Organizing Against Sexual Violence in India: An Interview with Soni Sori

Illustration: Olivier Kugler

Source: The New Internationalist

Soni Sori describes herself as ‘just a small teacher’ from the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh, one of India’s most mineral-rich states. But, in reality, she organizes Adivasi (indigenous) women to speak out against the sexual violence and assaults they have endured at the hands of the local police and the central government’s security forces stationed there to fight what the government refers to as ‘leftwing extremism’. Sori has gone public about her own experiences of sexual torture when she was jailed.

DB: What do Adivasi people think about their situation?

SS: The questions that I always get asked first by Adivasis is: why are we getting beaten up by the police? Why do they barge into our homes and take our supplies, eat our chicken, rice and lentils, and beat us up like animals? We never asked the government for electricity, water supply, roads or schools. We are happy with our jaljangaljameen[water, forests and land]. We treat the police and the Naxalites [Maoists] alike… If they ask for water, we won’t refuse. So how are we wrong? The police ask us why we go to the Naxal committee meetings… there’s a problem even when we don’t go. When women go to fill water from the tankers, placing their containers waiting in line, the forces patrolling the area fling [away] the vessels, saying, ‘This water belongs to our government and not yours. You cannot have it.’ Why such treatment?

Perhaps we Adivasis cannot do anything since we are not educated, we have no wealth and cars; perhaps that’s why the government is biased against us, people say to me. But then I tell them that this land, forest and water is yours and they want it, that’s why they beat you. You need to fight this injustice. If someone is raping you, you need to talk about it. When I talk to them, these women feel encouraged. Then they say they will fight.

Even though there’s no concept of mangalsutra [a necklace worn by a Hindu woman that identifies her as married] in the Adivasi communities, some girls in our community have started wearing it, thinking that would spare them from the police and paramilitary’s lust for unmarried virgin girls. But even that has not helped them. They still face humiliation and abuse.

How do the men react to this violence?

If the police see them, they will either be killed in an encounter [extrajudicial killing], jailed or forcibly made to ‘surrender’ for being a Maoist. That’s why they run or hide upon spotting the police. If they had someone to lead them, they would unite and resist.

They have a language barrier. They don’t understand the constitution and law, and don’t know how to invoke their rights. The Chhattisgarh government boasts of having made education accessible to all, but that’s a lie. There’s no education in the villages. If that were to happen, it would be very problematic for the government.

What other problems do Adivasis face?

Elders in the community oppose the celebrations of Hindu festivals. They are the old guardians of Adivasis and our way of living with the integral role of jaljangal and jameen in our lives. We worship mother nature. We feel that these festivals are imports from an alien culture brought in by those who went ‘outside’. Cultural appropriation is on the rise and our identity and survival are at stake. The elders disapprove of fireworks during Diwali [Hindu festival of light] and worry about the damage they cause to our land, forests and natural habitat. They oppose anything that is premised on a materialist way of life, which is not ours. About Raksha Bandhan [Hindu festival where a sister binds a thread on her brother’s wrist to symbolize their bond], they say that our relations are bound by heart and not by a piece of thread.

But the new generation is a little disconnected from the ethical framework of the Adivasi community. Some of them view the elders’ insistence on the Adivasi way of life as puritanical or backward. Also, the government takes Adivasi children away from jungles to educate them. What they are teaching them in those schools is just propaganda in favour of ‘vikas’ [development]. So the children come back home and demand vikas, not knowing what it really is. ‘Development’ has destroyed our jaljangal and jameen – what kind of development is that? This is how Adivasi thinking is being tacitly influenced by the state. This, too, is our battleground.

For example, if a father is being sent to jail, his son will be scared of going to court. The reason given is that it will hamper his studies. However, the boy who lives in the village witnesses daily atrocities and feels the injustice meted out to his people, so will always stand up for his father. But if you bring the same boy to the city and educate him there, he will refuse to go to court for his father and instead feel embarrassed. All this is being done to divide us so that we forsake our land for the state to exploit.

Do you think the state exploits this difference in thinking between children who grow up away from the forest and those who reside with their families?

Yes. I recall visiting a residential school called Eklavya for boys and girls who come from far-flung areas in Katikalyan. It is deep in the forest and has been declared a Naxal zone by the state. This pretext was used to shift the kids to a city. I surveyed the school and found that there were only two toilets for 300 kids and there was no boundary wall for safety around the building. Girls studying up to the twelfth grade [the last school year] would have to go into the forest for defecation. There was no privacy even to bathe. The state has deliberately created such unbearable conditions so that the children ask to be shifted.

I told the children that first they should demand more toilets and a boundary wall. I told them that if they don’t fight for the right things, then Bastar (a district state of Chhattisgarh) will not survive, nor will the places where their parents live. We will all be wiped out. We are educating children so that they carry forward our struggles in a better way, and not so that they turn their backs on us. Later, they protested against being shifted to an urban area. But the authorities shifted them anyway. This is how they manipulate and transform Adivasis’ thinking at the school level.

What do you think is the aim of this exercise?

The aim is to impart such an education to young people that they start hating their own forest habitat and demand vikas like everyone else. We want development too, but not the kind that destroys forests and communities to make space for big buildings. This is what is being fed to the young children these days… that the forests where their parents live should be cleared and new infrastructure built, where they will get jobs. That is why we want to open separate schools for them.

You mentioned the state wants to clear the forests. What is happening to Bastar’s forests?

In Bailadila region, the National Mineral Development Corporation operates a mine. The forests and even the mines belong to us but our situation is no better than beggars in our own land. People don’t get any jobs and don’t have access to basic healthcare. Now they regret giving their land to the corporation. When they resist, there are killings to clear the people off the land. In the name of fighting Naxalites, the state is eliminating Adivasis. There is a political economy that has taken shape around this – the politicians want to fill their coffers at the cost of the people who are the ultimate victims of a false war against the Naxalites. We have to keep fighting. If we choose to be mute spectators, it would be the victory of evil and injustice.

Dilnaz Boga is a journalist from Mumbai. She has worked for Srinagar-based website Kashmir Dispatch as well as for the Hindustan Times as chief copy editor on the international desk.