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Wednesday 5 October 2011

The Inconvenient Truth Of Soni Sori.One family reveals more about India's Naxal crisis

The Inconvenient Truth Of Soni Sori

Why were two tribals and the Essar group framed by the Chhattisgarh police? Why are Soni Sori and Linga Kodopi being systematically silenced? This chilling story of one family reveals more about India's Naxal crisis than any official document can.

By Shoma Chaudhury

Soni Sori
Photo: Garima Jain

AS I sit to write this, at 12.20 pm on 4 October 2011, an SMS pops up on my phone: “Soni Sori has been arrested by the Delhi Crime Branch.” The inevitable has happened. The mighty Indian State has caught up with a frail tribal woman on the run.

Unlikely fugitive Soni Sori is led by the police outside the district court complex in New Delhi
Unlikely fugitive Soni Sori is led by the police outside the district court complex in New Delhi
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Dark times Soni’s nephew Lingaram is now accused of being a Maoist extortionist
Dark times Soni’s nephew Lingaram is now accused of being a Maoist extortionist
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Permanent scars Soni’s father Madru in hospital after he was shot by Maoists
Permanent scars Soni’s father Madru in hospital after he was shot by Maoists

Ground zero Aimla Jogi was one of those raped by the forces in Dantewada
Ground zero Aimla Jogi was one of those raped by the forces in Dantewada
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

Living in a city, it is hard to believe this is an Indian story. Living in a city, it is hard to believe this story is even a true one. It’s always hard to believe in the lives of those outside the orbit of one’s experience. Or even the periphery of one’s imagination.

But the story of Soni Sori, 35, and her nephew Linga Kodopi, 25, is one of the most urgent ones of our times. It captures the brutal chaos of India’s “greatest internal security threat” — the Naxal crisis — as no official document can. It captures the chilling way in which two first-generation educated tribals are being punished and systematically crushed for their courage and outspokenness. Crushed by both Maoists and the State so no independent voice remains to tell the complex truths about life in Chhattisgarh.

Over the past two weeks, several newspapers have been carrying small snippets about how an Essar contractor called BK Lala was caught red-handed on 9 September in a Dantewada market paying Rs 15 lakh as protection money to a Maoist operative called Linga Kodopi. According to these reports, both Lala and Linga had been arrested from the market, while a third person in the transaction — the “Naxal associate” Soni Sori — had escaped.

It would be easy to gloss over this news as an insignificant ripple in a distant war zone if that was all there was to it. But the story of Soni Sori and Linga Kodopi loops back much further — and deeper — than these news reports would suggest.

A few days ago, on the run, Soni Sori appeared in the TEHELKA office, desperate but resolute. “You have to help me tell the truth to the world,” she said. “My wellwishers in Delhi are advising me to give myself up to the police and fight this in court but I’m innocent so why should I agree to be arrested? I’m educated and I know my rights. If I have done something wrong I’m happy to go to jail, but before they accuse me, shouldn’t the police show some evidence against me?”

Soni’s eyes occasionally glint with tears, but she is no trader in self-pitying sorrows. She has trekked to Delhi in a dangerous and exhausting cross-country run from the Odisha border, disguised as an ill woman. She has left behind three tiny children aged 5, 8 and 12, scattered at relatives’ houses and hostels. Her husband has been jailed for being an alleged Maoist. Her father lies in a hospital bed in Jagdalpur, ironically, shot by the Maoists for being with the police. Her nephew, of course, is in jail now for being an alleged Maoist extortionist. She herself is falsely accused in five daunting cases of Maoist violence. And the government school she used to teach at is beginning to disband as the police knock on its doors and harass her peers for information. (Almost 40 of the 100 children there have gone home in fright after she was declared an absconder).

Soni is a lone woman in a hostile world. Her life is in smithereens. And she is about as defenceless as anyone can get. But, even as the cruel ironies pile up and the police breathe hot on her heels with a “permanent arrest warrant”, she sits dignified in borrowed slippers and simple clothes. Resolute and indignant. She refuses to disappear conveniently like hundreds of other tribals have, to rot in jails or die at police or Maoist hands. She wants her story told.

