On March 15, 2022, after waging a decade-long legal battle against the government of India, tribal rights activist Soni Sori and her nephew Lingaram Kodopoi were acquitted by a special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court in Chhattisgarh. A former teacher, Sori had been facing charges of having links with Naxalites and acting as conduits for ESSAR, a private company that had been accused of siphoning off ‘protection money’ to insurgents in what came to be called the ESSAR-Maoists payoffs case.
After spending two years in prison, Sori was released on bail but remained in exile in the by-lanes of Delhi, away from her children and home. Her husband, also accused of having links with Naxalites, succumbed to injuries sustained in prison while Sori was behind the bars. Through the years, Sori has faced brutal torture by security forces, sexual assault, and even had acid thrown on her.
Today, one of the most high-profile Naxal cases in the last 10 years has failed to stand the test of scrutiny by the court of law. But while Sori may finally breathe free, many Adivasi women like her are still languishing in jail.
Last year on International Women’s Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi purchased traditional handicraft items from tribal women in a bid to promote women entrepreneurship, especially from tribal communities -- a paper painting made by women from the Gond community, a hand-embroidered shawl from the women of Tamil Nadu’s Toda community. His Twitter account boasted of several other products that he had bought online (many from the government-owned brand called ‘Tribes India’ that promotes tribal artisans and creators). On the same day, Adivasi activist Hidme Markam was forcefully picked up by security forces from a Women’s Day event in Chhattisgarh. Police took her into custody on an array of unfounded charges despite Hidme’s name not even matching the information they had about the cases that she was being accused of. Incidentally, Markam, a former school cook in South Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district before turning to land and tribal rights activism, belongs to the Gond community, like the creators of the Gond artwork the prime minister bought. Unlike the artists, the activist found no praise on Twitter and has been incarcerated since.
“Villagers who protest against the government handing over these lands to corporations are being jailed. We have lost faith in the government but will continue to fight to save our sacred lands and our forests,” Hidme says. The testimonies of Hidme and other Adivasi women activists and environmental defenders has been documented in a detailed report by Survival International, a global human rights organisation that works for the rights of people in tribal lands. Titled ‘Brutalised for Resistance: The Assault on Indigenous women in Modi’s India’, the report outlines years of incarceration, torture, rape, and even death of Adivasi women, especially at the hands of security forces, for standing up for their right to protect tribal lands. According to the report, Hidme was arrested on trumped-up charges because she had been vocal against the government taking over a piece of land for mining that was sacred to her community.
With 28 known varieties of minerals, the resource-rich Chhattisgarh is a hotbed for conflicts between the government and local indigenous communities, many of whom have opposed the usurping of forest and indigenous lands for mining. An estimated 57 million Adivasi people live in the six central states which are being explored for coal, bauxite and iron ore including Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Water, forest and land - elementally, these are the three things Adivasi resistance movements across India are fighting to protect. And at the forefront of these movements are Adivasi women leaders and ecofeminists like the soft-spoken Hidme Markam, Soni Sori, Dayamani Barla, Kuni Sikaka, Shakuntala Topo and many others across the country. While these women are fighting to save their land, which they reckon to be their ‘mother’, the fight is also to preserve their own dignity and freedom as Adivasi women. “If we lose our land to mining, the first thing that will happen is that we will lose our freedom. At present, we women roam freely in our forest, wherever we want, we can go alone. If a mine is opened here, the first thing that will be snatched from us is our freedom,” Oraon Adivasi activist Shakuntala Topo says, as documented by Survival International.
Women as pawns
While defending their lands and forests can get Adivasi women in the crosshairs of the government, women living amid insurgency often end up becoming pawns in the fatal cat and mouse chase between the security forces and Maoists.
In the insurgency-infested tribal forest tracts in states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, for instance, sexual violence as a form of punishment, intimidation or retribution is common. And according to activists, security forces are often the perpetrators of such crimes.
The 2016 killing of Madkam Hidme, a 23-year-old girl from Chhattisgarh, shook the region. According to Madkam’s mother Lakshmi, members of the security forces allegedly abducted and raped her, killed her, and then wrapped her mutilated body in plastic before sending it back home. According to the official version, the Sukma woman was an insurgent and they even released a photo of the woman in a crisp, dark Maoist uniform. However, journalists and human rights groups as well as locals and Madkam’s parents have questioned the official version.
Following Lakshmi’s petition in Chhattisgarh High Court, a judge gave the orders to exhume Madkam’s body for postmortem. No arrests have been made in the case yet. Locals claim that the heinous crime was intended to intimidate the villagers who were about to testify in the Supreme Court in a case involving deaths of 16 civilians allegedly by police force in Madkam’s village.
In 2016, the National Human Rights Commission listed 16 cases of sexual violence against Adivasi women carried out by security forces in Bastar, Chhatisgarh. Organisations like Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) have also reported on the use of sexual violence by security forces to intimidate and repress locals.
The issue was once again highlighted at a press conference held by organisations like Adivasi Lives Matter on March 9, 2022, to mark one year of the arrest of Hidme Markham and demand justice for the Adivasi activists and civilians who were abused and falsely arrested by the police under objectionable criminal charges. Hidme herself had been a proponent for the release of such Adivasis who are languishing in prisons for unsolved and false cases. Today, she is among the 6,000 Adivasis who have allegedly been wrongly accused of being Maoists. In 2019, the Chhattisgarh government appointed a committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge Justice AK Patnaik to “review cases" over 23,000 cases against tribals in the state. While over 16,475 tribals were accused in a range if cases, another 6,743 were cases of undertrials, the Indian Express reported.
In 2010, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said that Maoist insurgency remained India’s biggest internal security challenge. In a 2011 observation, the Supreme Court had said that the “situation in Chhattisgarh is undoubtedly deeply distressing to any reasonable person. What was doubly dismaying to us was the repeated insistence … that the only option for the State was to rule with an iron fist, establish a social order in which … anyone speaking for human rights of citizens [is] to be deemed as suspect, and a Maoist”.
In 2022, despite a change in government, the ‘iron fist’ with which these states are being ruled has not changed. And caught amid the crossfire between the state and the Maoist guns are Adivasi women and activists. While Maoists claim to be working for the rights of the indigenous people and often seek shelter and support from local communities and villagers (mostly at gunpoint), security forces persecute the same villagers for being informers.
Before being arrested in the ESSAR-Maoists payoff case, Soni Sori’s nephew Lingaram Kodopoi had been detained without cause by the police in 2009 and brutally beaten up. Later, in 2011, his grandfather was shot in the leg by Maoists, and his village home was ransacked on accusations of being a ‘government informer’. Kodopoi (and Sori) were neither. They were just fighting for the rights of their people.
The indigenous people of India have the constitutionally guaranteed right to their own livelihood and subsistence, to protect their lands, manage their affairs, give or withhold their consent for projects on their lands, practice their own religions and determine their futures. Arresting them for standing up for their rights or using sexual violence to shame communities into silence or in the name of counterinsurgency is not only in contravention to the International Labor Organization Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (ILO 169) but also a violation of the values enshrined in the constitution of India that ensure all Indians with individual dignity and right to live.