Responses to an Indian Express article on Soni Sori

August 18, 2012

“ANYTHING BUT THE TRUTH”

We are deeply shocked and dismayed at Ashutosh Bhardwaj’s (AB) report “Soni’s Story” published in the Sunday Express on 5th August. The reporter has not bothered to cross-check any of the “facts” given to him by his unnamed sources, and relies entirely on innuendo and unproven assertions to discredit a woman who is currently imprisoned and in no position to clarify and defend herself. AB employs dubious techniques to gain access to sensitive information, yet ends up completely missing out on the real story unfolding in Dantewada, where a dysfunctional criminal justice system, coupled with a vicious law enforcement machinery, is criminalizing an entire community and generation of adivasis.

Factual Inaccuracies

The reporter takes great pains to cast doubts over Soni Sori’s claims of custodial sexual torture at the hands of Chhattisgarh police. And this is done without having talked to the victim herself.

1) First, he suggests that the X-ray images taken in Chhattisgarh hospitals right after her torture show that there were no stones in her vagina or rectum. It should be noted that the State of Chhattisgarh itself makes far more modest claims in its defense before the Supreme Court than these clumsy ones made by AB. Quoting the Head of the Radio-diagnosis of the Raipur Hospital where these tests were conducted, the State has admitted before the apex court that “In the CT scan, the vaginal part is not included…” All the Chhattisgarh state has claimed in court is that “No foreign body is visible for the part of the rectum for which the CT scan was done.” [Annexure 5, Submission on behalf of the Respondent State of Chhattisgarh in Writ Petition 206 of 2011, Supreme Court of India]. Elementary knowledge of human anatomy would suffice to illustrate that CT spinal scans do not cover the majority of the rectum; they leave out the lower rectum.

2) AB deliberately downplays the horror of the discovery of stones in Ms. Sori’s private parts by the NRS Hospital in Kolkata by suggesting that the report sent by the hospital, described as “four-page confidential report, a copy of which is with The Sunday Express,” does not confirm torture charges. It may interest AB to know that hospital did not file a 4-page report, but a 39-page report, which was made available to Ms. Sori’s lawyers by the Supreme Court. Which 4 pages of this report were read by AB is impossible to guess, but his conclusion that the hospital did not confirm the torture charges is absurd. The medical board not only conducted a thorough gynecological and rectal examination – the first since Soni Sori was taken into police custody – but uncovered physical evidence in the form of stones from her private parts, which were physically sent to the Supreme Court along with the report. Shoving of stones into one’s private parts may not conform to Mr. Bhardwaj’s definition of “torture”, but it does seem to satisfy the Supreme Court of India.

3) Mr. Bhardwaj then seeks to discredit the Kolkata hospital’s report further by suggesting that even the Supreme Court entertains doubts about the accuracy of this report, and hence has ordered Soni Sori’s re-examination at AIIMS. Again, if he had only bothered to read the Supreme Court order of 2nd May 2012, publicly available on its website, he would have easily learned that the examination and treatment at AIIMS was ordered by the apex court to provide Soni Sori with medical treatment that was deliberately being withheld from her by the Chhattisgarh authorities. It was not at all to “re-examine” the torture evidence. In any case, what medical evidence of torture does AB imagine would still be present in the body eight months after the incident?! The problems of abnormal vaginal discharge and other associated gynecological, urological problems, raised by a private practitioner whom AB has talked to, which AB insinuates in his article as being mysteriously absent, have all been painstakingly documented before the Supreme Court, if only Mr. Bhardwaj had bothered to acquaint himself with the documents of this case. In fact, it was on the basis of these that urgent medical treatment was being repeatedly requested by Ms. Soni’s counsel in three different interim applications to the Supreme Court, and it is this prayer of Ms. Sori’s counsel which the Supreme Court answered in its May 2nd order.