It took almost three-and-a-half years and a worldwide campaign (kicked off by TEHELKA) for Binayak Sen’s story to be heard and for him to get bail. It’s taken almost two-and-a-half years for Kopa Kunjam, another fearless tribal worker, falsely accused of murder, to get bail. And it’s been more than two years since activist Himanshu Kumar’s ashram was razed to the ground by the police and he was hounded out of Chhattisgarh.

In a sense, Soni and Linga were the last men standing in Dantewada district. Will it need as many years now for their story to be heard?

Running through the forest on 11 September, at the start of her journey to Delhi, a terrified Soni had spoken to TEHELKA correspondent Tusha Mittal on a breaking phone line and said, “The police are trying to kill me. They fired at me today. I fled. I need to stay alive to keep the truth alive. They don’t want me to reach Delhi. I can’t let them kill me.”

Of course, Soni did reach Delhi before she was arrested. This is why she wanted to reach the capital. This is what she wanted told.

She believed it would get her justice. And freedom.

ON 8 SEPTEMBER, one day before contractor Lala and Linga were supposedly arrested in Palnar market exchanging money, Mankar, a constable from Kirandul Police Station had accosted Soni and asked her to convince Linga to “cooperate” with the police in nabbing Lala. They wanted Linga to pose as a Maoist, take some money from Lala, then hand it over to the police. If she convinced Linga to do this, Mankar promised Soni’s name would be dropped from all the police cases that had been concocted against her.

A damning phone chat caught in a TEHELKA sting validates Soni and Linga’s innocence in the high-profile Essar pay-off case
Soni refused angrily but, according to her, Mankar still grabbed her phone and made a call to Lala himself impersonating a local Maoist. Unsure whether this was a ploy for the cop to make some money on the side, she held her peace. The next day, on 9 September, at about 4 pm, she says a car full of plainclothes men came to her father’s house in Palnar and forcibly took Linga away. She insisted they reveal their identity, but they refused. Shocked, Soni called Mohan Prakash, deputy commander, CRPF, 51 Battalion, and asked if they were his men. He said they weren’t. Soni and her brother Ramdev then went to the Kirandul Police Station and asked station in-charge Umesh Sahu if the plainclothes men were from the police. He denied it and suggested Linga may have been picked up by Naxals.

(It is strange that Sahu apparently lied about this because it is he himself who filed FIR No. 26/2011 against Lala and Linga on 9 September, saying he had acted on a tip-off and arrested them in the market.)

Soni’s family spent a worried night wondering who had picked up Linga. The next day, they read in the papers that Linga had been arrested for taking money from Lala and that Soni had been declared an absconder. Aghast, but knowing she would be arrested next, Soni decided to flee.

After a gruelling journey, she reached Delhi and sought help from human rights activists. At the TEHELKA office, to prove the veracity of her account, Soni called constable Mankar on the phone. Tearfully, she asked him why he had entrapped her and Linga into this messy affair. She repeatedly challenged him to tell the truth: “It was you who called Lala from my phone, isn’t it?” she asked. “You know the police arrested Linga from our house and not from the market, isn’t it?”; “BK Lala also was arrested from his house and not the market, isn’t it?” she says. “They were not exchanging money. It’s you who framed us, isn’t it?” she says.

In an explosive and shocking admission, constable Mankar not only admits to all of this repeatedly, he also further states that the money was actually seized from Lala’s house and advises her to stay in Delhi for a few months. The police have no real evidence on the case, he assures her. The case would soon fall apart in court and then she could return. Till then, all she had to do was hold her silence and not talk about what had happened.

This damning phone conversation caught in a sting recording, which is with TEHELKA, not only corroborates Soni’s account and validates both her and Linga’s innocence in the high-profile Essar pay-off case, it also shoots the lid off the murky and illegal workings of the police in the war zone of Chhattisgarh.

But this is not all. The police’s extrajudicial exertions to frame Linga and Soni — and in this instance Essar — is also exposed by another highly damaging and publicly released video testimony by Jairam Khora, sarpanch of Badapadar panchayat in Odisha.

