Why would one state government spend sleepless nights trying to provide maximum security to someone whose mere existence is a threat to its own? What threat could an illiterate tribal petite woman of 28, mother of four children, pose to a government such that it has to make special arrangements to keep her in a special VIP ward of the country’s most prominent hospital and prevent any ‘unruly’ elements from meeting her?
This is the story of one woman from the state of Chhattisgarh in Central India, whose every passing thought, and thereby action, is considered a double-edged sword for the state government. No, this is not a plot from a Sidney Sheldon novel with yet another alpha female character in the lead. This is real, and the woman is currently – as you read this – nowhere to be seen in public, in independent India. She is too famous today, yet she is forgotten.
This is the story of Sodi Sambo, who, when I saw her for the first time, had her eyes transfixed on the ground beneath her feet, as she would sit patiently for hours together in her chair. Perhaps her patience was born out of her inability to walk freely, thanks to a bullet that had mercilessly ripped through her leg and splintered her right tibia; metallic rods jutting out from it for all to see. A plastic walker always stood next to her chair. For someone who hardly spoke and remained strangely calm, she managed to independently walk every few hours, bask in the sun sitting in the chair, eat her meals in her chair which was fixed in one position, and then rest on her rickety cot. In the evenings, a small bonfire would be lit next to her chair so that she would not have to move the furniture to feel the warmth of the fire in the cold December air. Sometimes, tribal girls would suddenly break into a song-and-dance routine and then lovingly fight for having missed few steps. This wouldn’t amuse Sambo; her gaze would languidly move from one moving body to another.
When I first saw Sambo on December 25, 2009, she did not return the look. I often noticed her walking down the red earth with her walker, taking small steps. She would limp on her right leg, but in the process, the petite woman’s arms were becoming stronger. Indeed, Sambo wasn’t any ordinary woman – 28-years-old, no education, underweight, mother of four children all below the age of 10, no parents, a tribal farmer for a husband, and a petite and fragile frame. Yes, perhaps the wound on her leg may have made her distinct from the scores of Adivasi (aboriginal) women who can be profiled similarly. And it is the story of this wound that makes this ordinary woman – with curly frizzy hair, high cheekbones, small chin, small nose, honeyed skin, broad protruding clavicle, toned muscles – so different. She is someone whom the Chhattisgarh government dreads to keep alive, yet cannot afford to eliminate her.
On October 1, 2009, when the sun had just risen for the day in the quaint village of Gompad lying on the state border of Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Sodi Sambo was cleaning the courtyard of her twig-and-mud house, with her children by her side; her husband had gone out for some contract labour work. Suddenly, she heard cries of the people in her neighbourhood, and before she could fathom, she saw people in her village being massacred brutally by men “wearing clothes with floral patterns” (her way of describing military fatigues) and carrying guns. Suddenly, she saw herself being pulled over by two of the men in fatigues into her neigbour’s house, who was breastfeeding her child. One of them pointed the gun towards her neighbour, but the other deterred him, saying that the woman was breastfeeding. But the men wouldn’t leave with work undone – the man shot Sambo on her right leg. The liquid rust spurted out from that spot, she fell onto the ground, and her cries synchronized with those of her children. In her unbearable pain, she did not realize that she was luckier than the 13 others who had lost their lives in that village, barely a few minutes back.
For the next 20 days, the surviving terrified villagers administered herbs to her wounds. Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian activist based in the district of Dantewada, had heard about the massacre of 13 people. He managed to get his volunteers to convince the villagers to somehow bring Sambo to the town so that she could be treated, as well as to provide protection to her since she was the sole eyewitness to the massacre (the others had fled into the jungles; Sambo couldn’t even walk to save her life). He knew that there was no point in filing a police complaint – why would one officer write a complaint against his compatriot?
But before the story gets further murkier, let’s take a few steps back to understand why were the men “wearing clothes with floral patterns” gunning down innocent villagers. It begins with Sambo’s state of birth. Chhattisgarh accounts for over 13 per cent of India’s total mineral production, worth around Rs 4,000 crore (882 million CAD$) a year, as it has some of the largest reserves of minerals anywhere in the world of coal, iron ore (23 per cent of India’s deposit), limestone, dolomite, bauxite and cassiterite reserves being the largest in the country. Also abundant are gold, tin, diamonds, uranium, corundum and copper. Bastar, the southernmost part of the state, has the 32 km long and 4 km wide Bailadila hills, part of the Dandakaranya forest.
