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‘The President is a woman and an Adivasi but women and Adivasis are not getting justice’

Well-known human rights activist Soni Sori, who lives in Bastar in Chhattisgarh, not only fights for the rights of the Adivasis but also for their overall development. Excerpts from her conversation with Rajan Kumar

The country is in election mode, with five states, including Chhattisgarh, scheduled to go to the polls soon. What is the condition of Adivasis in politics? What should it have been? If they are nobodies in politics, why is it so?

Elections happen routinely. But the issues of Adivasis never become election issues. A temple becomes an election issue, unemployment becomes an election issue, price rise and basic needs of the people become election issues but Adivasis could never become an election issue. Why does no one ask what the Adivasis need? Their needs should become an election issue. They should be asked what they want. The way they are being killed [by the State] should become an election issue. The fake cases being registered against them should become an election issue. Adivasis who have been languishing in jails for years should become an election issue. But the political parties never talk about the issues related to the Adivasis. Why is it so? This is my question. If issues related to Adivasis were discussed and debated by the political parties, it would have done some good to the Adivasis. What happens now is – and as an Adivasi myself I know what happens – that during the elections, the leaders canvass everywhere. They even venture into the forests. But once the elections are done with, they don’t even steal a glance at the forests. Even if a woman is raped in the forests or there is a fake encounter, the leaders never step into the forests. It seems that we Adivasi people have yet to attain freedom. We don’t have freedom of any kind. Had we been free, we would have been able to move about in Bastar, to go from one place to another, to walk through our forests. All kinds of incidents take place. Women who go to the forests to collect firewood are raped and then killed. In other instances, men working in the fields are picked up – and killed. Someone goes to the market, he is picked up from there and kept in the police station. Then he is taken to a forest and killed in a fake encounter. These kinds of things have been happening. They talk of the tricolour. What does the tricolour mean for us? 

We Adivasi people demanded the right to live. We waved the tricolour, we wrapped it around our chests. But that right was never given to us. In Gompad, Laxmi Markam, the daughter of Hidme Markam, was abducted from her home and taken to a forest. She was gang-raped and then shot. She was declared a naxal. This, when she was already married and had moved to her new home. I told her mother that we live in India, that we will fight through Constitutional means, we will get justice. So, she took the legal route. She moved the local court and then the High Court. But her case was thrown out by the High Court. It was said that Laxmi Markam was not the daughter of Hidme Markam. The court should have given her justice. But it did not do that. Now, she asks me which tricolour I am talking about. We don’t get justice. So, we never got freedom. India got freedom, that is clear. But had the Adivasis got freedom, we would have been breathing freely today. We would have been sleeping in our homes. We would not have been forced to sleep in the jungles. Whether you go to the jungle or to the market or you stay at your home – the government and the police pick you up from anywhere. So, I am of the firm view that the Adivasis are not an issue in politics.

What you are saying is that the Adivasis are not at all an issue in Indian politics?

Yes. They are not. Had the Adivasis been an issue, would we have had to endure what we have? Elections are due in Chhattisgarh. In the run-up to the last election, when the BJP were in power in the state, the Congress told us that they would release the Adivasis [in jail on fabricated charges], so we should vote for them. Adivasis voted for them. The Congress formed the government. But the Adivasis are still in jails. If we ask them whom they have released, if we demand a list, they tell us they have released 400 people who had been put behind bars in connection with the Naxal movement. But they won’t give us the list. If you demand the list, they don’t give it. Persist and what you get is a list of persons accused of minor crimes – street brawls, domestic violence, selling liquor illegally and so on. But none of the people who have been framed by branding them as Naxals has been released. So, what the government is saying is utter rubbish. How long will the governments fool us Adivasis? Had the governments been really interested in the welfare of the Adivasis and if politics arose from Adivasis, the central issue would have been what the Adivasis want, what their rights are, why they are being forced to fight for Jal [water], Jangal [forest] and Zameen [land]. These issues should be considered, and something should be done about them. But they do nothing.

Many Adivasis are elected as MPs and MLAs from Bastar. A total of 47 Adivasis are elected to the Lok Sabha. Chhattisgarh has many Adivasi MLAs. Still, why are Adivasi issues not discussed in the legislatures? No one opens their mouth – neither in Lok Sabha nor in Vidhan Sabhas. Why is it so?