According to Khora, he was arrested by the Odisha Police on 14 September and handed over to the Chhattisgarh Police for questioning. The Chhattisgarh Police detained him illegally and tortured him brutally for eight days. “They tied my feet like this,” says Khora in his statement, and crosses his hands, “Then they put a stick between my legs. Two policemen then hung me up and two beat me with a stick. They beat me a lot… then they took me to the Dantewada SP and forcibly took a statement from me...” Khora was kept in illegal detention till 19 September when he was produced before a magistrate and later released on 21 September.

In the statement forced by the police, Khora was made to say that he had gone with Lala to meet the Naxal commanders and hand over the money. But according to Khora, no such thing had happened. His only connection with Lala is a plant that the latter owns in his panchayat; and the he had got Lala to perform for his village: 15-20 tubewells, a new school building and the repair of an old one.

So why were the police so bent on framing Soni, Linga and the Essar group? To understand this, to understand the real Kafkaesque horror of what Soni and Linga have been going through; to understand why they are being targeted; to understand the horribly snarled nature of the battleground in Chhattisgarh, one has to go back to the beginning.

UNLIKE THE usual stereotype of the dispossessed and voiceless tribal, Soni Sori comes from a politically active and well-to-do tribal family. Her father Madru Ram Sori, a respected and kindly man, has been a sarpanch for 15 years. Her uncle is a former Communist Party of India MLA. Her elder brother is in the Congress. And Linga, her nephew, is a luminously intelligent boy, who studied journalism in Delhi at an institute in Noida, to arm himself with the necessary skills for truth-telling.

Linga wrote to a powerful Maoist commander berating him for his methods. Soni and Linga also came into conflict with a local Congress activist

Soni herself is an irrepressible woman. She was taught and mentored by Himanshu Kumar both at her own school and at his ashram. Currently, she is a governmentemployed school teacher at an ashram for tribal children in Jabeli. Sitting in the TEHELKA office a few days ago, she said proudly, “I want to go back and help my people. I want to use my education to empower them and help them stand on their feet. If we don’t learn to speak for ourselves, we tribal people will be wiped out.”

“Linga is also like that,” she continued. “He has this flame inside him. He doesn’t want to be either with the police or the Naxals, he just wants to fight for his own people.”

Witnessing such guileless zeal can evoke a pang. As Binayak Sen, Himanshu Kumar, Kopa Kunjam and dozens of other lesser-known activists found out, being outspoken or idealistic can be dangerous business in a theatre of war. And the desire for principled neutrality in such a space is not only a wishful impossibility, it is at the tragic heart of the assaults on Linga and Soni. And others.

Two senior CRPF officers from Dantewada, both of whom wish to remain unnamed, confirm this. “You have to take sides here,” they said. “You have to be either with the police and the paramilitary forces or with the Naxals. You cannot try to be in the middle.”

Dantewada district, especially the area in which Linga and Soni live — Palnar, Sameli, Jabeli, Geedam — is a Maoist stronghold. The region is thickly forested and has both Naxal and CRPF camps: a radioactive zone for suspicion, ambushes, killings and counter-killings.

As Himanshu says, “To live there has itself become a crime.” If you side with the police, the Maoists will kill you as informers. If you humour the Naxals, you are constantly fair game for the police.

Soni and Linga wanted to be neither. They wanted their Constitutional rights: equal citizenship and rule of law. They wanted to reclaim their home from the exploitative jaws of contractors, politicians, police — and even the Maoists. They fought to get minimum wages of tribals raised from Rs 60 to Rs 120; fought for the rights of mine workers; and kicked up a row about senior police officials pocketing huge money from the illegal teak trade, generated in the name of “jungle clearing” to thwart the Maoist movement.