Tribals account for 70 per cent of Bastar’s population. The nearest cities to Dantewada, the largest district in Bastar – are Raipur, Vishakhapatnam, Hyderabad or Nagpur and they are over 10 hours away. In almost all villages, the only signs of government are the police station. No roads, no schools, no primary health centres. But people like Sodi Sambo somehow manage to be at peace with their frugal needs. She makes no demand; no minister has ever visited her village either. Villagers had to carry Sambo and walk 20 kms to the nearest town, thanks to the dirt patch roads leading to Gompad.
But mining companies are grabbing the ground beneath Sambo’s feet, and the government acquiesces to this, stating that this is for “development”. A government committed to such “development” is blind to see that 33 per cent of India’s populace has a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5, which pushes them into the category of severely malnourished. The WHO states that when 40 per cent of a region’s populace has a BMI of 40 per cent, that state can be declared to be a victim of a famine. India’s 33 per cent is less than the ascribed 40 per cent, yet it is not a congratulatory figure – it is the same people who have, for generations, been victims of chronic hunger and malnutrition. With such an understanding, and going by the Geneva Convention of the UN, such gross miscarriage of justice amounts to genocide. Desperate situations call for desperate measures. Not surprisingly, Chhattisgarh and neighbouring Jharkhand state together account for 65 per cent of the total Maoist or Left wing insurgency in the country.
Adding to the woes of these placid Adivasis were two significant Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) signed by the Chhattisgarh government with Tata Steel and Essar Group, in June 2005. Tata reportedly selected 10 villages (5,300 acres) to set up a steel plant, while Essar zeroed in on 3,097 acres in two villages near Dantewada. Of the vast land mass that Tata wants to acquire, 87 per cent is agricultural land. The government allowed its own people to become pawns in this game of profits and more profits. It all goes back to the source of the steel rods which are implanted in Sambo’s leg!
The Adivasis did not bother anyone – they were content with whatever nature provided them, as long as they had their little piece of land which provided them just about enough to keep from hunger. Suddenly they had to confront large bulldozers which threatened to mow down their crops, in exchange for a paltry compensation. They could not give up their land under any circumstances while time was running out for Tata and Essar, and several other mining companies who eyed the ground beneath Sambo’s feet. When requests and money wouldn’t yield results, the force of violence and coercion was exercised. The Adivasi was wrong to assume that his government would stand by him and protect him.
The Maoist violence was the perfect alibi for the Chhattisgarh government to ensure that the mining companies could ride into these villages amid the jungles of Dandakaranya. The government launched Salwa Judum (or ‘peace march’ in the tribal Gondi language) a day after the MoU was signed with Tata Steel in 2005, with an aim to eliminate Maoist violence. Young boys and girls were made SPOs or special police officers, in accordance with the Police Act which has laid down such a provision for conflict areas. But the haphazard recruitment of SPOs also meant a sea of lost childhood – young boys, who hardly bore the signs of manhood, were thrust with guns in their hands, whose length would be longer than their height. Suddenly, the newly-acquired power flowed from the barrel of the gun. Salwa Judum was responsible for the clearing of 644 villages in Bastar region – some Adivasis ran through the jungles into Andhra Pradesh, some others were made to march into the Salwa Judum camps which were devoid of human dignity. Homes were burnt, girls were raped, men were mutilated. And these horror crimes went unreported in the mainstream media, since it prefers to court mining companies which are its advertisers.
The idea of Salwa Judum backfired – what was initiated as a means to wipe out Maoist violence gave rise to the movement increasing by 22-fold. By 2009, the government bit its lip once again when it launched Operation Green Hunt – a unified paramilitary offense comprising the army, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the state police, the SPOs as well as the air force. They were mandated to eliminate Maoists. And exactly how could one identify a Maoist? Nobody knew the answer. Blindfolded with beliefs of the image of Moaists, Sambo’s village was attacked on the day Operation Green Hunt was announced.
While Sambo was being treated at the All India Institue of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, Kumar filed a petition in the Supreme Court about the massacre. But the Chhattisgarh government did not miss any chance to prove that Sambo will continue to be the pawn in this gory battle.
On January 3, 2010, I never fathomed that I was seeing Sambo for the last time. Her wound had healed considerably, but she had to board a train to Delhi for another surgery on her leg. The meagre communication between us women was through signs as I did not know the ancient Dorla dialect of Koya Mata, which she spoke. But she did not make it to the train station, as planned. To reach Delhi, she had to board a bus from Dantewada to Raipur, and then take the train to the capital. But as she boarded the bus along with two volunteers from Kumar’s ashram, the police stopped them and said that she could not go. She alighted from the bus, and was packed into the car from the ashram and sped through another interior route to the next bus stop, about 10 miles away. When the bus had arrived there few minutes later, there was an attempt to get her on to the bus once again, but the police managed to reach the spot once again, and then began to question the driver. Kumar intervened; and the police could not afford to override the questions of the activist who is too prominent to be attacked by the administration. Sambo had to return to the ashram that night.
