Soni Sori contesting from the Bastar constituency for the 2014 general elections is good news. The Aam Aadmi Party made the right choice — she represents the travails of the common man in its truest manner, unlike the codified middle class mannequins that are often trussed up as 'aam', including the party's leader Arvind Kejriwal.
A tribal woman, a school teacher, an "alleged Maoist", a suspect, an undertrial, a jail inmate, an 'escapee', and finally and most conclusively a survivor. Soni Sori's story exposes a venal government, a venal police force, a venal justice system, and to an extent venal activism.
On one occasion some years ago, she had asked how shoving stones in her body could possibly solve the Naxalite issue. The Indian State has employed a war-like colonial stance against its own people almost immediately after independence. The status quo was stratified and sanctified rightaway and is now congealed.
Other blood flows.
Even as someone who was incarcerated and tortured for being a conduit, the big guys of corporate India who were supposed to be working in tandem got away; she and her nephew, the tribals, were left to rot in prison.
India's conscience did not rise at this daughter's treatment. It is possible that had the Delhi gangrape victim been alive today, she would have got a ticket to contest the elections. Soni's predicament has been political from the beginning. Yet, will politics be the panacea?
Unlike certain media channels that have a single-point agenda to demolish AAP, I have tried to give a fairly rounded critique ever since its inception. There would, therefore, be no reason to snigger at its choice of candidates, the broad sweep of the socio-economic landscape it has managed to awaken. But this is a bubble, and as bubbles go it will work.
The party is hinged on one man, and we are yet to know his views on many crucial internal and foreign policy matters. His situation is all the more shaky because it is a new party. There is a case to be made for the 'anarchist', but not when the movement is reduced to name-dropping and cultivating a slumdog persona. Indeed, we do get excited when a Mukesh Ambani or the Adani group is called out. What after that?
A relative visiting from abroad was endorsing AAP: "I thought at least there will be some change."
There is. In that it works as NOTA - none of the above, which is a new form of TINA - there is no alternative. So, it might operate as a buffer. When the results are out, and some of its candidates will most certainly win, will it remain independent?
This is where my concern for Soni Sori comes in. None of the other candidates have anything to lose. They are part of a neo-awakened class that can afford the risk of not being in power or of tactically aligning with some other party.
Sori's has been a lone ideological battle. It might appear that we are talking about just a teacher, a tribal woman from Dantewada. We are and we are not. Her situation is emblematic of what is wrong with India.
Let us not forget that until last month, AAP was hesitant to give her a ticket. Should she win, and who more deserving than her, then how would the party deal with her in an alliance partnership with the state's serfs that were the cause of her problem, of the problem of what she stands for?
While getting my thoughts together, I came across her most recent interview to The Hindu.
The AAP approached her. For this, one must give them credit. No other party would touch her. Pardon the cynicism, but it is also their trump card. Despite the Indian State, people like Sori represent the marginal. There is a whole lot of support for people like her.
However, in the enthusiasm to give the tribals a voice, politicians are more keen to sanitise her image by emphasising her non-Naxalite status, her innocence as opposed to their criminality. This is something that needs to be considered. Will she be a political conduit now?
"I felt if I have to change things in Bastar, politics is the only way. I realised that it was only through politics that I can empower myself, and when I am empowered, I would be able to empower people in Bastar as well. The freedom of my people has been curtailed. I want to give their freedom back to them."
If only this was true. Political opportunism may not permit such change, except perhaps cosmetic. And it was politics that victimised her. As a winning candidate she might be able to address the local issues of Bastar, but not how the system chooses its criminals. It co-opts, and that could be a greater tragedy where one or two or a few individuals are shown as 'reformed'. As she said:
"Some of those who witnessed the recent Maoist attack in Jeeram Valley say many of the guerillas were women and children. They were carrying guns. Children should not be carrying guns; they should have pens in their hands."
There has been a breakdown. However, when was education of tribals ever a priority? It has served various governments to keep them backward to serve the colonial mindset we thrive on. The "innocent tribals" are also those who pick up guns because they have been forced to.
As a school teacher, she is addressing the right issues, and there is hope for that. Her personal experience with the law has naturally made her conscious of exposing it ("I fear that the more I speak the truth, the more I’ll subject myself to danger. But I cannot keep silent any longer"), but under the skin all political parties are the same.
She was asked if she'd like to tell anything to the Maoists, establishing the otherness. She replied:
"What do I tell them except that the gun solves nothing; the only way forward is through peace, through dialogue. Bastar has seen enough of violence. Let’s all work together to put an end to this bloodshed."
Peace is always an option, a desired goal. But we are not talking about one hand clapping. Will she be able to confront the police? Will her party stand by her to seek the release of "hundreds of innocent tribals"? And will it be only one of those fast-track justice acts where footfalls of the free will hush the quiet arrests made, the bodies bundled up in the thick of the forests?
Soni Sori coming into the mainstream is likely to be somebody else's trophy. Again.
© Farzana Versey