Print edition : September 07, 2012

Mohammed Kalam, who had been honoured for his work to check the trafficking in women, at a police training session. The police mysteriously arrested him for the same offence.-

In Bihars Forbesganj, social activists fighting a communitys custom of pushing girls into prostitution are intimidated.

On the night of February 12, a raid was conducted by the police in a well-known brothel area of Uttari Rampur, Ward No.3, Forbesganj, in Araria district in Bihar. It was led by the Superintendent of Police, Shivdeep Lande, himself. In all, 25 girls were rescued and a number of alleged traffickers were caught. About three months later, I was surprised and shocked to find the name of Mohammed Kalam of Forbesganj mentioned as the person who had been arrested following the testimony given by one of the rescued girls.

Was this the same Md. Kalam I had met in January 2007 on my visit to Uttari Rampur as a Member of the National Commission for Women (NCW)? The Kalam I had known was a member of the marginalised Nutt community, which had been providing women for the brothels of Rampur for generations. Kalam had been raised by his two elder sisters, who had themselves been inducted into the trade at an early age but had vowed to make sure that their brother never became part of the vicious network of traffickers and pimps of Forbesganj. They had sent him away to be educated in a school. He had taken advantage of this opportunity and become the first graduate from the Nutt community in the area. He acquired a degree in law and came back to his birthplace as a social activist fighting against the exploitation of women.

When I visited Rampur, Kalam was one of the three teachers at the informal and unsupported primary school that was being run by Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a non-governmental organisation, in the area. There were 70-80 children attending the school regularly, and I was informed by Kalam and his colleagues that after a long struggle it had become possible to get two of the girls admitted to class V of a reputed school in the locality. They were running a Mahila Mandal for the women of the locality and trying to prevent trafficking. Quresha Khatun, Kalams elder sister, played a big role in the Mahila Mandal.

My interaction with the people carrying out this uneven struggle with so much courage and determination did not end there. About a month later, I intervened with the district and State administration in a case where Apne Aap was trying to rescue a minor girl, the daughter of one of the members of the Mahila Mandal, from being trafficked by her adoptive father in Katihar. Kalam had led the team to the place where the girl was confined and thus made her rescue possible. For his efforts, he was stabbed by some miscreants obviously associated with the traffickers. Subsequently, Kalam received recognition for his anti-trafficking work from various national and international organisations and was named in a weekly magazine as the anti-trafficking hero of 2008. He was also a resource person for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) anti-trafficking training programme for the Bihar police. So, I could hardly believe that the same Kalam could have been arrested for being involved in trafficking.

However, a few days later, I got a call from Tinku Khanna, who had been working with the Apne Aap programme in Forbesganj almost from its inception. She told me: Yes, this is the same Kalam you had met. Tinku reminded me that when I had gone to Forbesganj, an annual fair called Kali Mela was going on there and together with Tinku and her colleagues, I had walked incognito to the fair at sundown. I had been struck, I remembered, by the exclusively masculine atmosphere at the mela and the complete absence of women, children or families such as we find in rural fairs. I had written in my report about several tents openly advertising pornographic films. There was a Nautanki tent and I was informed that instead of folk drama performance, the tent was used for dancing sessions by young girls who were then inducted into prostitution. Even while we were walking down the streets, we could see men on motorbikes proceeding from the mela ground straight to the adjacent brothel. I was shocked by the extreme youth of some of the girls who were sitting in front of their small adobe huts on either side of the streets. Apparently, every year, at least eight or nine very young girls were brought to the mela and forced into the trade through a traditional ritual, missi mehendi. I had discussed the situation with the District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police the very next day. As a result, the Nautanki tent and the film shows were closed down for a year. They were resumed when the District Magistrate got a different posting.

Tinku said Apne Aap had filed two petitions this year regarding the illicit activities the minor girls were forced to engage in at the theatre at the fair and about their exploitation in the adjacent red light area. Acting upon the information given by the Apne Aap workers, the District Magistrate had instructed the Superintendent of Police to look into the matter. However, according to Tinku, the raid was conducted only in the red light area, while the mela was left undisturbed. Further, the usual protocol in this matter was not maintained since neither Apne Aap nor any other NGO was involved in the raid. Tinku said they were shocked that together with trafficked girls, some minors living in the red light area but who not were engaged in the trade had also been picked up by the police. The daughter of one of the organisers of Apne Aap in the area had also been picked up arbitrarily. Tinku said they were able to take the girl back into their custody but could not get the custody of the other rescued girls. She said they protested against the manner in which the raid had been conducted and against the inclusion of the names of two Apne Aap workers in the raid team, when the truth was different.

