On 20 February, Saturday, Soni Sori, the tribal rights activist and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Dantewada at south Bastar in Chhattisgarh, left Jagdalpur at 9 pm and headed home to Geedam. Her friends Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal, who had moved to Jagdalpur in 2013 and founded the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG), had been served an eviction notice on Thursday, following the questioning of their landlord by the local police. On Saturday, they held a press conference about the police intimidation that had forced them out of Jagdalpur. Sori had come for the presser, and had stayed back to bid Gera and Khandelwal goodbye. “She wanted to stay back longer, but it was getting late,” Khandelwal told me, when I spoke to her on Sunday. Sori sat on the passenger seat of a motorcycle, behind her long-time friend, Rinki Thakur. It was a 70 kilometre journey westward on the national highway number 16.
“She was scared,” said Khandelwal. “We had received information that Soni might be attacked. But around here, we receive these kind of threats every other day. We were concerned too, but couldn’t possibly think that it was going to happen that very night.”
On their way home, the women were stopped by three men. “About 17 kilometres before Geedam, three of them came from behind on a motorcycle. They stopped us, and then they took Madam [Sori] a little away from me,” Thakur told me. Sori later told Thakur that one of the men held her hands behind her back, while the other applied a dark liquid substance on her face. Sori could not open her eyes, and felt that her face was burning. Fearing that it could be acid, they rushed to a local hospital in Geedam. It was grease oil—that may have been laced with corrosive substances. Thakur told me that the hospital authorities called an ambulance after treating Sori, and sent her to Maharani hospital back in Jagdalpur.
On Sunday evening, Sori was brought to Delhi, and was immediately admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at the Indraprastha Apollo Hospital. On Monday, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal visited the activist in the hospital. The doctors told The Hindu that her condition is now “stable and there is no threat to her life.”
What happened on Saturday fits with the grim pattern of recent events that have unfolded in Chhattisgarh. Last month, on 10 January, members of the Samajik Ekta Manch, an organisation in Jagdalpur that was recently set up to counter Naxalism in Bastar and support police work, had gone to the house of Malini Subramaniam, an independent journalist. The members of the organisation had threatened her for writing articles that they felt tarnished the image of Bastar police. A month later, on 7 February, the Samajik Ekta Manch staged a protest outside her house, and hurled stones inside.
Last Wednesday, Krishn Kaushik, a staff writer with The Caravan, highlighted the various links between the Samajik Ekta Manch and SRP Kalluri, the chief of police for Bastar range. Kaushik’s story delved into the unsavoury details of Kalluri’s past: allegations ranging from intimidation to torture and rape. According to a report published on Scroll.in, a news website that also featured Subramaniam’s writing regularly, the local police showed up at Subramaniam’s house a few hours after the story was published online. The policemen took Subramaniam’s domestic help to the station for questioning. On Thursday—the day on which Gera and Khandelwal were told that they would have to vacate their home—Subramaniam’s landlord served her an eviction notice too.
In the days preceding the attack, Sori had been raising the issue of an allegedly fake encounter in Mardum at Bastar district. On 15 February, the local police picked up a villager named Hidma from his house in the middle of the night and branded him a Naxalite. On learning of this, Sori had taken Hidma’s family—his wife and daughter who testified that he was picked from his own house and not captured in a conflict—to Raipur and tried to lodge a First Information Report (FIR). She was unsuccessful.
Since Kalluri took over as the chief of police in Bastar in June 2014, there has been a rapid surge in the number of “surrendered Maoists.” In December 2014, The Indian Express reported that over seventy percent of those who had surrendered were “ordinary villagers” who could not be called “surrendered Maoists” according to the eligibility criteria. Kalluri responded by saying that he was “not concerned about the eligibility criteria or the surrender policy.”
Since even before the Hidma encounter, Gera said, Sori had been trying to file an FIR against Kalluri. The 13-point document says that in public meetings, Kalluri instigated the locals to socially boycott Sori and her nephew, Lingaram Kodopi; motivating people to sloganeer outsider her house, terrifying Sori’s children. It also states that on 12 January, in Kunna village of Dantewada district, which comes under Kalluri’s jurisdiction, security forces assaulted people, stripped women, and raped them. Twice, Sori was turned back from police station, her complaint unregistered.
“Sori is the person who has been fighting for the people in this area,” Khandelwal, who has left the town with Gera, told me. “I can’t help but think that all the attacks against us—lawyers and journalists active in Chhattisgarh—are to take her support system away.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Lingaram Kodopi as Soni Sori’s brother. He is her nephew. The Caravan regrets the error.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.