These people do not raise the issues of Adivasis because firstly, they fear that they will lose their positions. Say, a woman is raped in a forest in Bastar or an Adivasi brother is killed in a fake encounter and we launch an agitation. When our journalist friends raise the issue, it should be raised in Parliament, too. They should say that what has happened is wrong, it should not have happened. But they do not raise such issues. It is mainly because they are afraid. They fear that they may lose their position, they fear that they may not be allowed to contest the next elections. They are not selfless leaders. All of them are selfish leaders. When the BJP was in power [in the state], 16 residents of the village Sarkeguda were killed [in 2013]. These villagers were fired upon indiscriminately. They were performing a puja of their deities, which is part of their culture, at night. It was their festival. All the residents of the village were assembled. The police surrounded them from all sides and opened fire. Within minutes, they killed 16. They were branded as naxalites. The government claimed that the police had come face to face with the Naxals, top Naxals were killed, so many Naxals were killed. This was what the TV news channels claimed. The people of Sarkeguda protested and launched an agitation. They told the policemen, “We are not Naxalites. We have assembled to celebrate our festival, to perform our puja. They kept pleading but no one listened to them. Some were injured. Some were jailed. They were in jail for 5-6 years. Then, a [judicial enquiry] commission said that innocent Adivasis had been killed. There were protests against the BJP government. The Congress was already in power when the commission said that the Adivasis killed were innocent. At the time of the incident, the Congress had said that the police of the BJP’s Raman Singh government opened fire on innocent Adivasis and killed them, and demanded that action be taken against the government. This government should go, it should resign – the Congress had said all sorts of things. Now the Congress is in the government but the Congress government has not sanctioned registration of FIRs against the culprits. I went to Sarkeguda. I went to the police station. But they are not registering FIRs. 

Soni Sori at her home (Photo: Rajan Kumar)

Now just see – when you [Congress] were in the opposition, you raised your voice, said this is wrong. But when your government is formed and you get a letter, you are not allowing registration of FIRs. Had they allowed registration of FIRs, the 16 people who were shot dead would have got justice and the uniformed personnel, the policemen, those who had opened fire, would have been behind bars. But the Congress government is backing them. A similar thing happened to me. At the time they [Congress leaders] said that Soni Sori had been wronged. At the time, the BJP was in power in the state. “Soni Sori was a teacher. It is wrong to send a teacher to jail, branding her as a naxalite,” they said. All the Congress leaders said this. Now, I have been acquitted after fighting the case for 12 years. Give my job back to me. I have submitted all the papers to the government but they are not giving my job back to me. So this is the thing: Whether it is the BJP or the Congress – they both are the same. Their policies are the same. They are just two faces of a coin – one face says I am Congress, the other face says that I am BJP. But they are the same. The Adivasis who have been elected – whether to the Vidhan Sabha or to the Lok Sabha – have been reduced to puppets. They have no powers. They are only lining their pockets. If this is not true, let the Adivasi leaders say that Soni Sori is calling them puppets and saying that they are not interested in the welfare of the Adivasis. Let them say this. Adivasi leaders make allegations against me. My question: Despite provisions of PESA and Gram Sabhas and being a Fifth Schedule area, why are genocides happening in Bastar? Why is no legal action being taken? In Sarkeguda and Silger, why is the Congress government opening fire on Adivasis in broad daylight? After all, what did the Adivasis demand? They only wanted to know how [paramilitary] camps were set up on their land without even asking them. Had they used guns? Had they shot an arrow? Had they hurled stones? They were protesting peacefully. In a way, it was a Gandhian protest. They just asked some questions. Everything was peaceful. But they were fired upon. Why did this happen? Why do the Adivasi leaders not feel their pain? Why aren’t they hurt when such things happen? Are they not Adivasis? You are an MP or an MLA from that place. Why don’t you raise the issue? Why don’t you open your mouth? There are many women like Soni Sori in Bastar, those who have been raped. There was a rape in Belam Nendra. That case was quashed. 

Now, the policemen go there and say, “The government is ours, the courts are ours, everything is ours, there is nothing that is yours. We will come again, rape you and go back. We will rape you ten times.” The case was quashed just two months ago. Those who were raped had been pursuing the case for years and now the High Court has quashed it. That document is now online. They are flaunting that document – the police are telling women in Belam Nendra, “Yes, we have done this.” Belam Nendra, Pedda Gelur and Chinna Gelur are villages in Bijapur district. The case pertains to these villages. The women of these villages were raped, they went to court but their case was quashed. There was no judgment. The High Court was misled and it quashed the case. 

This is what the policemen are saying?