‘Linga becoming a journalist was a threat to the non-tribal majority. They want to ensure that there’s no tribal voice,’ reveals a CRPF commander

Their assertions brought them into the radar of both the Maoists and the police. The Maoists invited Linga to join their ranks but he apparently refused. In fact, he once wrote a strong letter to Ganesh Ram Ukey, a powerful Maoist commander and head of five divisions, berating him for their methods and the troubles Maoist attacks brought on innocent tribals. Both he and his aunt also quarrelled with local Maoist leaders when they wanted to bring down the Indian flag on Independence Day this year at Soni’s ashram and raise their red one.

But that was only one front of the war. Their assertiveness in the neighbourhood also brought Soni and Linga into conflict with Avdesh Gautam, a powerful local Thakur contractor and Congress activist, who had started out as a constable and had strong links within the police. Gautam had old political enmities with the Sori family. Their growing clout in the area made him very uncomfortable. When Soni got an independent contract from the district collector to build her own school, Gautam allegedly began to resent her inroads into his core business.

Realising their potential as key eyes and ears in an impenetrable zone, the police began to pressure both Soni and Linga to become full-fledged informers. On 30 August 2009, Linga was forcibly hauled from his house and kept in a police station toilet for 40 days. The cops denied he had even been picked up till Linga’s elder brother Masaram and Himanshu filed a habeas corpus petition in the Chhattisgarh High Court. He was released on 10 October.

Shockingly, the very next day, the police picked up Masaram and accused him of securing the release of a ‘Naxalite’. Himanshu went back to court and Masaram was let off. But such harassments continued till Himanshu finally convinced Linga to leave Dantewada and come to Delhi before one or the other war front destroyed him.

With Linga gone and becoming increasingly vocal in the national media about police atrocities and unsustainable resource capture, the police began to train their guns on Soni, harassing her to urge Linga to come back. Having failed to turn him into an informer, they now wanted to declare him a Maoist under any pretext.

One of the CRPF commanders puts it most starkly and unequivocally: “Soni and Linga were targeted to protect the interest of the non-tribal majority against the aboriginal minority. Earlier, the tribals didn’t have a voice, but these two people changed that. Lingaram becoming a journalist was a grave threat to them as he could expose them. A tribal asserting his or her right is a big issue for them. They want to make sure there is no tribal voice.”

IN JULY 2010, all these simmering tensions came to a head. A terrible incident set a vicious cycle into motion that could ensure that at least these two tribal voices will either be silenced forever or tamed into submission.

On 7 July 2010, the Maoists struck Gautam in a brutal attack. Close to 100 Naxals and 150 villagers led by commander Ganesh Ukey circled his house. Gautam’s son was injured; his brother-in-law and servant were killed.

One story goes that the Maoists had asked Gautam to collect Rs 2 crore from the area as protection money, which he had failed to do. This was a warning note. Another story goes that Gautam was trying to centralise all the PDS distribution in the region from his own house, using the Maoists as a curtain and they wanted to teach him a lesson. His argument was that too much of the rations were being forceleaked to the Maoists and operating the ration distribution from his house would ensure the correct people would get it. Gautam hotly denies this. “I have never dabbled in rations or the PDS,” he told TEHELKA.

Gautam, however, used this undoubtedly tragic assault to settle scores with his own rivals. He named 60 people as the accused in his FIR, some of them perhaps genuine aggressors. But he also named Soni Sori and her husband Anil Putane. According to Gautam, Putane (who owns a restaurant business in Geedam) was driving his Mahindra Bolero in circles around the house while it was being attacked.

(Javed, an independent photographer from Mumbai, who has been fearlessly recording the conflict in Chhattisgarh, was also apparently named among the attackers. Another voice to be silenced.)

Soni and Putane have alibis. That night Putane and his Bolero were apparently in Jagdalpur, where he had gone to visit his sick mother-in-law in hospital. Soni was at her ashram in Jabeli.

But more tellingly, even Gautam himself is cagey about having included their names in his FIR. When TEHELKA asked him how he had managed to spot them in all the bloody mayhem, he evasively said some of the names had only been included after police probes. He insisted he had seen Putane’s Bolero in the glow of the streetlights, but would not elaborate on Soni.

He has a reason to be cagey. The police arrested Putane and seized his Bolero on 10 July but did not move against Soni.

