Edited Excerpts from an Interview
In an interview you gave to TEHELKA in 2011, you expressed your wish to return to Chhattisgarh and empower people using education. You also said that if tribals don’t stand up for themselves, they will not survive for long. It’s been two-and-a-half years since. Do you think the torture and trauma of this journey have shattered your spirit? Or are you still ready to continue your struggle?
Earlier, when I talked of these things, I always kept in mind that everything has to be legal, without going against the government. But I didn’t know how I could bring about development and promote education. Now that I have been granted bail after two-and-a-half years, after all the torture and suffering, I feel there is a fire in me and find myself much stronger. I strongly feel I should continue my fight. I am going back to my native land, my Chhattisgarh, with this determination that I have to carry on my struggle for development and education. All tribal and Dalit men and women must learn to speak up against violence and exploitation. I want them to fight for their rights, to stand up for themselves when they are wronged. My experience in jail has not shattered me, it has given me power.
Do you think you face a threat in Chhattisgarh?
There is danger ahead. When I was remanded in police custody, SP Ankit Garg subjected me to torture and rape. I sought help from many, but nobody came forward to my rescue. I was born in Chhattisgarh and thought a complaint against my state in another would result in humiliation. But I was forced to make the matter national by writing a letter. The government is like one’s family, its honour is like one’s own. It’s sad that I was forced to bring the disgraceful issue out. I was working as a teacher for the same government for which Ankit Garg was working. After what he had done to me, why did the government reward him? Why was I not given justice? My birthplace will eventually become my graveyard.
What is the threat you are facing?
I think when I reach there, they will kill me. Because I am going to bring out the truth and the truth scares them. There are many others who have suffered. After being in jail, I have come to know of the injustice against many people, especially women. I am going to bring it all out at the right time.
What kind of injustice?
There are girls who were kept in police stations for 15 days, raped and tortured. There are others who were shot and are still languishing in jails. Some girls had to undergo operations. There was a girl who always stayed with me in jail. She told me that for one month she was kept in different police stations and sexually assaulted. She was an uneducated tribal and could not tell the exact names of the police stations but referred to them as Bacheli thana or Kirandul thana. For one month, she was beaten, kicked and raped. Then they shifted her to a police station in Sukma district where she was admitted to a hospital. After 15 days, they sent her to jail before she could recover. A few months later, organs that were probably her ovaries came out of her uterus, which she even tried to cut with a blade and she was then sent to surgery. There were complications later and another surgery was required.
There were girls whose nipples had been chopped and given electric shocks. The girls said they had suffered and could not even expose their ghastly ordeals. Their stories gave me inspiration to survive my ordeal. They have told me not to speak of it because they fear the consequences of exposing the torture.
All these incidents took place in police stations and not in jails?
Yes, in police stations. In jails, rapes don’t take place. There are other problems… we are made to work a lot, the food is not good, our health is not taken care of, we are not taken for hearings. If we are not taken to court, how can the cases be disposed of? I had to struggle to be taken for hearings. Many others had been in jail for months and never been presented before a court.
Can you recount the torture you were subjected to?
I have been asserting my innocence since the beginning. When I was arrested and brought to Saket District Court in New Delhi, I had appealed that I should not be sent to Chhattisgarh. I apprehended torture after seeing villagers being killed, girls being raped and murdered. I knew what the police could do. When Linga (Lingaram Kodopi) was arrested, SP Amrish Misra harassed me a lot. I tried telling the judge in Saket all this but he was confident that nothing wrong would happen. So I was transferred to Chhattisgarh. On being presented at a Chhattisgarh court, I was sent to two days of police custody. That’s where SP Ankit Garg, Anshuman Sisodia and other policemen tortured me. If there was a case against me, the court would have decided. Why did they have to torture me?
Was there a female police officer with you during your remand?
Yes, there was a female police officer and another constable, Sangram, who is my relative. He had assured me that nothing would go wrong and told me not to worry. On the morning of 8 October 2011, we reached there. The same day I was taken to a hospital for medical check-up and then brought to the court. In the evening, I was remanded to police custody for two days and taken to the police station. The incident took place at night. I was not given food or a mattress. I had to sleep on the cold floor. We only got some water to drink and tea. At night, Ankit Garg arrived and summoned me to his room. He ordered the accompanying female police officers to leave the room and threatened them not to mention it to anybody. In the room, Ankit Garg and SDPO Anshuman Sisodia were present. At the orders of Ankit Garg, policemen in plainclothes tortured me. First, they stripped me and then I was kept naked while they watched and Garg abused me. Who gave him the right to do this? Why has no action been taken against him?
Were they interrogating you while subjecting you to torture?
