It’s already hot as summer in these parts, with the mercury hovering around 42 degrees C, as Soni Sori, an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) cap on her head, addresses a group of tribespeople. “It’s corruption that led to the growth of Maoism,” says the former school teacher who is the AAP candidate. The connection is a novel one; a few heads nod, but most listeners sit stony-faced, the default response around these parts.
She tells them the AAP was founded to fight corruption and injustice, and that she wants to help free adivasis who are being wrongly held in jails. This is something speaker and audience can well relate to: Soni Sori is well-known as the victim of illegal confinement and gruesome torture by the Chhattisgarh police, and most adivasi families know of relatives or friends who have faced similar circumstances. She narrates the story of her arrest and torture and her two and half years in jail. The same stony silence, speaking of a stolid acceptance of harsh realities.
Soni Sori’s campaign is being run by scores of men and women who claim to be working for various voluntary organisations. Like those in the audience—whose response to questions such as why they are here, who do they support and so on is no more than a muttered ‘nahin maloom’—the volunteers are unwilling to give any more details. Adivasis in these parts don’t open up readily with strangers. However, a couple of volunteers—Arvind Gupta, a contractor, Santosh Sahu, a mechanic, and Raghavendra Baghel, who works for a private firm—speak up and say party chief Arvind Kejriwal’s arrival will electrify Soni Sori’s campaign.
A stream of journalists from across the country and abroad are here to witness elections in this Maoist-dominated region. Hotel and lodge rooms in Jagdalpur are difficult to come by without early bookings. The Election Commission is organising the Lok Sabha elections in nine phases across the country, but seems to want to get done with Bastar at the earliest: it’s the only constituency in Chhattisgarh where polling will take place on April 10, in a very early phase. In less than a year, Maoist rebels have struck two major blows to the Indian state. Last year, they ambushed a Congress cavalcade through the region, killing many front-ranking state leaders of party. And last month, they ambushed a crpf patrol, killing 16 troopers. Bomb attacks, skirmishes with security forces and attacks on outposts are a regular affair.
She says she has just Rs 415 in her bank account. But that is not keeping her from putting up a stiff fight for AAP.
Mainstream parties seem afraid of making campaign forays into these parts—dominated by Maoist rebels—to reach villages in remote forest areas. “Neither BJP nor Congress workers are able to venture into the interiors,” says Sanket Thakur, state coordinator of the election campaign for the AAP. But he claims that volunteers of the AAP have no problems in reaching out to adivasis here and have nothing to fear. Lack of finances does not seem to bother the candidate either. “I’ve just Rs 415 in the bank,” says Soni Sori. She is also expected to make appearances in different courts every week in connection with “false cases” filed against her by the Chhattisgarh police. She’s been acquitted in five cases, but the other cases take up both time and money. “Even in the case in which I have been granted bail by the Supreme Court, I am required to regularly appear before the police and the court,” she says with a wry smile. The odds, she admits, are stacked against her, but she’s not one to give up without putting up a good fight. “My struggle and my fight will continue.”
Hers is a case of being caught between the Maoists and the security forces, a story familiar to many adivasi families in this region. Maoists allegedly killed her father in April 2011. They also burnt down a tractor and the grain stored at her home. A few months on, it was the Chhattisgarh police that began to harass her. They accused her of being a Maoist and a conduit for the transfer of protection money from Essar Steel—which has a plant in the state—to the Maoists.
Two Essar officials were arrested and Rs 15 lakh was seized from them. Soni Sori, who the police said had slipped away to Visakhapatnam, was arrested in Delhi. There was national outrage when she revealed she was stripped and tortured in police custody: stones were pushed into her private parts. Police officers stoutly denied the charges, but human rights activists kept up a chorus of protest. A medical report submitted to the Supreme Court confirmed the torture. She was granted some relief by the courts but cases are still pending.
Her husband, who left his home in Maharashtra to live with her, was also held on trumped up charges, she says. He came out of jail on bail with partial paralysis and died soon after. “The last three years have turned my life upside down,” she says. But what she regrets the most, she says, is the loss of her students. A Std xii pass, she’d decided to work for the education of the children of adivasis who were jailed or killed by Maoists or police, gathering some 100 of them about her. She wanted to give them an education as a way out of Bastar’s circle of terror and vengeance set in a context of tribal loyalties and Maoist ideology. She now finds there are only eight students left. “The others have melted away in the two and a half years I’ve been in prison,” she says. “I suspect many of them may have joined Maoist dalams.”
Winning this election will be quite difficult for her. Bastar has been a BJP stronghold for long: it has been represented by BJP MPs since 1998. After the sudden death of sitting MP Baliram Kashyap, his son Dinesh Kashyap was fielded by the BJP in 2011. He is once again the party’s candidate this time. His brother Kedar, a minister in the Raman Singh government, lends extra heft to the campaign. The Congress candidate Deepak Karma, also in his thirties, is also the son of Congress leader Mahendra Karma, of Salwa Judum infamy, who was killed by Maoists last year in the ambush on the party convoy. Both AAP and Sori being first-timers, their chances are not being rated highly by observers. But nobody can fault first-timers for not putting up a spirited campaign. At least half a dozen Swaraj Mazda trucks pasted with election material and 15 other vehicles have been lent by well-wishers. At least the first-timers are not invisible in these forested, troubled tracts.
The writer is a senior journalist who has covered Bastar for more than 15 years