding taking a decision or give in writing any denial or reasons for it. Finally permission was denied citing ‘security’ concerns. We feel that such alleged `security’ concerns are being used as a smokescreen to prevent us from meeting her, and constitutes a violation of Soni Sori’s rights as a prisoner. Further, we fail to understand what security threats an all women’s team, following all proper procedures and which consented to meet her in presence of the jail authorities, poses to the jail. Even the State Human Rights Commission, when approached by the team, refused to take cognizance of the matter, stating that denial of access to an undertrial does not constitute any violation of human rights of the undertrial.
Despite the seriousness of these violations, the Chhattisgarh authorities have not even instituted an enquiry, let alone taking action against the officials concerned. In addition, it is also preventing any attempts from independent women’s groups to meet with her.
Given the brutal treatment meted out to Soni Sori, and the overall situation of conflict and repression prevailing in Chhattisgarh, we are deeply concerned about the situation of women, in general, and specifically of other women prisoners in Chhattisgarh. Speaking in the larger context efforts to get information by human rights activists about undertrials in such areas has unsuccessful.
We demand immediate suspension of the officers concerned pending enquiry.
Free access of individuals and groups to meet with Soni Sori and Her rights as an under trail should be upheld.
The members of the team that visited Raipur consisted members from Saheli, Delhi; Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), Delhi; WSS Orissa and Madhya Pradesh Mahila Manch, Bhopal.
(Excerpt from press statement)
Box 3: A WIDER CAMPAIGN FOR JUSTICE FOR SONI SORI BUILDS
Eminent Citizens And Groups Write Open Letter To The Honourable Chief Justice Of India And Honourable judges Of The Supreme Court Of India seeking justice for Soni Sori.
On 21st January, 2012, a few days before the Supreme Court was scheduled to start hearing Soni Sori’s case on 25th January, nearly 200 citizens including eminent citizens such as Professor (Retd) Uma Chakravarti, Ms Brinda Karat, Politburo Member CPI(M) and former MP Rajya Sabha, Ms Romila Thapar, Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, Ms Aruna Roy, MKSS, Rajasthan, Ms Madhu Bhaduri, former Ambassador of India, Prof. Veena Shatrugna, retired Deputy Director, National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, Dr Imrana Qadeer, Retd Professor, Ms Farah Naqvi, Activist, Ms Vasanth Kannabiran, Hyderabad, Ms Lalita Ramdas, Ms Githa Hariharan, Writer, Prof. Jayati Ghosh, Dr Amit Bhaduri, Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, Dr Anand Phadke, Prof (Retd) Anand Chakravarti, along with scores of other doctors, educationists, academicians, students and individuals wrote an open letter to the SC.
Joining them were 69 civil society groups and organisations working on women’s issues, health issues, civil and democratic rights, and worker’s issues from across the country, such as Saheli, WSS, AIDWA, AIPWA, NFIW, NAPM, NTUI, PUCL, FAOW, SAFHR, SAHAJ, SAHAYOG-UP, Zubaan Books, JADS, Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha and RTF-Rajasthan.
Together we urged the Supreme Court ‘to insulate this victim of custodial sexual assault from her oppressors, ensure her protection after she has spoken out about this torture despite threats to her person and family’, and send out a clear signal that ‘the rights of citizens will be protected, and that when the police abuses its powers, the judiciary will not stand by in silence’.
Box 4: As we go to press, the government has awarded SP Ankit Garg an award for gallantry. Shocked and outraged, women’s groups issued a press statement condemning such celebration of violation and torture, titled. GALLANTRY AWARD FOR SEXUAL VIOLENCE? Women’s Groups Condemn President’s Medal to Ankit Garg, Soni Sori’s Torturer. The statement said:
We are deeply shocked and outraged by the conferring of the President’s Police Medal for Gallantry on Ankit Garg, Superintendent of Police, Dantewada, Chhattisgarh. Ankit Garg has been named by the Adivasi school teacher, Ms. Soni Sori, in several letters to the Supreme Court, of ordering and supervising her torture and sexual violence against her, on the night of October 8th, 2011 when she was in his custody at the Dantewada police station. Furthermore, not only did he use abusive language against her, he ordered three police personnel to “punish her”, by sexually torturing her, for disobeying his commands to name well-known social activists, such as Swami Agnivesh and Medha Patkar, as Naxal supporters. An independent medical examination carried out by the NRS government hospital in Kolkata under the direction of the Supreme Court has confirmed her sexual torture by recovering stones embedded in her private parts. Is this, then, the “gallant” behaviour of our Dantewada police under the able guidance of SP Ankit Garg, which the government is now felicitating? Is this an award for ruthlessly torturing people? Does the government approve of these methods? Is this an accepted way of carrying out war against their own people in the name of anti-naxal operations? It is even more baffling to note that this has occurred at a time when the Honourable Supreme Court itself has expressed anguish at these events and is still looking into these violations. Compounding the very serious charges of a heinous crime of sexual violence against Ms. Soni Sori that SP Ankit Garg faces, is the fact that this crime was committed when she had been entrusted into his custody as a senior police officer. By giving him an award in the face of these complaints which have not even received a cursory investigation, both the Central and State governments are condoning this sexual violence which is being perpetrated in the name of anti-Naxal operations. It is a dark day for Indian democracy today.
(Issued by Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), a national network of women’s organisations, other democratic rights organisations, and individuals.