THIS IS the story of a tribal woman named Soni Sori, 35, a teacher in a government primary school. As you read this, she hides in the jungles of Chhattisgarh. She is hiding because, perhaps, she knows too much. When Sori spoke to this correspondent in hurried, muffled phrases on the evening of 11 September, she had just shifted location. That afternoon, as she hid in mountainous terrain, there was the thud of boots closing in. She ran. They fired. She lived.
This is the story of a tribal man named Lingaram Kodopi, 25, a jeep driver from Chhattisgarh. He was once wooed by the banned CPI(Maoist), offered a party position. He refused. He has since been threatened. He was once locked up inside a toilet in the Dantewada Police Station for 40 days, brutally beaten, then offered Rs 12,000 a month to become a Special Police Officer (SPO). He refused. He has since been on police radar. In September 2009, Kodopi did what many others in Chhattisgarh’s conflict zone have been compelled to do: he fled. In Delhi, Kodopi lived in the basement of an NGO and enrolled in a journalism course in Noida. “I know I will be arrested if I go back home,” Kodopi told TEHELKA last year. “But why should I be afraid? I want to do something for my community. Both the Naxals and the police threaten me because they know I don’t fear them.”He returned to Dantewada in April this year after 300 homes were razed to rubble in a three-day police operation. He visited the burnt villages of Morpalli, Tadmetla and Timmapuram, saw the debris of attacks by the COBRA and Koya Commandos, met raped women and recorded on video precise narrations of police atrocities. He began to document the stories of his own people.Kodopi was arrested on 10 September. Dantewada SP Ankit Garg confirmed that he has been booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act, and Sections 121, 124A and 120 B of the IPC for criminal conspiracy, sedition and waging war against the State.On Independence Day this year, when Maoists tried to put up a black flag in Kodopi’s village, he tore it apart in front of them. When they directed his aunt, Soni Sori, to remove the Indian flag from her ashram school, she refused. “Too many people have died for this,” she told the rebels. That is why their story is significant; it is another kind of adivasi voice trying to speak crisp and clear amid the chaos of a conflict where all parties claim to speak for them.TEHELKA has learnt that in June this year, a few months before his arrest, Lingaram Kodopi met senior IAS officer and Bastar Division Commissioner K Srinivasulu. “Both the police and the Maoists are killing my people. This has to stop,” Kodopi told the officer.
The police told Soni they will release her husband, withdraw the warrant if she calls Kodopi back
In a significant admission, Srinivasulu has confirmed to TEHELKA that he met Kodopi. “Yes, I met him. He came to my office with social activist Swami Agnivesh. I cannot say whether he is a Maoist or not. I don’t think he has any Maoist links,” Srinivasulu said. “He told me he fled because the police suspect him to be a Maoist informer. I said he should return, he belongs here, his presence here is important. I said I would help him in whatever way I can. I have a soft corner for him.”
Srinivasulu said he was not aware of Kodopi’s arrest. “I was travelling. I have just returned. I am hearing about this from you. I have called the Inspector General and Superintendent of Police to find out. It is an allegation of the police. It has to be proved. We will try to sort it out.”
IT IS past sundown in the jungles of Chhattisgarh, and still Soni Sori cannot return home. In frantic phone calls, she has been warned of men in plainclothes lurking outside her mud hut, roaming the village market, patrolling all entry and exit points.
“Soni Sori is absconding,” confirmed Dantewada SP Ankit Garg. “We are looking for her.”
Over a breaking phone signal, her voice fading in and out, this is what Soni told TEHELKA on 11 September: “The police are trying to kill me. They fired at me today. I fled. I fell into a hole as I was running. I need to stay alive to keep the truth alive. They don’t want me to reach Delhi. I can’t let them kill me.”
Soni betrays no sense of victimhood, only a firm resolve. Last year, the Chhattisgarh Police arrested her husband on charges of Maoist activity. Two months ago, the Maoists accused her family of aiding the police, looted her house, and shot her father in the leg. “I can’t understand what’s going on,” she continued. “The Maoists looted my home. They shot at my father. Now, I’m running from the police. My five-year-old daughter is at home crying. My husband is in jail for being a Maoist. I don’t know what they want. Just wait. Let me come to Delhi. I will expose them. I cannot tell you on the phone what I know. I need to get out of here first. I don’t want to anger the police now.”
The Chhattisgarh Police allege that the aunt-nephew duo are abetting the Maoists. On 10 September, police arrested Kodopi and local contractor BK Lala for attempting to transfer funds to the Maoist party. The arrests were made after a WikiLeaks cable alleged that Essar’s mining operation was paying huge protection money to the Maoists to not interfere with their operations. Essar has denied this.