A plan was made to take her to Raipur by Kumar’s own vehicle instead of the bus the next day. The police entourage followed Kumar’s car, as was already expected (Kumar had been provided ‘police protection’ since December 2009 under the pretext that the tribals would attack him. The truth was far from that – the administration wanted to keep an eye on each of his movements and the people coming to meet him). But 400 miles close to Raipur, Sambo was detained at Kanker police station, where the officers said that the detention order had come in from Amresh Mishra, the Superintendent of Police (SP) of Dantewada district. Kumar said that he would not leave her for a moment, for he knew that doing so would mean her instant elimination. The duo was detained for eight hours, until it was decided that Sambo would be brought back to Dantewada in a separate jeep.
The next morning, along with about 20 activists, I went to meet Mishra to ask about Sambo’s whereabouts. He assured us that she was safe; he said, “Her parents had filed a missing complaint.” When we said that she did not have any parents, he said, “If not her parents, then they may have been her uncle and aunt who are her guardians.” When we asked him about the basis on which a person’s guardians were recognized, he said, “They seemed to be nice people when I spoke to them, and that’s how I was assured that they were her guardians.” When we asked him why was Sambo kept away at night in an undisclosed location, he said, “She told us that she wanted to rest, and we had to respect that.” We asked him which language did she communicate in, he replied, “Gondi.” The fact is that Sambo can speak only Dorla. The SP of any district in India is an officer of the Indian Police Service (IPS) whose selection is done through the utmost stringent process, and candidates prepare for the examination for as long as five years. No wonder then they are among the brightest minds in the country. Our shock and dismay at Mishra’s asinine reply can be well imagined. He promised us that we would be able to meet her, and that promise is yet to be fulfilled.
Today as I write this, I hear that Sambo is in a jail in a town far from Gompad, and has still not recovered from her leg wound. Did she ever board the train to Delhi? Yes she did; but we learnt about it several days later. Was she operated upon? Yes, so says the police. Was there any proof of her well-being in the special VIP ward of the hospital which was surrounded by cops, and where she was ‘recuperating’? No, as people wanting to meet her, including Kumar himself – who had to later go underground to escape the wrath of the state police which alleged that he had ‘kidnapped’ Sambo – were shown a letter which bore Sambo and her husband’s thumb impressions (her husband was brought from Gompad by the police), mentioning that Sambo did not wish to meet anybody. This letter represents the tragic-comic games played by the Chhattisgarh government – the letter was written in Hindi; it bore the thumb impressions of two illiterate people who could speak only Dorla. The police manning their ‘security’ furnished the letter each time someone wanted to meet Sambo, even her lawyer for that matter. There were several demonstrations across the country, and even in the US, to protest this injustice towards a victim and eye-witness of a massacre. Booker Prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy also stood outside the gates of AIIMS, along with about a crowd of 100, holding placards and shouting out slogans to let Sambo free. Yet, when Roy attempted to meet Sambo, she was denied access. Inside the VIP ward, Sambo was unaware of the attempts that were being made by scores of people to get her freed. Sambo had become a famous pawn.
When the Supreme Court ordered the Chhattisgarh government to permit Sambo’s lawyer and Kumar to meet her, the joy was only momentary when it was soon learnt that Sambo was discharged from AIIMS, as “she wanted to go home”. The doctor operating on her gave different versions to the activists about the degree of Sambo’s recovery – he initially said that she was far from having recovered, but later said that she was an adult who had recovered from her injuries and her plea of going home had to be granted. He spoke as though she communicated to him her deepest fears. But none of the two knew each other’s language.
Few weeks later, when the case came up for hearing in the Supreme Court, Sambo was brought in by the Chhattisgarh police and she was livid about being ‘abandoned’ by Kumar. She still walked with a limp, with the help of the walker. The judge issued an order to the Chhattisgarh government to investigate the massacre, while also ordering that Sambo should be well taken care of. Sambo was not taken back to the hospital, but she never went home either. The apex court was told that she would be sent to her ‘parents’ in Konta town; but Sambo had none. Just as stealthily she was brought in to New Delhi, she was taken back to Konta. Today, she is lodged in the jail there with her husband.
Sodi Sambo is not any ordinary woman. Human rights activists across the world know her today – she is the living, breathing, wounded proof of a greedy corporate structure, a greedier bureaucracy, a government equally scared of her existence and the result of her elimination, an apathetic civil society, a barbaric police force, and the empty hopes of non-violence espousing activists who still believe in democracy. Sodi Sambo, 28, Gond tribe, mother of four, bullet injury on her leg – she is just another woman who will soon be forgotten.