The profile below is part of the Ms. Blog’s “Telling Her Story” series for Women’s History Month. Check back throughout March for more profiles of women doing great things in their communities.
In the jungles and towns of Bastar, India, where the atmosphere is marked by extreme hostility and suspicion, living with fear is the default mode for most locals. But one fearless woman is challenging the status quo—and that’s why the state is scared of her. Her name is Soni Sori, and she’s capable of inspiring ordinary adivasis (indigenous populations) to stand up to state and non-state terror.
Sori was born and raised in Bastar, a region rich in minerals in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Over the last decade, the region has become a permanent war zone and one of the most militarized areas in the country; the state claims it is battling left-wing ultras (also known as naxalites), but state forces are also corrupt. It also happens to be one of the most impoverished, malnourished and underdeveloped areas of India.
The chaos in Bastar intensified in 2005, when state-sponsored civil militia forces, called Salwa Judum, carried out sexual violence and lootings on the region’s citizens—ordinary adivasis. Though the Supreme Court of India asked in 2011 for the disbanding of Salwa Judum and declared the group’s activities illegal and unconstitutional, bloodshed in the region continued.
Trouble for Sori’s family started during the Salwa Judum years when her nephew, Lingaram Kodopi—also known as Linga—recorded several incidents of grave human rights violations by the Salwa Judum forces and released them on YouTube. Linga was soon picked up by police. He was only released after a successful petition in the High Court of Chhattisgarh.
Lingaram then moved to Delhi to study journalism. In 2010, he organized several victims of grave human rights violations and took them to Delhi for the Independent People’s Tribunal. At a press conference, he spoke about his own torture during the illegal police detention, which prompted police to start pressuring Sori and her family to give information on Linga.
Sori and her husband, Anil Futane, were quickly slapped with charges of associating with left-wing extremist activities, and Futane was arrested in June 2010. The following year, Sori fled to Delhi where she helped Tehelka magazine conduct a sting against a corrupt police officer. She was soon arrested and, while in police custody, was stripped naked, verbally abused, given electric shocks, brutally sexually tortured and had objects inserted into her vagina.
The sexual violence inflicted on her, and the torture of her husband and nephew in prison, only furthered Sori’s determination to fight against human rights violations committed by the state and insurgents. She wrote letters from prison where she broke the national silence on sexual violence. She also wrote about sexual abuse faced by many other female prisoners lodged in Raipur jail. Her letters brought to light rampant sexual abuse at the jail, which led to an inspection visit by the National Commission for Women.
After spending close to three years in jail, Sori’s husband was acquitted on all charges. But tragedy soon struck: He experienced a paralysis attack during his time in jail and died soon after, leaving behind three kids and a wife who was still imprisoned. Many believed that the paralysis was the result of excessive police brutality suffered in police custody.
The Supreme Court offered Sori permanent bail in 2013, and she returned to Bastar to resume her fight against corruption and violence. She ran in the 2014 general elections on an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ticket, but lost. Nonetheless, she continued to use the AAP platform to organize people on issues ranging from corruption to police use of excessive force. As word began to spread about her work, she started getting calls about extra-judicial killings and rapes by security forces. Sori would rush to the scene of each crime and begin investigating.
Otherwise afraid of outsiders and security forces, the adivasis opened up to Sori and spoke about police brutality without fear; she was one of their own and spoke the local dialect. When the police refused to register a complaint against culprits, she would go from village to village organizing mass protests and asking for complaints to be officially acknowledged. In a place where most people can only speak and understand the local dialects and there is almost complete absence of national or local independent media, Sori’s ability to read and write gave her the power to communicate with activists, officials and media locally and outside, thereby exposing police brutalities in Bastar.
She and her children, along with her associates, are still regularly threatened—directly and indirectly—but Sori carries on with her struggle undaunted. A month ago, unknown assailants attacked Sori with a chemical that burned her face. She was rushed to Delhi for treatment, where she spent many days in the ICU. Days after getting out, she decided again to go back to Bastar. As she left, Sori said, “Abhi toh bahut ladai hai”—there is a long struggle ahead.