They asked me several questions. They asked me about Swami Agnivesh, Prashant Bhushan, Colin Gonsalves, Himanshu Kumar, Nandini Sundar, Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar. They thrashed me and told me to sign a confessional statement which said that these people were Naxalites and part of the CPI(Maoist) urban network. The statement said that I was an informant and passed information to this Maoist network. They also said that these people had connections with the Naxalites and I was aware of it, but I denied any knowledge of this. I refused to sign the statement. All I know about them is that they are intellectuals and social activists. I told him I did not know whether they are Naxalites or not. But he kept on telling me to sign it and become an approver. They also asked me to participate in counter-Naxal operations and promised to release me in return.
Garg also asked me to accept that the Maoists had trained Linga to be a journalist so that he can work for them, which I denied. How could I accept this? So, he abused me and told me that I was no teacher but had sold myself off to the Naxalites and that is why the Naxalites were allowing me to work there. I pointed out that I was also living under Naxalite threat and that my work was the same as his. I said, “Why don’t you see the kind of work I am doing there, putting my life at risk. We both want Naxalism to end. You use the gun and my weapon is education. What’s the difference then?” But he kept swearing at me.
He abused me when I told him about the flag incident. Once, the Naxalites had come to my ashram and asked me to take down the tricolour and hoist a black flag instead. I refused. They said they would kill me and I told them I was ready to die. And I hoisted the tricolour. But when I narrated this incident to Ankit Garg, he abused me asking if I even knew what a national flag meant. I had the courage to challenge an armed Naxalite and hoist the tricolour, but this is what a government officer had to say to me. Am I not a citizen of this country? Why would I not know what my flag stands for? The Naxalites could have punished me for not listening to them; instead my own country’s government officer punished me for standing up for our national flag. This is why I consider education important because it has enabled me to hold a dialogue with the Naxalites regarding all issues. For instance, the Naxalites were pulling down ashrams, four of them were destroyed.
Did they destroy ashrams (hostels) with bombs during encounters?
No, they attacked these ashrams at night with bombs. They called all the teachers for a Jan Adalat. I went but no one else turned up. I went there because I have to live in a Naxal-dominated area. I teach kids there and so I must listen to what the Naxalites have to say. The Naxals said they were going to demolish the ashrams, claiming that the security forces use these as shelters during incursions into the hinterland. They said my ashram would also be pulled down. I questioned the Maoists if their fight was against the government or the people, because the ashram serves the people. If they destroyed the schools because of the police, where would the children go? If they are fighting for the people, how can they destroy their homes and schools? So, they said we will leave your ashram on one condition.
What was the condition?
I felt bad that the students at the school are like my own children and asked them not to do it. Though I had no ground, I committed that security forces would never camp in my ashram. I realised that I could not stop the police from coming here. The Maoists warned me that if I allowed the police to camp in my ashram, they would punish me in their Jan Adalat. I risked my life and accepted the condition. So, they left my ashram alone. Now, I was worried how to stop the police from coming. It wasn’t possible for me to go and tell them about the Naxalites. Then I met the block officer, Shrikant Dubey, and the education officer and told them everything. I requested them to make sure the security personnel don’t come to stay in our schools. It was by god’s grace that the police came and patrolled near our perimeter but never entered the school. My school functioned in peace while all other ashrams were demolished. This is what bothered the police. How was I able to keep everything going right? This is why Ankit Garg accused me of prostituting my body to Naxal leaders. If I could talk things out with the Naxals because I was educated, honest and worked for development, what was wrong with that?
How did your children react to your absence?
I have three children. My eldest daughter is 14, youngest is 8 and my son is 12. The eldest one lives with her uncle, the son is staying at a Dantewada hostel and the youngest one is in Palnar. Earlier, the youngest one stayed with my father. But the Naxalites attacked his house and shot him in the leg, leaving him handicapped. So, I sent her to stay at a village hostel in POTA Cabin, Palnar. There, she contracted a severe illness. When her condition worsened, they sent her back to my father. Today (9 February), she is coming to Delhi for medical treatment and will undergo an operation. I phoned the district collector on 19 January asking him why my daughter was sent to my disabled father. The ashram must take care of her education as well as health. It was their duty to admit my daughter in the hospital, give her medical treatment and then inform the family.
The doctor said there are multiple cysts in her stomach. My daughter had requested her teachers several times to take her to a better hospital. She told them that I was in judicial custody and her father was dead. But they did not listen and sent her to her grandfather instead of admitting her to a proper hospital. Earlier, four children had died in POTA Cabin but the government hushed up the matter. Such is the condition of this school.
What do you think of the Chhattisgarh government after your ordeal?
I feel the government discriminated against me. The Chhattisgarh government never accepted what happened with me was wrong; that the officer, who worked under the government, had committed a crime. It never offered to set up a team to probe the matter and there was no action against him. I feel the government is just as guilty as Ankit Garg. If it had only set up an investigation team, I would feel that the government is by my side. But nothing has been done. The case against me is a different thing. But the government should have set up a team to probe the injustice done to me while in police custody.
