Suffering and helpless: Soni Sori’s letters
By Umang Kumar
Soni Sori, an adivasi schoolteacher from Chattisgarh, who was arrested from Delhi in Oct. 2011 for alleged Maoist links has had to suffer one humiliation after another. She had alleged sexual abuse and stones being inserted in her private parts by the Chattisgarh police in the most recent case of atrocity against her.
The mineral-rich state of Chattisgarh has in the last few years seen a vicious conflict over endeavors to extract the minerals by private corporations as well as the Indian state, the indigenous tribal population (the adivasis) whose lands happen to be those same mineral-rich areas and a radical insurgency, whose members are often termed Maoists.
Soni Sori is just one amongst many in Chattisgarh, both adivasis and non-adivasis who have run afoul of the law, often on suspect charges. A well-known example of such indictments is the arrest in Dec 2010 of the pediatrician Dr. Binayak Sen, a public health veteran and a human rights defender in the area, on charges of sedition for aiding the Maoists. Dr. Sen was finally granted bail in April 2011 after intense rallying by activists around the world.
In Soni Sori's case, thankfully, a Supreme Court bench ordered her to be sent to Kolkata for medical examination. The reports from the examination confirmed that “foreign objects” had been removed from her private parts. Incidentally, the report which was sent by Speed Post from Kolkata had not reached even after 12 days of its dispatch, so much so that the court had to observe on Nov 23 2011, "It is rather unusual that a communication sent by Speed Post should not be received by the addressee, and in particular, this Court, even after 12 days."
The medical examination findings were finally handed to her legal team on November 25. The Supreme Court was reportedly“anguished” by it, but then proceeded to give the Chattisgarh government 45 days to respond. In the meanwhile, Soni Sori was sent back to Chattisgarh where she is now lodged in the Raipur Central jail.
The 45 days time period that the court had initially given have elapsed but a new hearing has yet not taken place. However, Soni Sori, still in apparent pain and shock over her treatment, has been sending out hand-written letters from her captivity. Most recently, one such letter has been addressed to civil society activists and a couple of the people she has trusted and the other addressed to a “Supreme Court judge and her lawyers.” In them the reader can plainly perceive the benumbed and utterly bewildered state she finds herself in as she fumbles for answers in the darkness of the injustices that have surrounded her. It is almost as if she were writing an unsolicited letter to some Supreme Being, as some of us might have memories of doing when little – letters to God about concerns we deemed unanswerable here on earth.
Let us try to take a moment and understand what such letters mean. They are composed on ruled sheets of paper, the like of which many of us will be familiar with, having used “ruled notebooks” for our school-work. They are composed in a straggly, untidy cursive script, possibly from one's bed or at least by one in a certain state of agitation. Her letter to social activists and friends begins by characterizing herself as “peedit laachar” in Hindi (suffering and helpless) and then directly seeks answers that have been uppermost in her mind, prefacing them thus: Peedit laachar ek adivasi mahila aap sabse apne ooper kiye atyachar ka jawaab maang rahi hai. Aur janana chahti hai ki...” (A tormented and helpless adivasi woman is seeking answers for her torture and she further wants to know...”).
The questions that follow range over the reasons for the depravity she was subjected to when she was stripped naked by the Chattisgarh police and stones inserted in her private parts to the reasoning behind such vengeful and vile treatment of a defenseless woman – who is the universal generative symbol and the origin of everyone, men and women – at the hands of members of simultaneously at least two empowered groups: the masculine gender and the institution of the law-and-order arm of the state – all ostensibly to seek a solution to the Maoist problem. Sori further makes mention of the many other incarcerated young adivasi men and women in Chattisgarh who have had no recourse to justice even after several years as they languish in prisons.
Her other recent letter addressed to Supreme Court judges, is in similar vein: a pained, stupefied missive seeking some answers to what she has been through, to seek even the most basic explanation possible from people who are in positions of power, especially over ordinary people's lives and affairs. So much so that she asks the judge she addresses, "Why did you give me a new lease of life then? You should have left me to die," referring to the fact that she was provided life-giving medical attention in Kolkata upon the court's order but then handed back to the very people among whom she had been tortured. She prefers death to the continued threat her life has been in. That should tell us something about the trauma she has been subjected to already. It also is the common story of state victimization and oppression of the marginalized people throughout India, whether adivasis, Dalits or Muslims. It calls for a joint struggle on all such issues of injustice which target entire communities and peoples.
But despite undergoing reprehensible treatment at the hand of the state, notice Sori's simple-minded and sincere gratitude towards the judicial system: "I live, thanks to your order, which I’ll never forget," she tells the judge she addresses the letter to. She feels a certain welling gratitude towards a part of the very state that is also after her limb and life. It is possible her adivasi values inform her to give thanks where she can, to not see an all-pervasive evil in the systems around her. However that same life-giver, that Supreme Court, also causes her utter befuddlement: how could the very institution that ordered her treatment which saved her life suddenly forget how her life was endangered in the first place and feigning complete ignorance of those circumstances, entrust her back to the people who caused her pain? She expresses herself plaintively thus: "But the esteemed Court had more faith in the police than in their daughter and because of that, I have lost everything today. The Court still doesn’t understand..."
Notice also how she refers to herself as “daughter,” trying, as if in her naivete and idealism, to claim some sort of socio-cultural role under which women are accorded respect and protection as either daughters or sisters. "This is a plea from a helpless daughter," she repeats in the next paragraph. The reader wonders why she is doing this, why is she debasing herself by trying to invoke familial relationships with an institution and a state that has no interest in her, for whom she is party to the “gravest internal threat to the country,” for whom, she, an adivasi and a woman, of limited means and influence at that, has no claim to any close relationships; she is probably no more than a case number in a court-system to be dealt with “in accordance with law.” Her tormentors, the other upholders of law and order in the state have already told her as much and much worse:“[Y]ou are a whore, a bitch...What’s your status anyways, you think the big stalwarts will support such an ordinary woman like you[?]”. Soni's spirit, however, does not seem to be crushed so easily by the vulgarity and depravity she has been subject to. She still feels she can make appeals to an impersonal, insensitive, uncaring system as a daughter to a father figure.
But her questions rack her like the pain that is also constantly with her: “Why this injustice to me? Giving electric shocks, stripping me naked, shoving stones inside me – is this going to solve the Naxal problem?” “Sir Judge, my body is in great pain,” the proud adivasi teacher from the “Gandhian school Rukmani Kanya Ashram, Dimripa” is forced to admit to the “Sir Judge,” the “Judge Sahab.” But no amount of Gandhian virtues and principles of non-violence can mitigate her pain. There is no great ideal of satyagraha that she can invoke. All she can do is send out these cries of help, as if to God, her last hope. But as she too realizes, and ruefully observes in her letter, even Krishna did not come to her aid when she was being tormented, as he did for Draupadi.
Umang Kumar is an activist based in Boston, USA.
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