Hidme Kawasi meekly peeks from behind the curtain. Her angelic, youthful face with high cheekbones doesn’t betray her story, but her dark brown, sad eyes do. Upon coaxing, Hidme steps from behind the curtain. I’m still unsure if this is the girl I traveled for hours to meet.
Both these women were arrested on the charges of being Naxalites in this Maoist-hit state in central India. Both of them were tortured in custody and sexually expolited by men in uniform. Now, they have vowed to rescue others who have been wrongly incarcerated in a battle between the state and the Reds.
Activists estimate that there are almost 2,000 cases in which tribals have been languishing in jail from two to seven years. Hidme was recently acquitted after seven-and-a-half years of imprisonment.
“All women in jails in Chhattisgarh have similar stories of atrocities. I remember this inmate who was two months pregnant during her arrest and how she was shackled even during delivery,” recalls Soni, who travels to remote villages documenting violence against the tribals despite her fragile health.
Even after she had a C-section and they shackled her hands and feet for the next fortnight in the jail’s hospital, Soni murmurs. “She was unable to feed her infant and she would have to keep on requesting the jailer to untie one hand at a time while feeding her daughter. The jailer would yell back at her and tell her not to make excuses. Finally, they would relent.”
After six years, Soni’s friend in prison had to let go of her daughter as a child cannot stay with her mother in jail after the age of six. “It’s been two years since then, and she misses her daughter. She was falsely accused of being a naxalite, like most of us. After several years of incarceration, these women are acquitted. There are 80-90 female tribal undertrails who are enduring this fate in that jail,” Soni explains.
After her torture and sexual violence in jail and police stations, Soni feels her struggle is not hers alone, but belongs to everyone.
Hidme watches Soni as she articulates the pain of her people – both men and women – unjustly arrested, tortured, raped and displaced from their land by a state hell-bent on increasing the country’s GDP at their cost.
Soni tells us the story of another friend who was picked up when she was a minor. “Since we are tribals, we don’t know our age because we don’t visit hospitals for delivering babies. Many minors have been jailed as police don’t ascertain their age. Pratibha (name changed) was 15 years old when she was brought in on the charges of being a naxalite,” Soni says.
Upon inquiry, Soni discovered that Pratibha was “a simple villager who was trying to flee the security forces before she was shot in the arm”. Pratibha was hiding from the police out of fear, and now she has spent 8 years in jail, she adds.
Hidme who is quietly sitting on the bed next to Soni doesn’t want to talk bout the stitches on her stomach. She was picked up by the police while attending a fair in January 2008, and was charged under draconian laws such as the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) – a law that enables the state to hold people guilty by association in India.
During her 15 days in police detention at Borguda, Sukma and Dantewada police stations seven-and-a-half years ago, 16-year-old Hidme was sexually assaulted and beaten with sticks by the police. Soon she spotted blood in her urine, Soni tells us.
Hidme’s uterus slipped out after the torture she endured. Despite the pain, she tried to put it back in unsucessfully. The following day, she tried to sever it with a blade. It was then, the other inmates intervened and she was taken to the hospital where she was operated. Those 12 stitches remind Hidme of days she never talks about – the day she tried to put her flesh back into her body.
Hidme’s story resonates Soni’s. After Soni’s incarceration in Tihar jail, she was taken to Raipur jail, in serious condition. She was assaulted so brutally, she was unable to stand.
Recalling her first encounter with Hidme in prison, Soni remembers, “I was filthy. Somehow, I ended up in Hidme’s cell. I had no idea who she was. My body was swollen as they had kicked me. That day, I was forcibly discharged from Raipur hospital by the police, who yanked the saline drips out of my arms.”
“I was asleep when I felt someone tug at my feet. I was frightened because I thought someone was trying to kill me. It was Hidme. Someone had told her I was from Bastar, so she started talking to me in Gondi. I sat up with a start. Then she told me her story. We sat talking all night. From that point on, we always stayed together in jail,” elaborates Soni.
Exceptional circumstances give rise to exceptional friendships and the bond Soni and Hidme share is best descibed in Soni’s words as “unbreakable”.
After two years in jail, Soni was about to be released. This saddened Hidme as she would miss her only friend. “Hidme started crying. I assured her I would work for her release. But she said she would never get out and would die there. I promised her,” Soni explains. A year later, Soni’s promise to Hidme stood fulfilled.
Hidme is “very special” and she tells us why. “When I was unable to move, she bathed me and helped me sit up in the sun like a child. When they gave me electric shocks on my soles, they turned black. Hidme would spend hours massaging my feet. I’ll never forget what she has done for me,” shares a misty-eyed Soni as Hidme silently looks on.
After her release, Hidme lives with Soni and her children as she doesn’t have a family. Hidme confides in Soni. “Hidme tells me that I’m her friend, her mother, her everything. She tells me her most intimate secrets… even her most painful injuries. She’s happy when she’s around me and I love having her around, too. She is still ill and doesn’t eat much. I feel she needs treatment in Delhi. I will take her there soon. Then we will help more women like us get out of jail and heal.”
Finally, Hidme nods and breaks into a beaming smile.