On March 15, 2022, after waging a decade-long legal battle against the Indian government, 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 accused of having Naxalite ties and acting as a middleman for ESSAR, a private company which had been accused of siphoning off ‘protection money’ from insurgents in what was going to be called the ESSAR-Maoists affair.
After spending two years in prison, Sori was released on bail but remained in exile in the back streets of Delhi, far from her children and her home. Her husband, also accused of having links with the Naxalites, succumbed to injuries sustained in prison while Sori was behind bars. Over the years, Sori has been brutally tortured by security forces, sexually assaulted and even had acid thrown at her.
Today, one of Naxal’s most high-profile cases in the past 10 years has not withstood the scrutiny of the courts. But while Sori can finally breathe freely, many Adivasi women like her still languish in prison.
Last year on International Women’s Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi bought traditional handicrafts from tribal women in a bid to promote female entrepreneurship, especially from tribal communities – a painting on paper made by women from the Gond community, a hand-embroidered shawl from the women of the Toda community in Tamil Nadu. His Twitter account boasted of several other products he had purchased online (including many from the government brand called “Tribes India” which promotes tribal artisans and designers). On the same day, Adivasi activist Hidme Markam was forcibly arrested by security forces during an event organized to mark Women’s Day in Chhattisgarh. The police arrested her on a series of unsubstantiated charges, although Hidme’s name didn’t even match the information they had about the cases she was charged with. By the way, Markam, a former school cook from Dantewada district in southern Chhattisgarh before turning to land and tribal rights activism, belongs to the Gond community, like the creators of the artwork of art Gond bought by the Prime Minister. Unlike artists, the activist found no praise on Twitter and has been incarcerated ever since.
“Villagers who protest against the government’s handing over of these lands to companies are imprisoned. We have lost faith in the government, but we will continue to fight to save our sacred lands and our forests,” says Hidme. The testimonies of Hidme and other Adivasi activists and conservationists were documented in a detailed report by Survival International, a global human rights organization that works for the rights of people living on tribal lands. Entitled ‘Brutalized for resistance: the assault on indigenous women in Modi’s India‘, the report describes years of incarceration, torture, rape and even death of Adivasi women, particularly at the hands of security forces, for defending their right to protect tribal lands. According to the report, Hidme was arrested on false charges because she spoke out against the government seizing land for mining that was sacred to her community.
With 28 known varieties of minerals, resource-rich Chhattisgarh is a hotbed of conflict between the government and local indigenous communities, many of whom have opposed the usurpation of forests and indigenous lands for mining. An estimated 57 million Adivasi live in the six central states which are explored for coal, bauxite and iron ore including Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra . Water, forest and land – essentially, these are the three things that the Adivasi resistance movements across India are fighting to protect. And at the forefront of these movements are Adivasi women leaders and ecofeminists like Hidme Markam, Soni Sori, Dayamani Barla, Kuni Sikaka, Shakuntala Topo and many more across the country. As these women fight to save their land, which they consider their ‘mother’, the fight is also about preserving their 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. Currently, 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 taken away from us is our freedom,” says Oraon Adivasi activist Shakuntala Topo, documented by Survival International.
Women as pawns
While defending their lands and forests can put Adivasi women in the crosshairs of the government, women living in the midst of the insurgency often end up becoming pawns in the deadly cat-and-mouse chase between the security forces and the Maoists.
In the insurgency-ridden tribal tracts of states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, for example, sexual violence as a form of punishment, intimidation or retaliation is common. And according to activists, security forces are often the perpetrators of such crimes.
The 2016 murder of Madkam Hidme, a 23-year-old girl from Chhattisgarh, shook the region. According to Lakshmi, Madkam’s mother, members of the security forces abducted and raped her, killed her, then wrapped her mutilated body in plastic before sending her home. According to the official version, the Sukma woman was an insurgent and they even published a photo of the woman in a dark and impeccable Maoist uniform. However, journalists and human rights groups as well as residents and relatives of Madkam have questioned the official version.
Following Lakshmi’s petition in the Chhattisgarh High Court, a judge ordered Madkam’s body to be exhumed for autopsy. No arrests have yet been made in this case. Residents say the heinous crime was aimed at intimidating villagers who were set to testify in the Supreme Court in a case involving the killing of 16 civilians allegedly by police in Madkam village.
In 2016, the National Human Rights Commission documented 16 cases of sexual violence against Adivasi women perpetrated by security forces in Bastar, Chhatisgarh. Organizations like Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) have also reported the use of sexual violence by security forces to intimidate and repress residents.
The issue was highlighted again during a press conference held by organizations like Adivasi Lives Matter on March 9, 2022, to mark one year since the arrest of Hidme Markham and demand justice for Adivasi activists and civilians who have been abused and falsely arrested by the police on reprehensible criminal charges. Hidme herself had been a proponent of releasing those Adivasis who languish in jails for unresolved and bogus cases. Today, she is one of 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 Justice Justice AK Patnaik to “review the cases” of more than 23,000 cases against tribals in the state. While more than 16,475 tribals were charged in a series of cases, another 6,743 were pending trial cases. , reported the Indian Express.
In 2010, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the Maoist insurgency remained India’s biggest internal security challenge. In a 2011 observation, the Supreme Court said that “the situation in Chhattisgarh is undoubtedly deeply distressing to any reasonable person. What appalled us doubly was the repeated insistence… that the only option for the state was to rule with an iron fist, to establish a social order in which… anyone who defends the human rights of citizens [is] be considered a suspect, and a Maoist”.
In 2022, despite a change in government, the “iron fist” with which these states are governed has not changed. And caught in the crossfire between state and Maoist arms are adivasi women and activists. While Maoists claim to work for the rights of indigenous peoples and often seek refuge and support from local communities and villagers (mostly at gunpoint), security forces persecute the same villagers as informants.
Before being arrested in the ESSAR-Maoist case, Soni Sori’s nephew, Lingaram Kodopoi, had been detained without cause by the police in 2009 and brutally beaten. Later, in 2011, his grandfather was shot in the leg by Maoists and his village house was ransacked on the accusation of being a “government informant”. Kodopoi (and Sori) were neither. They were just fighting for the rights of their people.
The indigenous peoples of India have the constitutionally guaranteed right to their own livelihood and sustenance, to protect their lands, to manage their affairs, to give or withhold their consent for projects on their lands, to practice their own religions and to determine their future. Arresting them for standing up for their rights or using sexual violence to silence communities or in the name of counter-insurgency not only violates the International Labor Organization’s Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples ( ILO 169), but also a violation of the values enshrined in India’s constitution which guarantees all Indians individual dignity and the right to life.