Three days later, on 13 July, in a ludicrous and blatantly motivated press conference, the notorious SSP of Dantewada, SRP Kalluri, declared Lingaram Kodopi to be the “mastermind” behind the attack on Gautam. The police also claimed that over the past few months, “Kodopi had received training in terrorist techniques in Delhi and Gujarat (SIC)” and that Linga was “in touch” with writer Arundhati Roy, activist Medha Patkar, and Nandini Sundar, sociology professor at Delhi University.

Linga, of course, was in Delhi studying to be a journalist at the time of the attack. The huge uproar over Kalluri’s defamatory and untenable accusations forced Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwaranjan to retract the statement.

But neither Soni nor Linga’s troubles ended there.

UNION HOME Minister P Chidambaram recently said the Naxal conflict claims more lives than terrorism. But weirdly, life is only one of the sad casualties of the low-intensity war raging through India’s heartland.

The idea of justice, faith, freedom, free will, moral compasses, evidence, a simple sense of right and wrong — every human certitude that could give mental refuge even to the poorest of men — has fallen casualty here.

As Soni’s father says in frustration from his hospital bed, “The Naxals are hitting us from the front and the police from the back. I ask the government to have mercy — please just kill us and be done with it.” He continues with visible despair, “When the Maoists summon us, we just have to go. If you want to live, you go; if you want to die, you don’t go. But if you go, the police come after you. I ask the police, can even their highest officer live in these areas without a gun and not do their bidding when the Maoists summon?”

The unnamed CRPF commander confirms this dilemma, “When I first reached Dantewada, I found a deadly triangle: the State’s forces and Naxals at two ends and the public caught in between. Ninety percent of the villagers and tribals in the area are in touch with the Maoists: they give rations or go for meetings. They feel compelled to do that, otherwise they cannot survive. But the forces cannot distinguish between who is compelled and who is an active collaborator. In this scenario blaming someone as a Maoist to settle a score is very easy.”

In fact, the Maoists themselves seem to have become part of the mess they had sought to fix. Leave alone the deeply problematic ideology of violence and summary deaths that drives them, their fight to safeguard tribals from a rapacious and exploitative State, or train tribals to resist the unfair capture of natural resources and minerals by corporations also seem to have become compromised. The valid question many are raising is: how can contractors and mining operations survive in the region unless the Maoists are allowing them to continue for a hefty price?

Soni and Linga fought to get the minimum wages of tribals doubled, and kicked up a row about policemen pocketing money from illegal teak trade

A senior officer in the forces says the real story behind Soni and Linga’s framing in the Essar pay-off case is that the cops had arrested Lala for not giving them their cut. “Maoist leader Azad had blown up the pipes of Essar’s Chitrakonda pumping station because he was against the over exploitation of natural resources. But Maoist leader Abhay has other ideas. Lala reconstructed those pipes for Essar through deep jungles. It is impossible to imagine that a private contractor could do that without Maoist approval. It’s a place where even the paramilitary do not tread. The police knew this and because he didn’t take care of their interest, they arrested him.”

Based on Lala’s supposed statement to the police, DVES Verma, general manager of Essar in Chhattisgarh, was also recently arrested by the police.

The officer, speaking to TEHELKA offrecord, goes on to conjecture that Linga and Soni were arrested as mere diversion. “The police knew that once they arrest Linga and Soni, civil society will make a hue and cry. Since they have no proof, they will be released soon enough. They don’t really want Lala’s case to be strong. They just want their share of the pie.”

Essar on its part “vehemently rejects all the baseless allegations about any payments to Maoists”.

All of this is cold comfort for Soni. The Lala case and the Gautam case are not the only ones in which she has been framed. In Chhattisgarh, some enmities go beyond fights over money and contracts.

There is also the prohibition against bearing witness. Or raising an independent voice.

Back in 7 July 2010, apart from the deadly attack on Gautam, a 150-strong group of uniformed Naxal cadres had also attacked Kuakonda Police Station and the CRPF camp with rifles and mortar fire. The FIR filed the next day is not yet available to Soni’s lawyers.