4) What is perhaps most distasteful in the report is the zeal with which AB attacks the authenticity of Soni’s letters from prison. Again, he has no tangible argument to show any kind of discrepancy, and indeed, even the State of Chhattisgarh has not challenged the authenticity of these letters filed before the Supreme Court. When AB confronts Soni herself with these letters, she also affirms that she is indeed sending them from prison. Undeterred, AB tells the reader that he is unable confirm that these letters are indeed in Soni Sori’s handwriting, and he cannot find how they are being sent from prison. One wonders whether this has more to do with Mr. Bhardwaj’s competence as an investigative journalist, rather than the authenticity of letters. For instance, did he try to get a handwriting sample of Soni to compare the various letters? Did he know that on 5/10/2011, the day after being arrested in Delhi, Soni Sori had submitted IN PERSON a handwritten letter to the Saket Courts, which is now an integral part of the court record and a public document, which can be easily used for the purpose of comparing handwritings? If AB had only bothered to do some primary research, maybe his investigative abilities would have improved dramatically. Further, it is unclear why he expects either Soni or anyone else to give him specific information about how the letters are being sent to Delhi. Does he not know what happened to Dr. Binayak Sen charged with similar allegations of carrying letters for an alleged Naxalite?

Questionable Ethics of this “Journalism of Courage”

It has been brought to our notice that in his zeal to find out how these letters are being sent from the prison, AB accosted her young children and badgered them to find out whether they could recognize Soni’s handwriting in the letters, whether Soni was passing off the letters to them when they visited her, and whether they knew how she was sending these letters to Delhi. AB never once approached either Soni’s lawyers in Delhi, or any of the doctors who examined her, or the women’s rights and civil liberties activists, who he insinuates are “using her” (to what ends and purpose only he can shed light on). Instead, he tried to obtain sensitive information out of children, clearly violating all ethical boundaries of “investigative journalism”. Considering that the youngest of Soni’s children is only 6 years old, we strongly protest at this highly questionable and rather “courageous” way of trying to elicit information from children about their mother.

It is common knowledge that most instances of custodial torture, especially sexual torture, go unpunished and unrecorded simply because it is nearly impossible to establish the claims. This is what makes it all the more shameful for The Sunday Express to go out of its way to discredit the one solitary instance of brutal torture that has actually been corroborated by hard, incontrovertible medical evidence – by employing the dubious techniques of innuendos and mis-statement of facts. By questioning the sexual torture claims, this report ends up giving credence to the similar line of arguments of the State. Is it really that difficult for IE’s editors and journalists to understand why an imprisoned adivasi woman, from a conflict-ridden region, whose husband and nephew are also imprisoned by the police, and who has herself been threatened with even more dire consequences to her family, may take a few days to overcome her fear and the trauma of her brutal sexual torture, and only then be able to talk of the gory details?

(Ir)Responsible Journalism?

While appalling factual inaccuracies and selective presenting of pieces information does great damage to the reporter’s credibility, what is perhaps most worrisome and reprehensible in this story is the story he chooses to ignore, to not to report on.

AB mentions in an off-hand manner that there is evidence to show that neither Soni, nor her husband (who has been in jail for over two years now) were involved in the attack on Mr. Avadhesh Gautam’s house, in which both of them are charged. He also reports that even the police admit that the other cases against Soni (eight of them altogether) are all false cases. But then does not highlight or discuss the grave implications of this explosive piece of information.

He probably knows that the FIR lodged by Mr. Avadhesh Gautam after the attack on his house, in which he named Soni and her husband, also named 65 other adivasis of the local villages. As in the case of Soni and her husband, it is open knowledge in the villages that the other 65 names are also figments of someone’s overactive imagination. Yet dozens of them continue to be in jail even today, as their trial drags on endlessly and they are unable to obtain bail. But somehow, AB, in possession of all these facts, could not be bothered less in reporting on this epidemic of coerced criminality that seems to be sweeping across the adivasi belt.

AB also fails to inform the readers that in this case, the reason why so many adivasis are languishing in jail in an admittedly fabricated case is that for over a year Mr. Avadhesh Gautam, the main complainant, has not answered his summons to appear in court to give testimony. For over a year, the court has been making (half-hearted) attempts to get him to come so that the trial can proceed. But for over a year, the deliverer of summons simply cannot find Avadhesh Gautam in the village. But Avadhesh Gautam is not in hiding– he lives in his house, attends to his business, everyone in the village knows his whereabouts, and even AB had no problem nailing him down for this story. Only the court cannot seem to find him to deliver summons to him.

But this does not seem to bother Mr. Bhardwaj. In his enthusiasm to get Mr. Gautam’s opinion on Ms. Sori’s character, he conveniently lays aside the *real* story–that so many adivasis continue to languish in jail for over two years simply because Mr Gautam cannot take the trouble to appear in the court to give his testimony, What makes Mr. Avadhesh Gautam, who has admittedly falsely implicated Soni and her family in a criminal case, the ideal person to provide insights into Ms. Soni’s condition escapes us. But what is even more distressing is that AB does not find it worthwhile to investigate why a whole generation of adivasis is being put behind bars on the basis of such false cases, why it is taking years and their entire family’s savings to get them out. Instead, his way of “responsible journalism” leads him to cast aspersions and doubts on the custodial torture of one woman, who has dared to question this dismal state of affairs in a constitutional democracy, and on the concerns being raised by democratic rights activists.

