sori at jnu

Indigenous Rights Activist Addresses Protesting Indian Students

This is part of Feministing’s continued coverage of the current Indian student movement for the right to dissent. You can follow these links to find our coverage of the origins and continued events of the movement here.

“When we raise our voice against injustice, we are called anti-nationals,” said indigenous activist Soni Sori of her community in an address to the protesting students of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India [translation from Scroll]. “Now they are calling you anti-nationals, too. You have our support and we have yours. We’ll fight together.”

Monday’s protest at JNU featured a speech by Sori, a renowned activist for the rights of indigenous Indians who was the recent survivor of a brutal attack in which an acid-like substance was poured on her face — a variant on the acid attack too often used against outspoken women in South Asia.

It’s been almost a month since the arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union president Kanhaiya Kumar under sedition charges sparked a broad-based student movement in India. Along with Kanhaiya, five other student activists were charged with sedition. Three — Umar Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar, and Anirban Bhattacharya — were imprisoned, and the latter two remain in jail.

The current accusations against student activists occur in the context of a number of central government incursions against the historical autonomy of Indian universities. They also occur in the context of vibrant student movements against caste oppression, gender oppression, and the privatization of education. As such, protest activities, including daily teach-ins, have included a large number of voices from struggles across India — struggles like the anti-caste movement, the women’s movement, and movements for indigenous rights.

Sori is a celebrated activist of this movement for indigenous rights. There are almost 90 million adivasi, referred to in Indian English as “tribal,” people in contemporary India. Considered some of the first inhabitants of India, these diverse and historically autonomous communities generally lived outside of Hindu caste society and the reach of various kingdoms. During colonial rule, the British labelled entire indigenous groups as inherently criminal in the Indian Penal Code, exacerbating state repression against adivasis. While indigenous groups are guaranteed rights in the Indian Constitution, they have often borne the brunt of contemporary development policies, which often infringe upon indigenous land rights.

Sori, once the the proprietor of a school for adivasi children in the state of Chhattisgarh, is a member of the populist Aam Aadmi Party, an opposition party of the right-wing central government. Sori works in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, an area that has a large tribal population and has been the site of various tribal struggles. Home to rich mineral resources, the state has particularly witnessed the effects of Indian and multinational mining companies, whose appropriation of land has left many indigenous people dispossessed. This history has also made Chhattisgarh a major site of the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency, a conflict between armed Maoist groups and the Indian state. Tribal people, including activists like Sori, have often been the target of military and police violence — including sexual violence — under the justification of fighting Maoism.

The recent attack isn’t the first on Sori, who was jailed for alleged Maoist activities — a sentence which led Amnesty International to label Sori a prisoner of conscience. During that stint in police custody, Sori was abused and brutally raped, with stones inserted into her vagina.

Speaking to the JNU students just a few weeks after the acid attack that left her face broadly scarred, Sori’s presence is a powerful reminder of the interrelatedness of social justice struggles, including those that the urban elite can easily disregard.

“This is the face of the fight in Bastar,” said Sori about her scars [translation from The Hindu]. “I am happy to be among you all here today. It is good to see how you are all fighting for your rights. Your struggle is not very different from the tribals in Chhattisgarh…We tribals, adivasis also want azadi [freedom], we want azadi from the government oppression, from the way we are targeted by the state. We cannot sleep peacefully at night inside our houses. There is always this fear that we will be picked up by the CRPF men and framed as Naxals.”

Below is Sori’s address to the protesting students at JNU. I didn’t have time to transcribe and translate it (sorry friends!), but it can at least give the non-Hindi-speakers out there a sense of the presence of this brave woman — an important reminder on International Women’s Day.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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