Soni’s Story

NAT
Amnesty International calls her a "prisoner of conscience". Noam Chomsky and Jean Dreze have written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh protesting against the "brutal treatment meted out" to her in jail. But for the Chhattisgarh police, she is a Maoist supporter, booked for several offences, including sedition. Her cousin and neighbours talk of her Maoist connections and of her role as a police informer. So who is Soni Sori? An educated tribal woman, a social worker framed by the police or a woman who flirted dangerously with both sides of this war—the police and the Naxals?

The truth lies somewhere in between, often falling through the gaps. Sori's story over the past two years is that of a woman who was exploited both by the police and the Maoists—some would say she let them use her—and now by her activist friends. "Samaj sevika (activist)? Aisa to kuch nahi tha...woh apna kaam nikaal rahi thi, bas (She was just getting her work done)," says Sori's sister-in-law Jyoti.

Sori was arrested in Delhi on October 4, 2011, a month after the Chhattisgarh police allegedly caught Essar contractor B K Lala trying to pay protection money to Maoists through Lingaram Kodapi, a "Maoist conduit" and Sori's nephew. Sori too was allegedly present at the spot but gave police the slip.

After her arrest, Sori was brought to Dantewada jail, where she sustained injuries in custody. This led to frenzied campaigns in the media, among human rights activists and lawyers who called for her immediate release and petitioned the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, letters purportedly written by Sori in jail reached her mentor Himanshu Kumar in Delhi. These letters detailed the 'torture' she had been subjected to in police custody and how SP Ankit Garg allegedly stripped her and forcibly inserted stones into her body. The letters triggered global outrage. Her lawyers filed an additional petition in the Supreme Court, which then directed that she be taken to AIIMS for a check-up. She returned to Chhattisgarh in June and is now in a Raipur jail.

Meanwhile, the campaign in her support has picked up—a candlelight vigil will be held in New York on October 4, the day Sori was arrested.

Sori, the police and the Maoists

A school teacher in Jabeli village of Dantewada, Sori, in her early 30s, extrovert and outgoing, stood out among tribals. The Soris have large landholdings and her father Mundra Ram was Congress sarpanch of Bade Bedma for over a decade. Sori's estranged brother Sukhdev and his wife too have held positions in the panchayat representing the Congress. Two of her uncles were MLAs and Sori's cousin Amrita Sori, is DSP in Jagdalpur (Bastar).

Sori lived with her husband Anil Futane and their three children in Sameli village. Futane's family, originally from Maharashtra, had settled in Gidam town in Dantewada. But he fell in love with Sori and left his family to stay with her. Now with both Futane and Sori in jail—held in separate cases—their three children are with her father and brother at Palnar in Dantewada.

Villagers in Palnar say Sori was not a Maoist, but like most people in these parts, she had links with the rebels. She stood out, they say, because she was educated, and more vocal than most of her fellow villagers.

Sori's cousin Shankar Kunjam says, "We are forced to help Naxals. If they come asking for food, we have to feed them. But Sori went a few steps further. While the Naxals were tough with us, they were never hostile to her. But still, she was not a Naxal."

The Maoists recently issued a diktat forbidding her relatives in Palnar and Bade Bedma from cultivating their land for three years. Last June, Maoists attacked her father Mundra's home and shot him in the leg. But Sori was spared.

Himanshu Kumar, in whose ashram in Dantewada Sori is said to have studied and who is now campaigning for her release, says Sori has no Naxal links. "Police arrested and tortured Sori as they do not want an educated tribal woman in the area who works for locals and makes them aware about their rights. It's a usual case in Chhattisgarh—police force tribals to become informers and when they refuse, they are framed under false Naxal charges and tortured in jails."

"Madam was a bridge between Maoists and the local company contractors. She helped them levy taxes and was also close to the police," says a Palnar-based journalist, who didn't want to be named and who has been her "family friend" for years.

It was SRP Kalluri, who took over as Dantewada SSP in June 2010, who spotted Sori. Kalluri, with a reputation for being a successful anti-Maoist cop who built his network of informers, decided Sori and her father Mundra would be useful in his anti-Maoist strategy.

While Mundra agreed to be a police informer—out of compulsion, he says—Kalluri allegedly framed Sori and her husband Futane in a July 8, 2010 case when around 200 Maoists attacked the home of Congress leader Awdhesh Kumar Gautam.

Evidence suggests both Sori and Futane were not involved in the attack. But curiously, while Futane was arrested and continues to be in jail, Sori remained free. She was slapped with several offences in a series of cases from July to September 2010—all false, say her lawyer and even the police. Arrest warrants were issued against her but she travelled freely to the Dantewada district headquarters, continued with her job at the school in Jabeli and would often visit the collectorate and police stations. Clearly, SSP Kalluri had plans for her.

A betrayed Futane would later write to Sori from jail, "I told you to get out of this. While you are free, I got trapped."

"A top police officer told me she is kept free as she has promised a major haul of Maoists," says Gautam, the Congress leader whose house the Naxals attacked in July 2010. "She was playing to both sides. She could not have managed it for long."

In March 2011, Ankit Garg replaced Kalluri as Dantewada SP. A few months later, on September 10, Garg announced the arrests of Essar contractor

B K Lala and "Maoist conduit" Lingaram Kodapi (Sori's nephew). The police, Garg said, nabbed them on September 9 when Lala was handing over Rs 15 lakh to Kodapi at Palnar market, while Sori and Maoist commanders Vinod and Bhadru "escaped" from the spot. Garg also arrested Essar GM DVCS Verma.

