- PAVAN DAHAT
Until a year ago, Soni Sori symbolised the plight of Bastar tribals — tortured, humiliated and caught in the conflict between Maoists and the state.
But now, she is fast emerging as the face of a protest the tribals have launched against the violence and repression from the state as well as from the rebels.
Many expected her to vanish from the political scene after she lost the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Bastar, where she was the Aam Aadmi Party candidate. Instead, she started fighting for the tribals, at the forefront of every protest organised in Bastar in the last one year.
“The police abducted a woman, named Sukadi, from the neighbouring Bade Gurbe village in November 2014 and claimed that she might have gone missing. They [the police] branded her husband Ayata Mandavi a Maoist and forced him to go into hiding. Soni Didi [sister] led our protest,” says Mudakram Sodi, Sarpanch of Jangampal village under the Kukanar police station in Sukma district.
Sukadi was freed after Soni Sori led a three-day protest by thousands of tribals, who surrounded the Kukanar station.
This was the first major protest she led. Her following increased by thousands as Ayata Mandavi, an influential BJP leader in Kukanar, switched loyalties to Soni Sori and the AAP along with thousands of his supporters.
In January this year, Bhima Nupo, a tribal from Rewali village in Dantewada district, was allegedly shot dead by security forces. Soni Sori led a march of 7,000 tribals from Rewali and 20 gram panchayats to the Kuakonda station, forcing the district administration to order an inquiry and give the victim’s family compensation.
“Even if a single villager is beaten up or detained by the police these days, they [the tribals] call me and I stand in support of them because I have seen harassment, exploitation and torture when I spent two-and-a-half years in jails,” says Soni Sori.
“The only condition I put forth for participation is that no protester should be armed, even with traditional bow and arrow or stick,” says Soni Sori, who recently led protests in the Tongpal block of Sukma and Modenar village of Dantewada against “unjustified police actions.”
Police create trouble
However, the Chhattisgarh police, who had branded her a “Maoist conduit” a few years ago, continue to create trouble for her.
“They [the police] come to my home at odd hours and threaten that they will get my bail [granted by the Supreme Court] cancelled. This is having a bad impact on my children and I am thinking of moving them out of Dantewada,” says Soni Sori, who has three children and who lost her husband in 2013.
“The police even instigated some of my relatives to write letters to the district administration against me. However, I will strive for the people of Bastar for the rest of my life, no matter how many roadblocks they put up,” she says.