Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) strongly condemns the witch-hunt unleashed on one of their members Soni Sori, her associate Lingaram Kodopi and other villagers by the police in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. We stand in solidarity with the brave villagers in the tribal areas of Bastar in their struggles against repression by the state, with the active collusion of big corporations. Soni Sori and Lingaram have been consistently campaigning against police brutality and arbitrariness, at considerable risk to their own lives. Both of them have faced arrests, custodial torture and subsequent persecution with false cases. The courts have summarily dismissed most of these cases after many years of litigation.

Yet, the police, led by the infamous IG Bastar SRP Kalluri, are continuing their campaign to intimidate, bully and browbeat Soni and her supporters into submission. The latest in a long series of brutal incidents happened in Nihadi village of Dantewada in the last week of July 2015, in which the police claimed to have killed a Maoist, Podia Hemla. However, the villagers term it a fake encounter and say that Podia was unarmed and innocent, and was shot at point blank range by some surrendered Naxalites turned auxiliary constables of the Bastar police. There are witnesses to this cold-blooded killing of Hemla; their lives too are under threat. This version of the incident is corroborated by the updates from Bastar. Soni was one of the people leading the protest against the senseless murder of Podia Hemla. She also led a team of local reporters to the village, where the villagers described the incident to them.

Angered by this, SRP Kalluri, at a meeting in Geedam town, reportedly called her a “Maoist sympathiser” and called for the “excommunication” of Soni, her nephew Lingaram and other leaders in Dantewada. Traders from Geedam even took out a march to Soni’s house; while she was not present there her young daughters, who were home, were terrified by the crowd. Soni has demanded that Kalluri produce evidence to prove his allegations; failing which, she would lodge an FIR and send a complaint to the Human Rights Commission against him, as social excommunication is a crime under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. It needs to be mentioned that such violence against the tribals in Bastar has been going on for nearly a decade now.

This was initially spearheaded by the Salwa Judum through raids upon villages during which villagers were terrorized, illegally arrested or killed, and women raped. Due action against this Salwa Judum by the state government, as ordered by the Honourable Supreme Court in its order of May 2011, is still pending. Instead there appears to be a continuation of the violence initiated then without the front provided by the Salwa Judum. The acquittal and release of women such as Kawasi Hidme reveals how innocent locals are being picked up on charges of being a “naxalite”, illegally kept in police stations and tortured and raped, before sending them to judicial custody, by the local police and central para military forces.

Incidentally, there is an on-going Inquiry into the burning of three villages around Tadmetla in March 2011 by the police when Kalluri was posted in Bastar. He had been transferred out to facilitate an independent inquiry; however he has been brought back even while this inquiry is on, with more sweeping powers now. It needs to be also made known that when Kalluri was posted in Sarguja in 2006 he and his men were involved in the illegal confinement and rape, for nearly ten days of a tribal woman Ledhabai. She picked up the courage to bring a case against them, and recorded her statement with the magistrate recording her rape by Kalluri himself and other policemen. However, she was intimidated and threatened and forced to not only withdraw this case, but to complain against her lawyers. Thus, IG Kalluri’s governance appears to be marked by disrespect for the rule of law. The findings of the Anita Jha Judicial Commission Enquiry into the rape and murder of a minor tribal girl Meena Khalkho in Sarguja, in July 2011, bear testimony to such lawlessness of the state police force.

The Enquiry report clearly establishes that she was not a naxalite as alleged by the police, that there was forcible sexual assault on her, and that she was shot at close range below the waist with police weapons. This report thus corroborates what WSS has been raising for several years now – the grave issue of sexual assault on tribal women picked up as naxalites and then throwing them into prison, or murdering them as in the case of young Meena. It may also be noted that the police have sought the help of Soni Sori to diffuse the situations when villagers have ghearaoed police stations demanding release of their falsely implicated relatives, or arrests of juveniles as in the case of arrest of three juvenile girls of Kormagunda village, of Kukanar thana, district Sukma, April 2015.

In all these instances Soni Sori has stepped in seeking to ensure that the rule of law takes precedence at all times and no untoward violence takes place. WSS denounces Kalluri’s unconstitutional actions against Soni Sori and strongly condemns the daily harassment and intimidation that Soni, Lingaram and others (including villagers, as well as their own lawyers) are facing at the hands of the Bastar polices. WSS supports Soni Sori’s demand that the Chhattisgarh police must produce evidence for statements alleging that Soni and others have Maoist links. If they are unable to do so, they must withdraw their statement and tender an apology to those persons against whom they have made such allegations. WSS demands that the central and state governments take steps to end such violence that constitute a grave violation of the democratic rights and liberties of the adivasis in Bastar. We further demand that:

* The state government take immediate steps to end the harassment and intimidation of Soni Sori and others in Dantewada/Geedam.

* The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) take cognisance of the increasing numbers of fake encounter murders and arrests, including that of juveniles, in Chhattisgarh, and initiate enquiries into these incidents.

* The police, their auxiliary constables and local politicians stop with immediate effect:

— Threatening and intimidating Soni and her supporters.

— Terrorising villagers, neighbours and relatives and forcing them to excommunicate the protesters.

— Slapping old cases on Soni and Linga in an effort to bully them.

WSS lauds the perseverance and courage of Soni Sori, Lingaram and their associates to prevent continued human rights violations in Bastar, despite the persecution and hostility shown towards them by the police in Bastar. WSS is a non-funded national network of women’s organisations and collectives, democratic rights and students’ groups, and progressive individuals working on sexual violence by state and non-state forces.

18th August 2015

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