Relatives of the accused termed the arrests a police concoction—they said Kodapi had been picked up from Mundra's home on September 9 and Lala from his Kirandul office.

Fearing for her life, Sori escaped to Delhi soon after. It was clear that with Garg's arrival, Sori's equation with the Dantewada police had changed.

Sori and the activists

Sori was arrested in Delhi on October 4, 2011. She was brought to the Dantewada police station on October 8. On October 10, she "fell in the bathroom" and sustained injuries.

Rights activists swiftly moved a petition in the Supreme Court, got her examined at the NRS Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata from October 26-28. It was around this time that a series of her "letters from jail" emerged. The letters spoke of how Garg had allegedly tortured her in custody on October 8 and that he had forcibly inserted stones in her body. This was followed by a leak of selective portions of the Kolkata hospital report—"Two foreign bodies recovered of sizes 2.5 x 1.5 x 1.0 cm each from the vagina and one foreign body of size 2 x 1.5 x 1.5 cm was removed from the rectum."

While the four-page confidential report, submitted to the SC, a copy of which is with The Sunday Express, recorded in detail her medical condition and did not confirm the torture charges, only a sentence about the "foreign bodies" was leaked.

Before being examined at the Kolkata hospital, Sori was examined in Dantewada and Raipur. A spinal X-ray in Dantewada on October 10, less than 48 hours after the alleged torture of October 8, did not find any foreign body "in the part of X-ray film in which vagina and rectum region are included", neither did a CT scan in Raipur soon after.

While activists trashed these findings since they were by government doctors, The Sunday Express approached a private practitioner, Rakesh Gupta, state president of the Naagrik Sangharsh Samiti who supports "social and economic causes of Maoists". "This Kolkata medical college report is contradictory. The complainant mentioned forcible introduction of foreign objects in her private parts, but there is no sign of scar or tear or injury. There is no sign of any scar or mark due to electric current as she alleged. She complained of head pain but the doctors did not find any tenderness. The report does not mention any abnormal vaginal discharge which seems unlikely if there were foreign bodies lodged inside her private parts for nearly 20 days. These are reasons why the Supreme Court probably wanted her to be reexamined at AIIMS."

Incidentally, Sori and her lawyers in Delhi raised the issue of stones around 45 days after the alleged torture on October 8. The Supreme Court heard her writ petition on several occasions in October, applications were filed on October 14 and 20, but there was no mention of stones.

On October 11, a day after she "slipped in a bathroom" and was shifted to a Jagdalpur hospital, several mediapersons interviewed her, including The Indian Express. There were no policemen around her then. She denied any torture and said she had slipped on her own.

Later, rights activist Himanshu Kumar and Sori's lawyer Colin Gonsalves filed a petition in the Supreme Court on October 18 that "she told her relative she was electrocuted at the Kuankonda police station (on October 8 night)". Sori has always maintained that she was tortured at Dantewada police station. Kuankonda and Dantewada are around 25 km apart.

Sori subsequently changed her stance. "The police had threatened to kill my brother. That's why I could not speak that day (October 11)," she said later.

The case of the letters

On October 28, Himanshu Kumar forwarded a letter to this reporter saying he received it from Dantewada. Himanshu ran an NGO in Dantewada for nearly 20 years till the police evicted him for allegedly supporting Maoists a few years ago. He has since been living in Delhi.

Addressed to the SC, the letter, reportedly signed by Sori from 'Jagdalpur central jail', reads: "Dantewada SP (Garg) called me to a thana room, administered electric shocks, made me undress and severely tortured me from midnight to 2.30 a.m. on October 8." The letter made no mention of the 'stones'.

"It's not clear whether the handwriting is hers. I do not even know who sent this," Himanshu said on October 28. But he circulated the letter anyway.

More letters reached Himanshu. On November 10, he spoke of receiving another letter that carried Sori's name and, for the first time, talked about "certain things" being inserted in her body. Himanshu was again non-committal if it was Sori's handwriting. But the next day, on November 11, her advocate filed an additional affidavit before the SC, mentioning how the police had forcibly inserted stones in her body.

Himanshu kept circulating the letters as "Soni Sori's shocking letters from jail". "Earlier, I could not recognise the handwriting, now I do," he said later.

So, where were these letters coming from? Himanshu says Sori gave these letters to her relatives who visited her in jail and they posted them to him. On May 9, Sori told The Sunday Express: "I gave these letters to my advocate." But her lawyer K K Dubey denied having ever received any letter from her. Her brother Ramdev, who usually goes to meet her in jail, denied that she had ever passed on a letter to him.

The waiting family

Sori's family wants her to be shifted from Raipur to Jagdalpur jail, closer to their home. Ramdev says, "Didi asked me to get her shifted to Jagdalpur." But government advocate Atul Jha says Sori's lawyers got her shifted from Jagdalpur to Raipur jail without her consent. As her cases are in Dantewada, Sori has to travel for eight hours for every hearing.

Gautam, the Congress leader whose house was attacked in July 2010, says he feels sorry for her. "Earlier, it was the police but now people in Delhi (the activists) are using her. They have made the case more complex," he says.

Himanshu Kumar denies the charge. "How can we aggravate the case? We are only trying to help the victim," he says.

Muskan, Deependra and Ashu—Sori's three kids await her. "I saw yayo (Gondi for mother) on TV," says the youngest, Ashu. "Did you meet her? Do you have yayo's photographs?" they ask.

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