Did you write any letters about your experience?
I wrote many letters but they were not allowed to reach the authorities. During my hunger strike, I issued a statement requesting the chief minister to meet me. I wanted to ask him why he does not care for the injustice done to me. I am a native of Chhattisgarh, a tribal woman. I wanted him to tell me what action his government was taking and why I have been subjected to such injustice. But he never met me, nor did he send a word. So, I felt he did not care about the tribals. We are not even humans for him. Why would a minister listen to a tribal?
During your jail term, did any of the political parties come forward to help you?
Nobody came from Chhattisgarh. The Chhattisgarh media did extend a lot of support. But no political party, leader, NGO or any organisation came forward. My family was under pressure. However, there was one person, an MLA, who visited me. It meant a lot to me.
Your uncle had been a CPI MLA once. Did the CPI also not extend any help to you?
No, none at all. None of them came to visit. They might have been under pressure.
If it were not for the Supreme Court’s intervention, would you have made it out of this situation?
No, it would have been difficult. In the lower courts, I was not given a chance to even speak of the atrocities I faced. How could I expect to get justice? There are thousands of people who have been framed just like me. But I was not even heard by the court. They did not take me to the court after police custody. The magistrate had remanded me to police custody and I had to appear in her court two days later. But, they left me, half-dead with injuries, in the back of a car. The magistrate did not even order them to bring me to her, to find out how I was doing. Even if I was injured, was it not her duty to summon me? When I appeared in court the next time, she enquired why I had not come to court the last time? I told her that she had not summoned me. She said she was informed that I had slipped in the bathroom. Shouldn’t she have found out how and why it happened? She said if I had complained to her that day, she would have suspended Ankit Garg. Then, why didn’t she summon me to court? The treatment meted out by Ankit Garg, the trauma I have suffered; will I ever get justice for it? Later, when the lower court rejected my bail plea, I appealed for bail in the high court in the Essar case, hopeful that the judiciary will not reject it. But when the high court rejected my bail, it hurt me the most and I lost all hope. The same court had granted bail to BK Lala and DVCS Verma (contractor and manager for Essar, respectively, and her co-accused), then why were Linga and I denied bail? The police recovered money from Lala’s house. Then why was he freed from custody? Linga and I were kept imprisoned for two-and-a-half years, our bail pleas were rejected and we did not have any money. On the one hand, the government says it is fighting Naxalism. On the other, it protects such companies. Do you think a poor tribal woman like me is capable of paying crores to the Naxalites? When the companies are found involved, the State lets them go.
How has the experience affected you?
I used to wonder what forces someone to become a Naxalite. Now I realise that life is made so tough for them that they are ultimately forced to become Naxals. The government is equally responsible for it. Why has it allowed such atrocities to take place? Why is it driving people to take the wrong path? But I am a teacher. I believe in the power of the pen and have faith in my education. I am not going to let go of my education or my pen. If I were not educated, perhaps, I would have been driven to Naxalism too. There is nothing left in my life. There’s no home, no job, my children have been separated, my husband and my mother are dead and my father disabled. After suffering for two-and- a-half years, this thought could have crossed my mind that there is no choice left for me but turn into a Naxalite. But I have been taught that the pen is mightier than a gun. There are other tribals languishing in jails for 8-9 years in false cases and they might consider becoming Naxals. Naxalism is only going to grow if it continues this way.
Why did your name appear in the FIR lodged by Congress leader Avdhesh Gautam?
Even I don’t understand it. I had a rift with Avdhesh Gautam over the misuse of development funds. Gautam and others had created cooperative societies at the block level, which created problems for the tribals, who had to travel 20-30 km to get rice. I raised the issue in Delhi as well as with TEHELKA. When government funds arrived for building schools in a block, the contractors would refuse to construct the building saying that there was a threat from the Naxals. But they have to show on paper that the funds have been used. So, they would construct the building somewhere else. I raised the issue of this illegal diversion. I talked to the villagers and construction work started. My school in Jabeli was also set up. They could not tolerate that a tribal woman who was merely a teacher was speaking up so boldly and getting work done.
So, government funds are looted or diverted and when tribals raise their voice against it, they are framed in false charges?
I can show several instances where money was meant for one area but was diverted. Gautam’s wife was the block samiti chairperson. I often told him in meetings to invest the money for development in the assigned block. If the Naxalites blow up buildings, the solution is not to stop constructing them. I say that thousands of policemen die in encounters and ambushes. But has police recruitment or deployment stopped? Then why stop developmental work?
When you raised your voice, were you pressurised by the administration?
