For children in the grey zone that is Bastar- where violence, arbitrary detentions and human rights violations are routine in the continuing conflict between the State and the Maoists- growing up too soon is not a choice. On Mother’s Day, I go back to a chance meeting with three extraordinary children who’ve seen this conflict play out up close, through the life of their mother, Soni Sori.
“You know, this is the first time in almost 3 years that they are all together,” says Soni Sori, gathering her three children around her. “They had to be sent to hostel while I was in jail.” In a house in Dantewada’s Geedum tehsil, I’m introduced to Muskaan, Soni’s eldest daughter, studying hard for her 10th standard exams as her brother Deependra, who’s in the 7th standard, packs his bags for his maths and physics tuitions. While both are now doing well in school, Soni tells me both circumstance and separation have affected the children’s education in the years they’ve been apart. Ashu, the youngest, clings to her mother, refusing to let go.
It’s a rare privilege for me to meet them here- in Bastar, in their home and as a family. Soni- an adivasi schoolteacher who spoke up against human rights violations by both security forces and Maoists- was arrested in October 2011 on false charges of being a courier for the Maoists, besides other cases. Despite undergoing horrific torture while under police custody and being repeatedly acquitted in numerous cases against her, Soni was only released on bail in January 2014. Finally re-united with her children, Soni chose to return to Chhattisgarh, in spite of the odds, stood for elections from Bastar and continues to work for the causes she strongly believes in, with a special focus on women and adivasi undertrials in Chhattisgarh’s prisons.
Soni shows me around her home. “This was the house that my husband lived in. My daughter wants to live here; she does not want to relinquish the memory of her father,” says Soni. Muskaan’s father, Anil Futane, was also arrested on false charges of carrying out a naxal attack on the house of Avdhesh Gautam, a Congress leader in Dantewada. Futane spent nearly three years in prison before he was acquitted of all charges in May 2013. At the time of his release, Futane was paralysed from the waist down, as a result of alleged torture he faced while in jail. “It was Muskaan who received him and returned home to take care of him,” says Soni. Anil passed away a few months after he was released in August 2013, while Soni was still in jail. Soni was denied even temporary release on bail bail to carry out his last rites.
“Muskaan was the one who was taking care of her father when he was sick and was with him till he died. She was the only one who could visit me frequently when I was in prison,” says Soni, as Muskaan takes a breather from her studies to play dress-up. “She would come to talk to me, bring me biscuits. I would cry wondering how she could afford it.” Meanwhile, Ashu grins for the camera while her brother Deepu tries to take our picture. “This little thing- she would fight with the prison guards, telling them that ‘I want to see my mother fully, properly, not through these bars. I want to hold her.’”
The family has now re-adjusted to its new settings, with the support of those who’d rallied around Soni’s cause. “When I was released, there was nothing here. No one thought that I would come back. This house was in complete disarray, I had to build everything from scratch, which I have managed to do thanks to others who have helped me. Other women under trials have no such luck.” Soni is determined to help other women in similar predicaments return to society and find their footing.
She takes me to her kitchen. “This was a bathroom earlier. It feels good to be able to cook for your children in your own home, especially considering what jail food was like.” It was thanks to Soni’s intervention and hunger strike that women under trials, who were being fed food with worms in it, now have access to clean and better food in the Raipur jail. “This is one of the achievements that I’m most proud of. A woman prisoner came to me recently, with namkeen they had made in jail. I was so happy to eat it.”
I ask Soni how she feels about coming back to Chhattisgarh. “Coming back to Bastar was very important for me. Not only to show that I’ve been released, but to take part in elections, to legitimately participate in the government that once considered me a threat.” Even though she lost by a wide margin, Soni doesn’t consider it a deep setback. “I got an opportunity to interact with my own people, even those who still consider me a Maoist. It was a chance to clear the air and tell people my true story. That people voted for me is a testament of this trust.”
Even so, Soni’s children are getting used to her political life that requires her to be away for long periods of time. “Even now they are ready for anything to happen to me. Such is the political reality of Bastar that my children live with.”
As Deependra runs out the door for class, I ask him what he’d like to be as a grown-up. “An IAS officer!” What about Ashu, I ask Soni. “This one doesn’t like studying- but she’s a firebrand- she’ll either become a human rights activist or a politician.” I turn to Muskaan, who looks like she’s already made up her mind. “I want to be a lawyer,” she tells me. I ask her why. “So I can fight for and release people like my mother who can be arrested while fighting for the right causes.”