“Lala was acting on behalf of Essar while Kodopi was acting on behalf of the Maoists”, SP Garg told TEHELKA. “We arrested them from a weekly market in Palnar village. They planned to exchange Rs 15 lakh. We got a tip-off and caught them red-handed with the money. There was another woman called Soni Sori with them. She escaped due to some confusion.”
Sori denies the allegation. “Seven men in civil dress arrested Lingaram from my house in Palnar village. They tried to drag me out as well. We have nothing to do with Essar,” she told TEHELKA. Further, she says, “The police wanted Lingaram and me to pose as Maoists and meet the Essar representative. They told us to collect 15 lakh from Lala. We refused.”
Asked whether the police plan to question any Essar officials, Garg said: “BK Lala has confessed that he was supplying money on behalf of Essar. But this has to be corroborated. We will question Essar officials. If this claim is verified, we will take legal action against Essar as well.”
THIS IS not the first time Sori and Kodopi have been targeted by the Chhattisgarh Police. “Both are Maoist associates with a criminal record,” Garg told TEHELKA.
In July 2010, Chhattisgarh Police issued warrants against the two and Sori’s husband for an attack on a Congress worker Avdesh Gautam and his son. Gautam escaped unhurt, while his son sustained bullet injuries. Incidentally, Sori’s elder brother Vijay Sori is a Congress block president in Dantewada. “This was not right. The Maoists should not have attacked Gautam’s son,” Soni told TEHELKA in an earlier interview.
Sources say the Maoist attack came after Gautam tried to convince then Dantewada Collector Reena Kangale to close all the PDS shops in Kuakonda block to prevent Maoists benefitting from the rice. It seemed Gautam wanted to distribute the rice from a central point, his home. Gautam could not be reached for comment.
“It is Avdesh Gautam who named me in the FIR,” Soni says. “The police asked me ‘Did you not feel remorse attacking his son?’ Then they said they will withdraw the arrest warrant if I give them information about Maoist meetings.” She says the police also threatened her into signing a document that said Lingaram is not of good character, that he travels to Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and abroad. “It said that both Lingaram and I had attended a Naxal meeting in Andhra Pradesh a week before the attack on Avdesh Gautam,” Soni says.
These allegations surfaced in a Chhattisgarh Police press release in July last year. It alleged that Kodopi is a senior Maoist Commander who received arms training in Delhi and Gujarat, a mastermind of the Maoist attack on Gautam, and a potential successor to CPI(Maoist) central spokesperson Azad. Kodopi challenged these allegations in a press conference in New Delhi with social activist Swami Aginivesh and lawyer Prashant Bhushan. “There is no difference between the police and the Maoists,” he said.
It remains unclear whether the Chhattisgarh Police continue to view Kodopi as a ‘Maoist commander’ and mastermind, or whether they now view him as a ‘Maoist associate.’
The police told Soni they will release her husband, withdraw the warrant if she calls Kodopi back
When asked, Garg told TEHELKA: “In this particular case (Essar money transfer), it suggests Kodopi was playing the role of a Maoist associate. In the previous case, we are still ascertaining his role. Maoists spokesperson are not a single person, until they are completely identified (sic). As far as the Congress case is concerned, we are still investigating how Kodopi was connected to it. We are looking at all possible angles.”
It also remains unclear why the Chhattisgarh Police have not been able to arrest Soni Sori. While Kodopi fled to Delhi in 2009, Soni has remained in Palnar village.
“There are three arrest warrants against her. She has been absconding,” Garg told TEHELKA. This is a dubious claim since Soni says she had been marking attendance at a government school all along. A likely explanation is that Soni was being used as bait to lure Kodopi back to Chhattisgarh. “The police told me they will release my husband and withdraw my warrant if I call Linga back. But how can I betray my nephew?” Soni said.
Why Kodopi became a police target also remains unclear. “I was watching television at home in September last year. Five motorcycles came, with 10 men holding AK-47s. They asked me “Where did you get the bike from? How do you go about in style?” My family is well off, but they accused me of being a Naxalite,” Kodopi said at an Independent People’s Tribunal in Delhi. “Why can’t we Adivasis wear a good watch or drive a car without being picked up by the police? They tortured me in custody for 40 days.”
Kodopi was released on the direction of the Bilaspur High Court after his family filed a habeas corpus petition. Before he fled Chhattisgarh, he had been assisting a government project to built 22 toilets in Dantewada’s Kuakonda block.
“I’ve seen Avataar five times,” he once told then freelance journalist Divya Gupta. “Look at the technology used in that picture and the amount of money spent. In reality, there are people dying who nobody wants to save. But I really liked that movie, even if it cost so much. It’s about us.”
Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.