On 15 August 2010, the new tehsil office in Kuakonda was also completely demolished by a bomb blast. An FIR was lodged against “unknown Naxalites”.

A month later, on 16 September 2010, Naxalites stopped and burned some trucks in Nerli. The FIR filed is not available.

However, more than three months after the first of these attacks, on 30 October 2010 and then on 11 December 2010, the police filed three chargesheets on these cases. In each of them, staggeringly, Soni had been named as an accused and shown as “absconding”.

Both the witness statements on which these chargesheets are based and the allegation that Soni has been absconding are patently preposterous.

Right through 2010, well past these attacks, and right up to her dash for Delhi on 11 September this year, Soni had been attending her school in Jabeli, signing its register, and going about her business.

Challenged by TEHELKA to answer why the police had not arrested Soni after naming her in all these cases, Dantewada SP Ankit Garg said, “We have continuously tried to arrest her but this region is difficult to navigate. She has been absconding.”

Gautam — Soni’s alleged enemy and a complainant against her — himself exposes Garg’s lie. Eager to prove to TEHELKA that he had no real enmity against Soni, Gautam readily admits that Soni had been going about her normal business all of last year, right until the Lala episode this September. “I myself have met her 4-5 times after the attack on my house,” Gautam says. “If I was her enemy, wouldn’t I have got the police to arrest her?”

The truth is, until recently, the police did not want to arrest Soni. They merely wanted to use the fictitious cases they had concocted against her to harass her and wear her down. If you don’t become an informer, if you don’t urge Linga to come back from Delhi, if you don’t collaborate with the police, we will lock you up like we have locked your husband. That was the constant threat.

Despite this, Soni resisted the pressure. “There are times when I have sat and spoken to both sides,” she had said in the TEHELKA office, “but that is not because I belong either to the police or the Maoists. I just don’t want bloodshed of any kind in my area, because whenever there is a Maoist attack, the police pick up innocent villagers. And whenever the forces manage to attack some camp, the Maoists come searching for informers. Either way, it is we tribals who suffer.”

Even as these many crises eddied around her, Soni received yet another cruel blow. On 14 June this year, her father was brutally attacked and shot in the leg by Maoists. They tied the rest of the family and left them in the jungle and ransacked the house, looting every last possession: gold, utensils, grain, cows. When the family finally broke free and returned in the morning, they found Madru groaning on the floor. His younger daughter had to take an earthen vessel used for pigs to bring him water.

For Soni, with a husband in jail for being a Maoist, and four cases against her for being one herself, the irony could not have been worse. “Can’t the police see, if I or Linga were Maoists, why would our father be attacked?” she says.

No one is sure what brought on the Maoist attack. The hunch is that Soni’s frequent visits to the police with regard to all the cases that had been foisted on her raised Maoist suspicion. Apparently, they summoned her and her father twice to the people’s court. Each time, Soni argued that they should furnish proof before accusing her or her father of being informers.

But on either side of the divide, proof is clearly a sadly dispensable commodity.

NOTHING CAPTURES the brazen charade of arrests and detentions in Chhattisgarh better then the witness statements on which the police chargesheeted Soni.

One of the chargesheets refers to the Maoist attack on the Kuankonda Police Station the night Gautam was attacked. The other chargesheet refers to the attack on the Kuankonda tehsil on Independence Day last year.

The name of the witness in the first chargesheet is Mundra Muchaki. According to him, the morning after the attack, he was going to his farm when he saw some “uniformed Naxals coming out of the jungle with six villagers”. He goes on to name six, including Soni. “Out of fear,” he goes on, “I hid in the jungle and listened to their conversation.” According to him, the Naxals and villagers were discussing the attacks and bemoaning the fact that Gautam and some policemen had survived. The next time we attack, not even one policeman should survive, they asserted. The statement goes on to say, “Later I came to know that in the night the Naxalites and these six people had attacked Gautam and the Kuankonda Police Station.” The statement ends with saying, “Because of fear I have not told anyone, today I am speaking without fear.” The statement is signed and dated 17 October 2010.

