“Soni’s Story” (published by The Sunday Express on August 5 on page 11, Mumbai edition)[i] tries to untangle the web of contradictions around Soni Sori, a tribal schoolteacher and activist based in Chhattisgarh: is she a Maoist or a Maoist sympathiser, a police informer, or a social worker? It tracks Sori’s life from 2010 in an attempt to throw light on the issue, but in the process muddies the picture further.
The overwhelming sense that a reader draws from the story is perhaps the delegitimisation of Sori: she is portrayed as a double-crosser, a person who played to both sides in the Maoist-State conflict and fell in her own trap. In the story, the reporter speaks to various people associated with Sori who make claims that are not probed, no FIRs are cited, no chargesheets are examined and crucial information that could change the reader’s perceptions about claims made by people relating to Sori is withheld.
One of the planks on which the reporter bases the prospect of Sori being a double- crosser is the statement of local Congress leader Awdhesh Kumar Gautam. “She was playing to both sides. She could not have managed it for long,” Gautam tells the reporter. Yet, the latter fails to provide the reader with instances that may bring this forth. There aren’t even quotes from police officers substantiating how Sori was helping them, or whether she had actually promised them “a major haul of Maoists” as Gautam claims.
Crucially, the reporter withholds the information that Gautam is a powerful local contractor and a former police constable who has an old enmity with Sori. As reported by Tehelka, when Sori got an independent contract from the district collector to build her own school, Gautam allegedly began to resent her inroads into his core business[ii]. Provided with this bit of information, it is possible to look at Gautam’s claims in a new light: that of a local businessman trying to settle scores. Why did the Sunday Express withhold this information from readers?
The Express also withholds the fact that Sori’s family and Gautam are political rivals. As the same newspaper had reported, Sori’s elder brother Sahdev once contested a panchayat election against Gautam’s wife, who won[iii].
As for her links with Maoists, the Sunday Express suggests that since Sori was not shot at/ injured when alleged Maoists attacked her house and shot at her father, she must be one. “Last June, Maoists attacked her father Mundra’s home and shot him in the leg. But Sori was spared”, readers are told. On what basis does the reporter conclude that Sori was “spared”? Was she in the house at the point when the attack took place, and did the Maoists not shoot her because she was one of them? Further, how is the attack on one’s family proof of the fact that one is a Maoist?
The other “proof” that the Sunday Express furnishes of Sori’s Maoist links is a quote from a local journalist and “family friend for years” who says “Madam was a bridge between Maoists and the local company contractors. She helped them levy taxes…” Readers are not told who this local journalist is, and whether Sori’s family also considers him a family friend. Given the extremely hostile working conditions of local journalists, where taking sides places them at immense risk and where they get paid for” not telling the truth”[iv], can their opinions be taken at face value?
The reporter appears to have based his story merely on hearsay, without probing deeper into any of the claims. For instance, when he states that the “Maoists recently issued a diktat forbidding her (Sori’s) relatives…from cultivating their land for three years...”, he does not state why the diktat was issued and how he is sure that it was a Maoist diktat. While the reporter does not use the word “allegedly” when talking about acts attributed to the Maoists, it comes into play when he mentions about police overtures/ atrocities. For instance “Kalluri (former Dantewada SSP) allegedly framed Sori…” and “These (Sori’s) letters detailed…how SP Ankit Garg allegedly stripped her…”
These are not the only blips undercutting the story though. The major assumption that seems to inform the reporter is the “us v/s them” syndrome. In this framework, a person has to side either with the Maoists or the State. Neutrality and an observance of ties with both sides not amounting to support of either is considered proof of culpability in heinous crimes.
The reporter ought to have pointed out how holding a neutral and independent position, like Sori was attempting to do, invites the wrath of both sides in the conflict; instead he flips her attempt at neutrality into one of being a double-crosser. Further, while introducing Sori, he does not mention that she was fighting to get minimum wages of tribal people raised from Rs. 60 to Rs. 120, and had kicked up a row about senior police officials pocketing huge sums from the illegal teak trade generated in the name of “jungle clearing” to thwart the Maoist movement, among other things[v]. She had, at the same time, saved the lives of CRPF jawans from a Maoist attack, as she says in this interview[vi]. These bits of information could entirely transform the readers’ perception of Sori up front.
Despite relying so heavily on people’s comments to construct his narrative, why did the reporter not speak to Sori’s father, or the deputy commander, CRPF, 51 Battalion, Mohan Prakash whom Sori claims to know very well?
This article is not arguing about Sori’s innocence; that probably she is; or her torture by the police, which also probably she has suffered. Neither is it asking how the media dare raise questions about Sori’s involvement with parties in the conflict. Such investigations are central to understanding how the Maoist conflict affects individuals in flesh and blood. Instead, it is trying to show how the investigation is biased, and how the media--when it tries to be critical--plays along the State/ corporate narrative on the issue.
In this context, it is pertinent to ask why the reporter did not raise the issue of systemic lapses in the full-page spread. Why are no questions raised about how hundreds of people such as Sori end up behind bars in conflict zones in the first place? Why does the reporter not talk about police lapses, administration excesses, and judicial delays? Why does he not ask why investigation has not been initiated against those accused of Sori’s custodial torture?
Instead, the reporter chooses to question why it took Sori 45 days to come out with the story of her being stripped naked and stones being inserted into her private parts. Perhaps, he ought to keep in mind that admitting that such things requires getting over the feelings of being shamed and violated. And when the victim happens to be a woman in a society as deeply patriarchal as ours, it doesn’t become any easier.
The Sunday Express also raises questions about how activists are using Sori. While that may very well be the case, the ground on which the reporter builds this argument is by pointing to the absence of anyone who agrees having carried the letters from Sori in jail to Delhi, where they “surfaced”. Has the reporter forgotten that Binayak Sen was in jail for over two years for this very reason: acting as a courier to an alleged Maoist? How then does he expect anybody to own up to carrying Sori’s letters out of jail?
“Soni’s Story”is an example of the media trying to cast a critical eye on the Maoist-state conflict, and examine how individuals are affected by it. Encouragingly, it tries to provide readers with a historical perspective, tracking Sori’s case over the last two years. This could have been the crucial context that’s missing in regular media coverage; it could have been the crucial frame that would make people’s lives in conflict zones intelligible. Instead, in the kind of questions it raises and in its ambivalence with facts, it only distorts the picture further. It is an example of how a story can be deeply problematic despite it appearing like an unbiased search for facts.