Indira, Kalpana, Kavita S, Nidhi, Vani, on behalf of Saheli and WSS

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Rebuttal by International Alliance for Defence of Human Rights in India

[a version of this article earlier appeared on Kafila]

That the media often compromises its integrity for corporate interests and the political elite is not news any more. The recent Sunday Express report titled ‘Soni’s Story’ is symptomatic of a belief that if a lie is repeated often, it becomes the accepted truth.  The report talks of Soni Sori, the Adivasi school teacher from Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, who has been arrested and accused of being a Maoist conduit. With a clever sprinkling of truth, a report can seem unbiased- the reporter appears to be the warrior fighting to find facts and settling for nothing less. It is, however, imperative that fallacies be broken down, and the casual picking and choosing of facts be exposed for what it is. Let us use the same structure that the story uses.

Sori, the police and the Maoists

1. The report paints a picture of Soni Sori, a vocal, educated school teacher with an influential family. It mentions that “Villagers in Palnar say Sori was not a Maoist, but like most people in these parts, she had links with the rebels.”

2. However, in the quest for truth, the reporter does not remain satisfied, and to substantiate charges of Sori’s Maoist links refers to the incident where Maoists shoot her father in the leg but spare her as a subtle insinuation that there is something wrong brewing underneath. How exactly one’s father being shot is a sign of camaraderie we will never know, but the Sunday Express seems to have some ideas.

3. The report does not stop at this, but cites an unnamed Palnar-based journalist and family-friend who says that “Madam was a bridge between Maoists and the local company contractors. She helped them levy taxes and was also close to the police,” which of course is sufficient evidence to incriminate Sori as a Maoist.

4. The report exonerates Sori of the attack on Avdesh Gautam’s house, stating that “Evidence suggests both Sori and Futane were not involved in the attack. But curiously, while Futane was arrested and continues to be in jail, Sori remained free. She was slapped with several offences in a series of cases from July to September 2010—all false, say her lawyer and even the police.” Curiously, this does not prevent the reporter from quoting the same Gautam saying that “She was playing to both sides. She could not have managed it for long.” This begs the question: how does one take Gautam’s words to be credible when it was his FIR that led to charges being slapped against Sori for the first time in 2010?

5. The report does reinforce the claim made by activists that Lingaram Kodopi (Sori’s nephew – a co-accused in the Gautam case and also arrested for being a Maoist conduit) was not arrested at Palnar market when handing over 15 lakhs to BK Lala, an Essar contractor, as suggested by the police. Relatives have confirmed that Kodopi was arrested from Sori’s father’s house, and Sori fled. What the report fails to inform readers is that after fleeing to Delhi, Sori sought out the office of Tehelka magazine and helped conduct a sting operation- the recorded conversation clearly suggests that she was framed through the conspiracy of SP Ankit Garg and a constable by the name of Mankar. It was also here that Sori spoke of repeated harassment by the Chhattisgarh police and their attempts to coax her to implicate her nephew Kodopi as being a Maoist.

Sori and the activists

1. This is perhaps the most intriguing part of the Sunday Express report. The journalist seeks to discredit activists for bringing attention to Soni Sori’s medical report, furnished by the NRS Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata. Sori was examined there between October 26th and 28th and it was through this report that Sori’s torture became evident after stones were recovered from her private parts. The medical report, contrary to what is mentioned in the report, was never “leaked”. The report was only made available after being produced before the Supreme Court. (It is also worth noting here that after the medical report was dispatched by speed post, it took a good two weeks for it to reach the Supreme Court.) One does not know what to make of the story’s suggestion that there was a “selective leak” of the medical report. What parts of the report that were of relevance were omitted by the various petitions? The report goes on to say, “While the four-page confidential report, submitted to the SC, a copy of which is with The Sunday Express, recorded in detail her medical condition and did not confirm the torture charges, only a sentence about the “foreign bodies” was leaked.” Is the Sunday Express trying to suggest that Sori inserted these foreign bodies into her body herself? If one were to also carefully read the four page medical report, it can be seen that the only sentence the Sunday Express chooses to mention is in the summary of the report (which in itself affirms the allegations of torture). The foreign bodies are mentioned along with other details, throughout the rest of the report. The recovered stones themselves were also submitted to the Supreme Court by the hospital.

