To Avenge Dantewada

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She saw the police kill. She was shot at and silenced. But now, the Supreme Court has given hope that Sodi Shambo will live and be heard, says Tusha Mittal

“WHAT IS HAPPENING IN the state? How can these things be done when the matter is pending before the Court?” Supreme Court Judge Sudarshan Reddy asked, visibly annoyed. He was referring to the disappearances of 13 villagers who witnessed the police massacre of nine people on October 1, 2009 in the remote village of Goompad, in Chattisgarh’s Dantewada district. “The interest of justice requires [them] in court,” the Supreme Court ruled on February 8 and directed the government to present them before it in a week.

Of those 13, the most significant is Sodi Shambo, herself a victim of state brutality. Police fired at her leg, now held together by a metal rod. TEHELKA first met Sodi when Gandhian activist Himanshu Kumar brought her to Delhi last October for further treatment, and has tracked her since. In the last one month, Sodi Shambo has become a flashpoint, symptomatic of all that is rotten in the state of Chhattisgarh. Her story is testimony not only to state atrocities, but also how far the government will go to hide them from the national gaze.

On January 3, a week before the SC hearing on the Goompad killings, Sodi was picked up by police under the pretext of getting her statement. At that time, Dantewada SP Amaresh Mishra denied any knowledge of Sodi’s whereabouts since January 4. TEHELKA visited Chhattisgarh and tracked Sodi to a ward in a hospital in Jagdalpur town. Despite the permission of the Medical Director, security personnel guarding Sodi’s bed refused to let TEHELKA speak with her. Three women guards in plainclothes pushed TEHELKA out of the ward. Since then, the State has tried to further derail her case by violating all subsequent Supreme Court orders and ensuring that no independent verification of Sodi’s story is possible.

That is why the latest Supreme Court order is significant, as it has refused to accept the Chhattisgarh government’s plea that Sodi Shambo is not in their custody. The authorities claim that Sodi is with her family and that they have no knowledge of her. “As a state, it is your responsibility that victims reach the court,” the SC ordered this week.

For Himanshu Kumar, this order has brought renewed hope. “The state has not been afraid of anything,” says Kumar. “For the first time, the police will be scared.” Yet, there is the worry that the Chhattisgarh government will try to circumvent the February 8 order, as it has done with previous ones.

After TEHELKA was not allowed to meet Sodi, SC advocate Colin Gonsalves moved the court against the authorities. On January 8, Gonsalves reached Raipur armed with an SC order that allowed him to bring Sodi with him to Delhi for further treatment.

In a bizarre twist, they found Sodi had been discharged from the hospital and was on a train to Delhi. She was located in a private ward at AIIMS. Once again, TEHELKA as also several independent commentators, including Arundhati Roy, were refused access to her.

Tehelka tracked Sodi to a hospital ward, but police pushed us out

A letter purported to be written by Sodi claimed that she did not know Himanshu Kumar or any of his colleagues and did not want to meet outsiders. Again, the SC intervened. On January 22, it directed that the Chhattisgarh government “shall not create any obstacle” and let Gonsalves and Himanshu Kumar meet Sodi at AIIMS, and that the “police shall not be present”. Shockingly, hours after the order, the team learned that Sodi had been discharged from AIIMS the previous night.

Chhattisgarh authorities continue to claim that the Goompad killings were an encounter with dreaded Naxals. This month, TEHELKA returned from the jungles of Chhattisgarh with startling testimonies of those who fled Goompad after the police firing. Both TEHELKA reports were submitted to the SC before its latest order.

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Special Correspondent

Tusha Mittal has been with Tehelka since March 2008. She was educated at La Martiniere, Kolkata, and has a bachelor’s degree from Depauw University in Indiana. While in the US, she worked as a reporter and a special sections editor for a local newspaper in Boston. She also interned with CNN Internationalin Atlanta and NBC Universal in London. In her final year in college, she studied the idea of peace journalism and the role of the media in covering conflict.

She travelled to Kashmir for her graduation thesis, which dissected the role of the Indian and Pakistani media in shaping public perception of the Kashmir conflict. Her journalism interests include reporting on environment, human rights, and conflict. She has recently won The Press Institute of India award for best articles on humanitarian issues published in the Indian media. AtTehelka, she has written extensively on land rights and displacement struggles. She is based in New Delhi.

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