Yes. That is what they are saying. Now women telephone me. They ask me, “Soni Didi, should we move the courts? What should we do? You tell us and we’ll go all the way up to the Supreme Court. We will fight fearlessly. But what did we get? Now the policemen will do the same thing again. If the Adivasi leaders would have taken this case seriously, if they had gone there, then things could have been better. The guilty would have been punished. Rapes would not have happened again. They would have feared the consequences. They are also children of a mother. Someone might have been a farmer’s son, someone might have been a Dalit, all of them could not have been capitalists. They might be policemen but they have humanity. Certainly, they also fear the loss of livelihood. The government does not give them the opportunity to reform themselves. It covers up their crimes. It encourages them to commit even more atrocities against the Adivasis so that the Adivasis continue to be killed, so that they are compelled to give up their jal, jangal and zameen. Let them be killed – whether in the name of being a Naxal or in the name of caste or religious conversion. My Adivasi leaders who are sitting in the Vidhan Sabha, don’t they get to hear all this? They see everything, they know everything but once they become a leader, they start living in their own world. They forget their humanity. 

The Vidhan Sabha elections are close at hand in Chhattisgarh and Lok Sabha elections will follow. These people will again come asking for your votes. You are saying that whether it is the BJP or the Congress or any other party, none raises your issues. What will you tell them when they come to you? 

You see, I was talking about the governments. Elections are due once again. The same netas will be here, asking for votes. Whenever I go somewhere, I am often asked, “You say that so many atrocities are committed against the Adivasis, but then why do you vote for the same leaders again?” My answer is that they don’t get elected only with the votes of the Adivasis. People from other castes, followers of other religions, also live here. They come from different places – from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other places. They get elected with the help of their votes. There are a few educated Adivasis who are in politics. But it is not Adivasis alone, Dalits and the Muslims are also in politics. They get the outsider votes and become netas. We are asked, “When you are saying such and such things about this leader or that political party, why do you give them the opportunity to form the government?” I tell them that we alone don’t decide who will form the government.

Speaking of my community, the Adivasis, the last people of Bastar, are struggling to survive in the forests. They have nothing to do with votes. It is as if they are not part of our country, India. It is as if they don’t know what India is. The few outsiders who have settled here and some of the Adivasis vote for the politicians, who then become netas. But the day is not far off when this situation will change. The government and the MLAs from the Adivasi quota, who assume that they can get their work done through General category seats, should realize that the day they exterminate the entire Adivasi community, this area will become General, their seat becomes General. That day these leaders will realize how important their being Adivasi is. They will understand that they should have helped the Adivasis but they didn’t, and a General candidate will now claim their seat. What our Adivasis are facing in the forests, the same will be the condition of these netas once their constituencies become General. They will become slaves. This will happen one day. So, these leaders had better wake up and try to save the Adivasis. 

Do the netas go into the jungles, where the Adivasis live, to talk with them, to seek their votes, to raise their issues? 

No. They enter the jungles rarely and they never go deep into the interior. For instance, there is this Loha village near NMDC (mines belonging to the National Mineral Development Corporation). There is no road to Loha village. This, when the NMDC has been operating mines there for the past 75 years. A road will be built only when the netas will go there. They don’t visit the places deep inside the jungles. They go just up to the point where the roads take them and only to seek votes.

The areas where there are no roads, the areas which the netas don’t visit, the Adivasis in those areas must be casting their votes. How do they do that? Where do they go to vote? 

You see, what happens is that in the areas that are deep inside the forests, where there are no roads, the people have made paths for themselves. They use them to come out of the forests. One polling booth is set up between three to four panchayats in such areas. The people are already angry. Also, they are not allowed to cast their votes. The police manipulate the numbers, commit some fraud and claim that so many people have cast their votes. In the interior, you have to walk 25-30 km or even 60 km to cast your vote. It is difficult to cover such distances. How long can they walk? Then, what is said is that the Maoists do not allow the Adivasis to vote, so they don’t vote. That is not true. The Adivasis ask, what’s the point of casting their vote? They say voting has never done any good to them, so why should they vote? Does voting give us life? We only get bullets. If we vote, we get bullets. If we don’t vote, we still have to die. Whom should we elect so that we can live? They deploy the paramilitaries. They set up a polling booth in a school for three-four Panchayats. Very few people turn up at these booths. But if the voting is nil, they will have to conduct a repoll. So they somehow persuade one or two people to cast their votes. This is fraud. Now, if you demand a probe, who will conduct it? At many places, most of the voting is fake. It is done in the interior with the help of the paramilitaries. The Adivasis are already seething with anger against the forces. Even if the police and the presiding officer are there, those who are powerful, they will get fake votes cast. If they say that so many Adivasis came here and voted, it is false. It is not so.

Do you want to contest elections?