2. The other means of discrediting the NRS medical report is to cite the medical report from hospitals in Dantewada and Raipur, where no foreign object was discovered. The initial report from the Dantewada hospital on 10th of October had mentioned about the other signs of torture (contusion on her head, tenderness in the lumbar region, black marks on her toes), though the mention of these are selectively omitted in the article. It is also worthwhile to note that the scans from Raipur have not been made available to Sori’s lawyers despite repeated appeals for the same. To ward off the charges made by activists that these reports were “doctored” (no pun intended), the Sunday Express interviewed a private practitioner Dr. Rakesh Gupta who finds the NRS medical report to be contradictory. One is of course supposed to ignore the fact that Dr. Gupta has not examined Sori himself. But to lend credibility to his claims, the report cites that Dr. Gupta is the “state president of the Naagrik Sangharsh Samiti who which supports “social and economic causes of Maoists”. We are now being coaxed to believe an alleged Maoist sympathizer! Ironic one would say, but irony is only every bright morning that Soni Sori spends in darkness behind bars in prison.

The case of the letters

1. The Sunday Express seems more interested in learning how the letters came from prison and were released through Himanshu Kumar rather than the contents of the letters themselves. It leaves no stone unturned in attempting to discredit these letters. By discrediting the source(s) of the letters, the author is trying to prove the detailing of torture by Soni as false, and also question the credibility of Soni and that of all the activists rallying for her. Perhaps the hope is that some of the random mud-slinging will work. At first the report attacks the handwriting, citing Himanshu Kumar as not recognizing the handwriting. Himanshu Kumar, in a response to this piece, has categorically stated that he recognizes the handwriting as that of Sori’s. It is not surprising that no one would confess to being a courier for Soni’s letter, considering that Dr. Binayak Sen spent two years in jail on similar allegations.

2. While questioning Sori’s letters, the report had no problem in quoting a purported letter from Sori’s husband, who is currently in jail, without explaining how they got hold of it. Curiously, no one other than the Sunday Express seems to have seen this letter.

The waiting family

1. The journalist somehow manages to summon all his compassion for this last section to sign off on a sympathetic note. To show the readers that it really is the all-powerful “jholawalas” that are playing Sori. To do this again, the uncredible Avdesh Gautam is quoted as “feeling sorry for her”. Mr. Gautam could perhaps be more concrete in his sympathy if he drops Sori’s name from the FIR he filed. But perhaps that is wishful thinking.

Any one who speaks up is a suspect

a. The article mentions “Himanshu ran an NGO in Dantewada for nearly 20 years till the police evicted him for allegedly supporting Maoists a few years ago. He has since been living in Delhi.“

Who “alleges” this (except for the author) remains a mystery.

Himanshu Kumar’s Ashram, from which he ran his NGO, was razed to ground one fine morning in 2009, and the reason that was given was that it was an illegal construction. The land had been given to him to set up the Ashram when he first moved there. After the Ashram was demolished, for a while he was living in a rented house in Dantewada. He had to leave that (and also leave Dantewada) because his landlord suddenly decided not to rent out the house any longer, and nor was anyone else willing to do so in the entire city. No one, including the police or the state, had mentioned about any Maoist links.

In fact, were the police able to “allege” such links, they could have filed a charge-sheet and sent a team to Delhi to arrest Himanshu, like the police teams they had sent for Soni and Lingaram Kodopi. In his haste to cast doubts on anyone who opposes the state line, the author is forced to resort to unnamed “allegations” in the total absence of fact.

At the end the story, one if left wondering what primary purpose such a report serves. Whether or not Sori is innocent (and indeed, the report itself questions some of the charges against her), why not question the administration and the judiciary that places thousands of Adivasis in the conflict zones behind bars, prolonging their detention and often refusing them any trial at all? It has been almost a year since Soni Sori was arrested. Months have passed since the Supreme Court expressed its anguish over the NRS Medical Report. No investigation has been initiated against those accused of this custodial torture, no response has been forthcoming from the government of Chhattisgarh.

If the purpose is only to malign individuals who raise their voices against these injustices, the Sunday Express  has served the purpose very well.