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Unspeakable horrors, unbreakable bonds

Unspeakable horrors, unbreakable bonds

The adivasi women of Lalgarh village attending a meeting, 2007. Koustav2007 under a Creative Commons Licence

Hidme Kawasi meekly peeks from behind the curtain. Her angelic, youthful face with high cheekbones doesn’t betray her story, but her dark-brown, sad eyes do. With some coaxing, Hidme steps from behind the curtain. I’m still unsure if this is the girl I travelled for hours to meet.

This 23-year-old adivasi (tribal) girl in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, India, now lives with 40-year-old Soni Sori, a schoolteacher and activist.

Both these women were arrested on the charge of being Naxalites. Chhattisgarh, a state in central India, is one of the areas affected by the ongoing Naxalite-Maoist insurgency. Both women were tortured in custody and sexually exploited by men in uniform.

Now, they have vowed to rescue others who have been wrongly incarcerated in a battle between the state and the communist rebels.

Activists estimate that there are almost 2,000 cases in which adivasis have languished in jail for periods lasting from 2 to 7 years. Hidme was recently acquitted after 7.5 years of imprisonment.

‘All women in jails in Chhattisgarh have similar stories of atrocities. I remember one inmate who was 2 months pregnant during her arrest and how she was shackled even during delivery,’ recalls Soni, who, despite her fragile health, travels to remote villages documenting violence against the adivasis.

Even after she had a C-section, they shackled her hands and feet for the next fortnight in the jail’s hospital, Soni murmurs.

‘She was unable to feed her infant and she would have to keep on requesting the jailer to untie one hand at a time while feeding her daughter. The jailer would yell back at her and tell her not to make excuses. Finally, they would relent.’

After 6 years, Soni’s friend in prison had to let go of her daughter, as a child cannot stay with her mother in jail after the age of 6.

‘It’s been 2 years since then, and she misses her daughter. She was falsely accused of being a Naxalite, like most of us. After several years of incarceration, these women are acquitted. There are 80 to 90 women awaiting trail who are enduring this fate in that jail,’ Soni explains.

After being tortured and sexually assaulted in jail and police stations, Soni feels her struggle is not hers alone, rather that it belongs to everyone.

Hidme watches Soni as she articulates the pain of her people – both men and women – unjustly arrested, tortured, raped and displaced from their land.

Soni tells us the story of another friend who was picked up as a minor.

‘Since we are adivasis, we don’t know our age because we don’t visit hospitals for delivering babies. Many minors have been jailed, as police don’t ascertain their age. Pratibha [name changed] was 15 years old when she was brought in on the charges of being a Naxalite,’ Soni says.

Upon inquiry, Soni discovered that Pratibha was ‘a simple villager who was trying to flee the security forces before she was shot in the arm’. Pratibha was hiding from the police out of fear, and now she has spent 8 years in jail, she adds.

Hidme, who is quietly sitting on the bed next to Soni, doesn’t want to talk about the stitches on her stomach.

She was picked up by the police while attending a fair in January 2008, and was charged under draconian laws such as the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) – a law that enables the state to hold people guilty by association in India.

During her 15 days in police detention at Borguda, Sukma and Dantewada police stations 7.5 years ago, 16-year-old Hidme was sexually assaulted and beaten with sticks by the police. Soon she spotted blood in her urine, Soni tells us.

Hidme’s uterus prolapsed after the torture she endured. Despite the pain, she tried to put it back in, unsuccessfully. The following day, she tried to sever it with a blade. It was then that the other inmates intervened and she was taken to the hospital where she underwent an operation.

Those 12 stitches remind Hidme of a day she never talks about – the day she tried to put her flesh back into her body.

Hidme’s story resonates with Soni’s. After Soni’s incarceration in Tihar jail, she was taken to Raipur jail, in a state of serious ill-health. She had been assaulted so brutally, she was unable to stand.

Recalling her first encounter with Hidme in prison, Soni remembers, ‘I was filthy. Somehow, I ended up in Hidme’s cell. I had no idea who she was. My body was swollen as they had kicked me. That day, I was forcibly discharged from Raipur hospital by the police, who yanked the saline drips out of my arms.’

‘I was asleep when I felt someone tug at my feet. I was frightened because I thought someone was trying to kill me. It was Hidme. Someone had told her I was from Bastar, so she started talking to me in Gondi [a South-Central language spoken in parts of India]. I sat up with a start. Then she told me her story. We sat talking all night. From that point on, we always stayed together in jail,’ elaborates Soni.

Exceptional circumstances give rise to exceptional friendships, and the bond Soni and Hidme share is best described in Soni’s words as ‘unbreakable’.

After two years in jail, Soni was about to be released. This saddened Hidme as she would miss her only friend. ‘Hidme started crying. I assured her I would work for her release. But she said she would never get out and would die there. I promised her,’ Soni explains. A year later, Soni’s promise to Hidme was fulfilled.

‘When I was unable to move, she bathed me and helped me sit up in the sun like a child. When they gave me electric shocks on my soles, they turned black. Hidme would spend hours massaging my feet. I’ll never forget what she has done for me,’ shares a misty-eyed Soni as Hidme silently looks on.

Since her release, Hidme has been living with Soni and her children, as she doesn’t have a family.

Hidme confides in Soni. ‘Hidme tells me that I’m her friend, her mother, her everything. She tells me her most intimate secrets... even her most painful injuries. She’s happy when she’s around me and I love having her around, too. She is still ill and doesn’t eat much. I feel she needs treatment in Delhi. I will take her there soon. Then we will help more women like us get out of jail and heal.’

Finally, Hidme nods and breaks into a beaming smile.

Dilnaz Boga is a journalist from Mumbai.

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