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The tale of Lalita Oraon

Print edition : Feb 19, 2000

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Five months after the situation of the Indian maid who walked out of the home of her employer, an Indian Embassy official in Paris, created a furore in France, questions remain as to what exactly happened to her.

VAIJU NARAVANE in Paris and in Ranchi

A HURT, frightened and traumatised tribal young woman from Bihar, one who grew up in ignorance, deprivation and utter poverty. She was denied the love and affection of her parents, separated from her brother and sisters, and pressed into domestic work ev en before she had entered her teens. Sexually mutilated, terrified and confused, she now remains in the care of a special judge for minors in Paris because French officials believe she is only 17 years old....

So went the story of Lalita Oraon last September. But it is a mystery even today as to who mutilated her, for what reason and when. The French press and the Committee Against Modern Slavery (CCEM), a Paris-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) that h ad Lalita in its care when her injuries came to light, have pilloried Amrit Lugun, Lalita's employer who is First Secretary, Economic, at the Indian embassy in Paris, more or less accusing him of being a torturer.

A criminal case has been registered by the French police but the inquiry seems to be leading nowhere. Lalita remains silent: she has made no accusations against her employer, nor has she said anything about how she received the injuries, which an inquiry commission has said "could not be self-inflicted."

Lalita's story begins in Seeramtoli, an Adivasi settlement not far from Ranchi. Her family comes from the Oraon tribe. The Santhals, Mundus and Oraons, who live in this part of south Bihar, practise the Sarna religion. Many of them have converted to Chri stianity. Lalita's mother is a Roman Catholic while her father Jeetu remained a Sarna. The children were not baptised and were named according to Sarna rites.

All but the last child were born at home. In the absence of church or hospital records, it is difficult to fix their age. The testimony of village elders is the only reliable source of information. Most village elders concur that Lalita is today almost 2 0 years old.

The French authorities, applying Western growth standards to Lalita, concluded that she is a minor. The Oraons are small-built. Lalita's 17-year-old brother Alois looks no bigger than 13 or 14.

This correspondent has been able to ascertain that Lalita was born on February 20, 1980 as stated in her passport. Her mother Karmi alias Flora Oraon Toppo had filed an affidavit to this effect but Judge Josie, the examining magistrate investigating the case, questioned its validity.

The affidavit, bearing reference number 21596, was filed on October 27, 1999 in the Ranchi Civil Court and was registered by Janeshwar Mahto, Notary Public. This correspondent met Karmi, Mahto, and witness Sushil Kumar Barla and verified the authenticity of the document and its contents. These facts, according to lawyers in Paris and Ranchi, raise questions about the legality of Lalita's detention, her placement in care and the Indian embassy being refused access to her.

Lalita's father was a rickshaw-puller while her mother worked as domestic help. They had five children, born within two to three years of each other. The oldest child, a daughter called Sugan, died young. Next is Lalita, followed by brother Alois (pronou nced Albis) and sisters Magdali and Anjali. "She (Karmi) would come here to work with them trailing her. They were always famished, often sick and ill-clothed. We helped them as much as we could," says the wife of the Toli mukhi (tribal head) Suha van Horo.

The family's situation worsened after Jeetu's death, when Lalita was 11 or 12. Karmi Oraon disappeared, some say to Delhi, with a new man. Says Alois bitterly: "She abandoned all of us, Even Anjali who was then a baby. If Lalita refuses to recognise her mother, even to admit that she has one, it is because of this. She left us to our fate." But the mother protests: "I was destitute. My husband's cousin threw me out of the house. I had nowhere to go. I had to parcel out the children. Where would I have k ept them?"

Alois became a tea boy, sleeping in the streets and surviving on scraps. Lalita was sent to the house of Namita Topnu, the maternal aunt of the diplomat's wife - Asha Lugun.

The Topnu residence is a modest top-floor flat in a two- storey house in Ranchi's Pathalkudwa area. Namita's brother-in-law Pradeep Topnu said: "Lalita stayed here for several years. She was fine, we had no problems with her. We then sent her to Vizag to my brother. There she became insolent and started acting up. So we brought her back. When Amrit was posted to Paris they needed a maid. Asha was expecting a second baby; and the first child was just a year old. We told her that Lalitha had become moody and strange. But the girl was eager to go and Asha was willing to take her. We trained her for three months. She stayed with Asha at her mother's house for some weeks. Amrit was already in Paris. Asha found her satisfactory and she went. Then a week befo re the incidents we were told that she was behaving badly again. She dumped the baby several times in the bathtub and was rude and Asha wanted to send her back. You know, we are tribal people and we do not have problems of caste. So there is more familia rity, much less distance between employers and servants. Lalita has always been treated as a family member by us."