Apne Aap activists took exception to the Child Welfare Committee handing over six girls, three of whom had been proved to be over 18 years of age, to alleged traffickers who had posed as their guardians, despite repeated protests. The other 18 girls were sent to the Tatwasi Samaj Kalyan Samiti in Purnea. Surprisingly, according to Tinku, only six of them were kept back while the rest were arbitrarily handed over to their so-called guardians within a month. As Tinku said, At least in six of these cases, the guardians have ensured that the girls go back to the sex trade.

Kalam was one of the key activists who had identified the traffickers and the girls trafficked by them. But three and a half months later, on June 1, he was called to the Forbesganj police station and was informed by the Deputy Superintendent of Police that he was being arrested for being involved in trafficking. Apparently, one of the six girls languishing at the Purnea home had given a statement under Section 164 of the CrPC in which she had said that among those who had trafficked her there was one Kalam who had forced her to marry a married man named Gaffar, who had subsequently prostituted her. After being arrested on the strength of a first information report, which did not clearly name him or specify his role as a trafficker, a handcuffed Kalam was photographed along with the triumphant DSP, in violation of a Supreme Court order.

The media report quoted the Superintendent of Police as saying that Ruchira Gupta, the founder and director of Apne Aap, had threatened the DSP over the phone and that a station diary had been lodged against the NGO. The media report was later found to be without basis, but there can be no doubt that it was an attempt to intimidate the organisation because it was trying to find justice for Kalam.

Girls at the informal school run by an NGO in Uttari Rampur.-PHOTOGRAPHS BY MALINI BHATTACHARYA

Kalam eventually got bail and the bail order states that no significant or substantial evidence has been found against him. But, of course, the case against him remains, even while the other persons mentioned as traffickers in the FIR are still at large. There is also an ongoing campaign against the school run by Apne Aap, which has been brought under the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya Scheme after prolonged efforts. A part of the district administration has joined the campaign. Now that the school has found a footing in the locality and is benefiting children who had little access to education and were vulnerable to the vicious atmosphere around them, it would be a great pity if, on the basis of unsubstantiated excuses, it is closed down or handed over to others without the same credentials as Apne Aap.

One does not know how this story will end, but on the basis of the data I was able to gather for the NCW report, I would like to express my apprehensions in this matter. The Nutt community was originally tribal and had at one time been forced to adopt a nomadic way of life. It was stigmatised as a criminal tribe by the British and became a so-called de-notified tribe in independent India.

While in States such as Rajasthan they have Scheduled Tribes status, in Bihar they are included in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category but continue to be marginalised unlike some other OBC communities. Poverty and underdevelopment, even after they gave up their nomadic ways, combined with the uneven power structures in society, helped perpetuate among them the so-called custom of pressing their girls into prostitution, and eventually some of their settlements turned into red light areas and centres of trafficking.

A lucrative business

What is terrifying is that the so-called custom has turned into a lucrative business running into crores of rupees. Alternative livelihoods are scarce, and the strong network of traffickers extends right into the families and the community panchayats. Their settlements in Forbesganj, close to the borders of Nepal, Sikkim and north Bengal, are not just source areas but also transit and destination points for trafficking.

The women not only are breadwinners for their families but are made to pay money from their earnings by a hafta system to people who run the trade, who include panchayat members, politically powerful elements and some sections of the police. Any attempt to leave the trade could end in violence and even death. The violence is perpetrated not only through local goons but by the male members in the families. In fact, it seems as if society at large is also putting pressure on the community so that it would be natural for all women to turn to prostitution and all men to become traffickers and pimps.

In the community to which Kalam belongs, he is an exception. But neither his own community nor those who wield social and political power seem to be ready to tolerate exceptions. Paradoxically, Kalam would have been less exposed to danger had he got criminalised. Since this is a closely knit clan, everyone is related to everyone else by ties of kinship, and Kalam, by remaining opposed to the exploitation of the women of his community, is committing an offence against his blood ties. But what is more unfortunate is that the social and political forces outside his own community also seem to be inclined towards perpetuating the fate of the Nutts.

Malini Bhattacharya is a former member of the National Commission for Women.

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