It is clearly a serious stretch of imagination to believe that a group of uniformed Naxals and six villagers would be walking around blithely the morning after an attack, having a casual drawing room-conversation style post-morten about it, and at a volume that could be overheard by another villager hiding from them in fear.

But if that weren’t enough dark humour in itself, it appears two other witnesses in the second chargesheet — Muchaki Lasa and Sannu Muchaki — had exactly the same experience about a month later, on the morning after the attack on the Kuankonda tehsil office on Independence Day. They too claim they were going to their farms when they saw “uniformed Naxals coming out of the jungle” with exactly the same six villagers, including Soni (listed in exactly the same order) discussing the attack of the night before. These two witnesses also hid in fear but overheard the conversation; they also learnt “later” that an attack like this had happened the night before; and they too did not speak because of fear earlier, but had now overcome their fear. Their statements too are signed and dated on exactly the same date as the witness in the first chargesheet: 17 October 2010.

So all three witnesses see uniformed Naxals and six villagers coming out of the jungle the “morning after” different crimes, eagerly discussing a postmortem of their attacks the night before, and all three witnesses keep shut for several months out of fear, but overcome their fear enough to testify in exactly the same language on exactly the same date to exactly the same investigating officer?

If this is not crude cut-and-paste postfacto evidence, what is?

The scandalous subversion of justice on display in these witness statements repeats itself in all the chargesheets and witness statements that the police have marshalled so far against Soni.

One of the CRPF commanders currently posted in Dantewada had told TEHELKA barely a few hours before Soni’s arrest, “Things may go wrong sometimes, but we do have a justice system, we have rule of law, we have impartial courts. Please advise Soni to come back to Dantewada and present herself before the police. Let her be arrested. She should have no fear. If she is innocent, she will be able to prove it.”

As Soni is taken back to Chhattisgarh now, the entire State machinery must be reminded of that promise of fairplay and justice. Soni wanted to live and have her story told so the truth could stay alive.

It is every citizen’s duty to keep that faith alive.

SO, WERE Soni and Linga framed in the alleged Essar pay-off case as a smokescreen for some murky plot by the police to get their share of alleged protection money? Or was it to intimidate them from bearing witness in the future?

One crucial piece of this bewildering story remains untold. Perhaps, it is the real key. In March this year, around the anniversary of the massacre of 76 jawans by the Maoists last year, three villages in Dantewada — Tadmetla, Morapalli and Timmapuram — were razed to the ground by the police and SPOs. Three hundred huts were burnt, three villagers were killed, three women raped. The police embargoed the area.

When Swami Agnivesh tried to take a fact-finding group there, he was attacked by an enraged mob even though he had police protection. Several other civil rights groups were similarly thwarted. Finally, under immense pressure, the state government transferred the infamous top cop Kalluri and a judicial probe was promised.

In early April, bypassing police barriers and going via a longer forest route, TEHELKA accessed the affected villages. Eyewitnesses revealed that the attackers were uniformed men, including the CRPF, the Cobra and Koya Commandos and the police. The team was aided by SPOs, some in uniform, others in civilian dress. (See Are We the Enemy You Fear? by Tusha Mittal, 16 April 2011)

Perhaps the only other journalist who got extensive eyewitness accounts, recorded first-hand on camera in the tribals’ own language, was Linga. This must have triggered a frightening premonition for the police in Dantewada.

Having finished his journalism course, Linga had decided to go home for good. Himanshu had tried hard to dissuade him. Linga had laughed and said, “Sir, I want to remove the fear of the police from my heart. I have done no wrong; it’s the police who have. Why must I fear? Is it because I’m an Adivasi and an Adivasi must fear the police?”

Over the past few months, Linga had been meeting both the district collector and the police, pushing for local development and normalcy. Himanshu last heard from him two weeks ago. “Can you arrange for a camera and laptop for me?” he had requested.

Clearly, like Soni, armed with education and courage, Linga was ready to put down confident root in his home soil.

In the internecine world of the war against India’s greatest security threat, nothing could have been a more potent trigger for framing him than that.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka. 

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