Soni Sori is among the five recipients of the prestigious Frontline Defenders’ Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk for the year 2018. She is the same Soni Sori who was subjected to untold atrocities –pieces of stone inserted into her private parts, thrown behind bars for two years. A dangerous chemical was thrown on her face to disfigure her. The hands that carried out this horrific act must be trembling today, for they have turned Soni Sori into the world’s most beautiful woman. The oppressed and exploited Soni has proved that she is more than a match for the Chhattisgarh government, which has been waging a battle on behalf of the corporates against its own people to usurp their land, water and forest in Bastar.
The award is an acknowledgement of Soni Sori’s long and risky battle for securing justice for the tribal community of Chhattisgarh. The other winners of the award are Nurcan Baysal (Turkey), the LUCHA movement (Democratic Republic of Congo), La Resistencia Pacífica de la Microregión de Ixquisis (Guatemala) and Hassan Bouras (Algeria).
Announcing the awards, Andrew Anderson, executive director of Frontline Defenders, said, “The defenders we are honouring today work in some of the most dangerous areas of the world, sacrificing their own security to peacefully demand justice and human rights for their communities.”
Since 2005, the award has been presented annually to human rights defenders who, at great personal risk, have made an exceptional contribution to protecting and raising awareness about the rights of their communities. The awardees have been individuals or movements. This is, however, the first time that the awarded “defenders” represent five different countries. The 2018 winners and their families have endured intimidation, defamation campaigns, legal harassment, death threats, attacks and prison sentences.
Who is Soni Sori?
Soni Sori is a tribal and women’s rights activist. She works in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. She and her associates have been fighting the violent paramilitary forces and the police. They have meticulously recorded State-sponsored atrocities in this remote, inaccessible part of the country against Tribals, including burning down of homes, sexual assault, rape and torture. In retribution, the security forces subjected her to inhuman custodial torture. It was while she was in their custody that pieces of stones were inserted into her private parts. She went on to spend more than two years in jail. Once she was freed, she suffered burns on her face from a chemical thrown at her. She was also threatened with a similar assault on her daughter if she does not stop her campaign against rapes by security forces. But she refused to be cowed down and never gave up her struggle. Even today, braving slander, threats and other forms of intimidation, she has stuck to her task in this dangerous conflict zone.
Organizations like Agni and Samajik Ekta Manch, floated by the state government and the police to defame Soni, other social activists and journalists, branded her as a traitor and a Maoist. The irony here is that she has saved many educational institutions from damage by Maoists.
“As governments and corporations work to delegitimize and defame human rights defenders’ peaceful work, activists around the world tell us that international visibility and recognition is a critical protection tool,” Anderson said. “The award demonstrates that these defenders have the support of the international community, that their sacrifices have not gone unnoticed, and that we stand in solidarity with their unrelenting bravery.”
Soni: ‘I dedicate the award to my comrades’ struggle’
Talking to FORWARD Press, Soni dedicated the global award to all the social activists fighting on the ground for the rights and legitimate dues of the Bastar Tribals. She said that the award would boost the morale of his comrades, adding that what was done to her was common enough in Bastar. “I cannot reach every village of Bastar where every day, one or other tribal is murdered or raped,” she said. “Hundreds of villages have been reduced to ashes in the war the state is waging against its own people. Thousands of tribals have been killed in encounters. Thousands of innocents have been herded into jails.” Soni said that she had also faced the ire of the Maoists, who had killed her father. “I will not give up this battle as long as I am alive,” she said.
Not interested in playing the victim
Himanshu Kumar, a well-known social activist, says that the kind of atrocities committed against Soni Sori at a police station at the behest of the Chhattisgarh government can easily be termed as the worst ever case of mistreatment of a woman in custody in post-Independence India. “The government’s behaviour with this tribal social worker, who was raising her voice in support of the tribals, was outright abominable,” Himanshu Kumar said. “But Soni Sori was not the one to play the victim. As soon as she was out of the jail, she renewed her fight for human rights, civic rights and equal treatment of tribal men and women. Hers became a voice that was heard all over the world. Now, she is known as a prominent human rights activist globally. Soni Sori eminently deserved the award. We all welcome it. Many, many congratulations to Soni Sori.”
Translated by Amrish Herdenia and copy-edited by Anil Varghese
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