No, the education officer and district collector supported me. Gautam and others felt that I had got backing because both Linga and I were in touch with the collector. My only aim was to provide education to the villagers and aid in their development.
When the FIR named you, did anyone come to conduct an investigation?
No, and that’s what I told the magistrate too. The police issued warrants in four cases — the Avdhesh Gautam case, attack on a police station, attack in Kuakonda and another attack in which police vans were set on fire. I asked the police on what basis had they issued the warrants though they had no proof that I had participated in those attacks? But they said there was a case against me and they had to arrest me even without a proper investigation.
You fled Chhattisgarh in September 2011 and came to Delhi and spoke with TEHELKA and the rest of the media. Do you think things would have been better, had you stayed back in Chhattisgarh?
I had information that had I remained there, I would be killed in a fake encounter and my body would be clad in a Maoist militia uniform to make the world think I was a Maoist. During my torture, even Ankit Garg cursed me and said that I was lucky that I had fled to Delhi, else he would have had me killed. Also, they told the media that Linga was caught with Rs 15 lakh and I fled from the scene. So, the Naxalites started hunting me because they thought I was trying to collect their levy under the pretext of being a Maoist. A Maoist Jan Adalat would have given me a death sentence. I was caught between the two powerful forces trying to kill me. I fled to Delhi to save my life and reveal the truth. Had I remained in Chhattisgarh, my death would have been imminent.
But why did Ankit Garg want the Maoists to be after you?
When Linga had exposed several things and uploaded videos on YouTube, I had supported him. Earlier also, he had been put in jail. I also helped him get bail from the high court in that case. When he shifted to Delhi to study, I continued to support him and he became a journalist and started exposing the truth about the state of tribals caught in the middle of the Naxal vs government conflict. So, they wanted vindication from a tribal who was exposing the truth about police oppression.
How else do you establish your innocence?
I thought I would go to court and present my testimony, but two years passed. Initially, the police said it could finish the warrants issued against me and the cases. They said I would have to help with counter-insurgency operations. But, I don’t know where their camps were and said that I was a teacher. The police also says that I was absconding for two years. Then how was I drawing a salary from the education department of the state during those two years? I was always present at the school. I pointed this out to the magistrate and the police had no answer. Nevertheless, the magistrate remanded me to custody and said she would probe it later.
You gave a long interview to TEHELKA and we carried several stories on you. Do you think it helped?
Of course. Initially, TEHELKA asked how could they carry a story on my word alone. I said that the only way was to make the constable who was trying to frame me, to make him somehow speak the truth. They then carried out a sting operation on this constable and that was the beginning of the truth. When that news broke, my innocence was established. How would I have done it on my own? The Maoists also learned the truth and it gave me a clean chit everywhere even though I was in jail. The government also learnt that the police can make someone an informer and have them killed by the Maoists. The Naxals don’t only kill suspected police informants but the police often creates that situation and that is what my story reveals.
Maoist sources have claimed that you were in touch with a CRPF commandant and had promised to point out Maoist camps to them.
There was no such arrangement between me and any security personnel.
Did you know BK Lala before the case?
I had never met him or knew him until the case nor had he ever known me.
What was your interaction with the Maoists?
They would come and ask me if I was feeding and teaching the children well or not. I told them to check with the children how much and what I teach them, their diet. How can I evaluate myself?
Did you ever raise your voice against the arbitrary punishments by the Maoists after their kangaroo courts? Even your father was shot at by the Maoists.
There was very little of the kangaroo courts. When my father was shot, I questioned them. The Maoists had called my father and they claimed that people had complained he was trying to grab their land illegally. I told them they should have heard both sides before punishing my father. My father stuck to his stand that he had never tried to grab anyone’s land. Even after so many years, I have got no closure on this issue. At many times, SP Kalluri used to come to our house and talk to my father. Maybe, the Maoists thought that since the police came to our house, my father was an informant.
The civil society also stepped in to support you. Did that support yield any results?
After I was stripped and tortured, I wrote to Himanshu Kumar and he revealed it to the world. Pressure was created from the country’s capital and there was a movement to support me. This created a lot of pressure. Not just me but all the jail inmates benefited from this because people were standing up for a poor, tribal woman.
So, what is the next step?
On my return to Chhattisgarh, I will help with my father’s farming. I will rebuild my life. I will stay with my father at my birthplace and live with dignity and fight with honesty. I will also return to teaching at some point. But before that, I need to talk to the state government and see from what perspective the government views me.
So, you want to return to government teaching?
Yes, the Chhattisgarh government is my own because I am from there. I want to see what the government can do for me. If I get any support from the government, I will return to teaching children the way I used to. Otherwise, I will look for funding for the education of tribal children. It is my dream to ensure that tribal children become IAS officers, judges, doctors and engineers.