India

Soni Sori: India's fearless tribal activist

  • 22 March 2016
  • From the section India
Soni Sori Image copyright Hindustan Times
Image caption Ms Sori is still recovering from last month's attack

"At first, I could think of nothing because of the excruciating pain and burning sensation. My eyes wouldn't open and when they did I couldn't recognise myself."

Soni Sori speaks in a calm voice, recalling the moments after she was attacked with a chemical substance in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh last month.

The 41-year-old tribal rights activist has been an outspoken critic of police violence towards tribespeople in the state, which is facing a Maoist insurgency.

It was about 22:00 when three unidentified men on a motorcycle stopped her and her friend as they were returning to their village.

One of them smeared a chemical on her face which caused it to swell and caused the outer layer of her skin to burn and peel off.

"It was dark, I couldn't see their faces and all I heard were threats that if I didn't stop raising my voice against police atrocities, they'd attack my daughter next," she told the BBC.

"Even now, when I see my picture from that time, I wonder how I endured that horrific attack."

'Sexual Torture'

Born during the Maoist insurgency, Ms Sori is no stranger to witnessing violence.

"She is absolutely extraordinary, fearless and tremendously articulate," says Booker prize winning author Arundhati Roy.

"She speaks up for those who are being crushed. She tries to create a space in that conflict for ordinary people who are not armed Maoist guerrillas but who are fighting for their rights in other ways."

Married with three children, and employed as a warden in a school, Ms Sori was just another witness to the conflict that has roiled Chhattisgarh for decades.

The Maoists say they are fighting for communist rule and greater rights for tribal people and the rural poor.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The Maoists say they are fighting for communist rule and greater rights for tribal people and the rural poor
Image copyright EPA
Image caption The more I am tortured, the stronger I become, says Ms Sori

It was only after Ms Sori was arrested on charges of being an intermediary for the Maoists and sexually assaulted in jail in 2011, that she turned crusader.

"I was often made to sit naked in my cell. And then one day stones were inserted in my private parts. I thought this was the end."

A few months earlier, her husband had been arrested, also on charges of being a Maoist supporter. They were held in the same prison.

Notions of shame and honour stopped her from telling him about her ordeal at the time.

But, battered and despairing, she wrote to a Delhi-based human rights activist, recounting her suffering.

When the letter was made public, it caused national uproar. A Supreme Court inquiry confirmed that sexual torture had taken place.

'Black hole'

Ms Sori then went on hunger strike with other female inmates, demanding that they shouldn't be stripped in prison, and should receive newspapers, a decent meal and water.

Her husband did not appreciate the activism.

"When he got to know about the sexual torture from other inmates and newspapers, he was furious and said I had brought him shame for life," she says.

By the time he was exonerated of all charges in 2013 and released from prison, her husband was paralysed below the waist, allegedly as a result of torture.

As his condition deteriorated, Ms Sori was denied permission to see him. A month after leaving prison, he died.

When the courts eventually gave her permission to attend the funeral, she refused.

"I did not read books to become an activist - the jail time made me one," she says.

Exonerated in seven of the eight cases against her, Ms Sori was granted bail in the remaining case in 2014.

After her release, she joined Delhi's ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and stood in the April 2014 general elections in Bastar.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ms Sori is helping tribal women register official complaints of sexual assault against security forces in Bastar

Although failing to win election, she has since been working with tribespeople, encouraging them to speak up against excesses by both the police and the Maoists.

At the time of the chemical attack, she had been helping tribal women register official complaints of sexual assault against the security forces.

"Village women are scared and ashamed, they hesitate in reporting rape. I tell them if I can then so can they - I cannot be cowed, it is my duty to remain brave," Ms Sori says.

Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh has denounced the attack on Ms Sori and said she was refusing security his administration had offered her.

Activists in Bastar say there is a "black hole" of information, making voices like Soni Sori's more important than ever.

Before the attack on her, two lawyers and a journalist complained of receiving threats that had forced them to leave the area.

Arundhati Roy says the situation in Bastar now is a "prelude to war".

"The battlefield is being cleared of anybody who can bring out the news, anybody who can give some shelter, courage or succour to the people who are being crushed, silenced, co-opted into the vigilante army or kicked out of the area."

Ms Sori is still recovering from the chemical attack. Doctors who have treated her say they don't know exactly what she was attacked with.

Ms Sori says: "I am fearless, the more I am tortured, the stronger I become. If they are successful in silencing me, they would show me as an example to silence everyone else."

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