I had contested elections after my release from jail. After that, I braced myself for working among my own people, to be part of their struggle. I decided to leave politics. I decided not to contest elections. That was because I want my Bastar and my people. I quit politics to fight against the violation of the human rights of the Adivasis. This struggle has to be selfless and transparent. I should be able to give befitting answers to the BJP, the Congress or whosoever is in power. As for the Maoists, I want to put my views before them. I want to tell them that for me, Jal, Jangal, Zameen and Bastar and saving the people, securing relief to them, making the Adivasis prosperous – all this is most important. I felt that if it’s guaranteed, or if I am myself convinced, that even if it takes a long time, the voice of the Adivasis will become stronger in the Vidhan Sabha or the Lok Sabha by my contesting the elections and it will benefit the people in some way, only then would I contest elections. The party doesn’t matter. I can enter the fray as the candidate of any party. But to date, I don’t think there is any guarantee that this will happen. I myself don’t think it will happen, especially given the state of politics in India today. The day I feel confident that I can do this much by contesting elections; the day my friends who are spread all over the country feel that if I enter the Lok Sabha or the Vidhan Sabha, I can bring back the Bastar of my childhood, the Bastar in which there were no restrictions, whether during the day or at night, the Bastar in which I lived freely under open sky, under the stars, the Bastar in which I was born, the Bastar in which I studied – if I can bring back that Bastar – I will definitely contest elections. I will contest elections if it will bring back smiles on the faces of the people of Bastar, if it will resurrect our lost culture, if it will rebuild the Bastar where the people could laugh and dance and sing late into the night. At present, I see no such possibilities. 

The Narendra Modi government is talking of ‘One Nation, One Election’, meaning that the national and the state elections should be held simultaneously. Elections should not be held at different times in different states. What is your take on this issue?

Narendra Modi ji has said a very nice thing – “One Nation, One Election”. I want to ask him why we Adivasis, Dalits and others are different. Why not “One Nation, One People”? We are also humans – so let them build a nation of one people. If they talk of “One Nation, One Election”, why not “One Nation, One People”? It will be great if this happens. Before “One Election”, let them give an equal status to all the people – whether someone is a Muslim, a Dalit, an Adivasi or a Hindutvavadi. All are human beings. Why doesn’t Modi ji say that all of us, all human beings are the same and equal? There should be nothing like Brahmin, Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim in our country. Everyone should be just a human being. India should be a nation of equal human beings. There should be no discrimination. Everyone should be able to live with respect and dignity. Only then would the slogan of “One Nation, One Election” sound good. But that is not so in this country. Humans are not equal. What is happening with Dalits, what is happening with Adivasis, what is happening with OBCs? And then, there are the Hindutvavadi forces, who are a separate case altogether. Sometimes we feel that this nation belongs only to the capitalists and the Hindutvavadis. It doesn’t belong to us. So, what Modi ji is saying about “One Nation, One Election” doesn’t appeal to me. 

Elections are due in five states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram. Next year, general elections will be held. In view of these elections, what message would you like to give to the Adivasis of the country? What would you like to say to the different political parties and to the people?

My message for the Adivasi leaders is that whosoever among them has become a leader or a neta, is a candidate in the elections or has come to power, they should not forget that they are Adivasis, that atrocities are being committed against the Adivasis, that atrocities are being committed against their people, they should not forget this. They should not forget that they are human beings first – they should not shun humanity. They have forgotten humanity to such an extent that they rape their sisters and their daughters and dump them on the roads, in the forests. This is happening everywhere, in the entire country. This is not about the Adivasis alone. This is happening with the Dalits, too. Why do the Dalits forget [their own people] when they become leaders? The Adivasis also become leaders and they forget [their own people]. In Manipur, such a big incident took place, but the President, who is an Adivasi, what did she do? Being the President of India, what did Murmu do? She is a woman and those who were paraded naked in Manipur, were also women. Were the eyes of the President shut? Did she not see what was happening? My message for her is that she should keep her eyes wide open and take action. You are in a high post. Be humane. There is no need to bow down, to take things lying down. If you are a real, true President, if you want to do good to the nation, if you want to do good to the people, don’t let the humanity in you die. Keep it alive. Don’t think that if I raise my voice, maybe I won’t be President again, maybe I will lose my chair. Don’t ignore injustice, driven by the lust for power. Those who are ignoring such things, they should not have become leaders. But they have become leaders. So, let them keep the humanity in them alive. There is no humanity left in them. What happened in Manipur grieves me, pains me. The President is an Adivasi, she is a woman. We are being told that this has raised the stature of the Adivasis, that the Adivasis are happy. But what is there to be happy about? What message can we give to such leaders? The President is a woman and an Adivasi but women and Adivasis are not getting justice. My message to such leaders is that they should keep their humanity alive and awake. Don’t allow it to die. 

(Translation from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)


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About The Author

Rajan Kumar

Rajan Kumar is Assistant Editor (Hindi), Forward Press.

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