Room No. 2016 at the New Private Ward of All-India Institute of Medical Sciences here is playing host to a very special patient.
Sodi Sambho, who was brought to the Institute from Gompad village in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh five days ago, is set to undergo surgery for a bullet wound in her leg this Saturday. But what makes her special is that she is a key witness in a petition filed in the Supreme Court which alleges that security forces fired upon and killed nine Adivasis in a “sanitisation operation” in her village this past October 1. After she was detained on her way to Delhi, the Supreme Court directed the Chhattisgarh police not to prevent her from coming to the Capital for treatment.
Human rights activists and her lawyer, Colin Gonsalves, have expressed concern over the matter and alleged that strict police surveillance is being maintained over her movement and that she is being pressurised to change her statement. They allege she is under de facto police custody or surveillance and is not free to meet activists or journalists.
An attempt by this reporter to interact with her in her ward on Friday was thwarted by three men who refused to identify themselves and claimed to be her “well-wishers”. One of them said he was a fellow-Adivasi from her village and had accompanied her to Delhi for her treatment. The second man, a non-Adivasi, claimed to be a “doctor” from outside Delhi but subsequently contradicted himself saying he was not a medical practitioner.
He said he already knew the Adivasi accompanying Ms. Sambho and decided to offer whatever help he could. The third non-Adivasi man, however, did not reveal anything about himself. Tall and well-built, he had a mop of close-cropped hair.
Though the two non-Adivasi men lacked any legal or professional authority to interfere in the work of a journalist, they denied The Hindu permission to directly speak with Ms. Sambho on the ground that she only understood Gondi. And one of them pounced on the photographer who was accompanying this reporter when he began clicking photographs.
One of the “well-wishers” threatened to “inform the police” and file a legal complaint if Ms. Sambho’s picture, or a story about her, was published. He then forced the photographer to hand over the camera while demanding to see the photo identity cards. In the meantime, the third unidentified man who had just entered the room turned aggressive, took away the camera and deleted the pictures with practised ease. (As it turned out later, the photographer was able to retrieve and resurrect the pictures with the help of a special software embedded in the camera).
After several attempts, the head “well-wisher” agreed to let this reporter question the other Adivasi, who he said was the only person who could speak Hindi and Gondi. However, instead of conveying the queries to Ms. Sambho, he and the other unidentified man insisted on answering them directly without asking her.
The Adivasi man stated that they had the full support of the police and the hospital administration in Ms. Sambho’s treatment. He denied any police personnel had accompanied her to Delhi or were monitoring her movement to pressurise her. “The Maoists were behind the attack in which Sambho was injured,” he claimed.
As the “interview” proceeded, one of the “well-wishers” lost his temper, blaming this reporter for “disturbing the patient before her surgery”.
For the record, however, the AIIMS doctors themselves never objected to The Hindu’s attempt to meet Ms. Sambho.
January 16, 2010 / The Hindu