This is at variance with what Lalita allegedly experienced in Paris. According to Philippe Boudin, director of the CCEM, Lalita was slapped, beaten and threatened by the Luguns.

LALITA arrived in Paris in January 1999 and soon afterwards Asha gave birth to her second child. Everything seemed normal until September 5 when Lalita fled the household.

What actually happened in the week preceding Lalita's flight remains unknown. But a source close to the couple told this correspondent that on Friday, September 3, there was violent altercation between Lalita and Asha. As a result, the Luguns decided to send Lalita back to India.

But before they could do that Lalita fled. Taken to the police station in a hysterical state by a passerby, she alleged ill-treatment by her employer and refused to return with him.

Lalita had travelled on an official passport issued to government servants. When no longer in the employ of the government, the passport has to be surrendered since it is linked not to the individual but to the function the holder performs.

The Public Prosecutor's Office in Paris ordered the Brigade for minors to release the girl despite arguments that she was a minor. The Brigade based its assumptions on Lalita's statements and a wrist X-ray of her. It is unclear as to who decided to flout the orders from the Prosecutor's Office, but Lalita ended up spending the night at the police station. The next day the police called the CCEM who found her shelter in the convent of Saint Joseph de Cluny.

Lalita's case drew wide attention when the Paris daily Liberation published an article on September 11, 1999 entitled "Slave Girl Lalita's Mad Dash for Freedom." It said that the police was sticking to the theory of an accidental injury.

However, Boudin, told this correspondent that a journalist from Liberation (Patricia Tourencheau) had been manipulated by the police who wished to keep a lid on the case in the interest of burgeoning Indo-French ties. "Professor (Bernard) Debre (t he surgeon who operated on her at the hospital Hotel Dieu, where she was admitted) also felt the same way. It was he who contacted the journalist from France Soir. I had told Patricia that Lalita had said her employer and a doctor friend cut open her stomach to prevent her from getting pregnant. But she retained the police version. Patricia now admits she was wrong."

But when this correspondent contacted Patricia Tourancheau she admitted no such thing. "I have certainly not been manipulated," she said. "Speak to the Brigade directly. Philippe Boudin has his own agenda," she remarked.

The policewoman from the Brigade said : "We were shocked when we heard of her genital injuries. We had no hint of that when she was here. She was certainly disturbed and emotionally overwrought but walked and sat normally and did not appear to be in any pain. What we told Liberation was the facts as we knew them then. No one can accuse the Brigade of a cover-up. In fact we stuck our necks out by refusing to send her into the street."

What shocked people in France and India was the statement on television by Prof. Debre that Lalita's sexual injuries was not the result of an accident but were caused by torture. It was as if someone had tried to cut out her genitals, which had suffered deep gashes.

Debre, one of France's most eminent urologists, has treated President Francois Mitterrand for prostrate cancer. But he has also been a politician and a Minister. Sources close to the prosecution say that he stood to gain from the attendant publicity.

AMRIT LUGUN has continued to proclaim his innocence. "I shudder when I think of my children's future. People are going to look at them and call them the children of a torturer," he agonised to a close friend.

The Luguns have received nasty telephone calls, even death threats. They feel they are being watched and followed. "It is terrible. But they must stick it out over here if only to prove their innocence," the friend said.

Here is one of hundreds of letters that have filled the mailbox of the Indian embassy:

"Dear Sir,

Sorry to remain anonymous - that's not my style - but from your country I fear the worst. Please find enclosed an article from Le Monde dated 15.09.1999 that your press service has undoubtedly given you. That there are barbarians in every country is a sad reality. But when one adds to it abject cynicism, as your embassy has dared to do, one goes beyond that. What else can one expect from a country where the majority dies of hunger, disease, war and ill-treatment. The suffering inflicted on Mademo iselle Lalita (you have even stolen her name!) are nothing but the true reflection of the bestial practices of your "culture" towards women. Gandhi and Tagore spit on this India from the depths of their tombs. I do not salute you and I have just cancelle d my trip to India."

The Lalita Oraon case has obviously dented India's image in France as no other incident in recent times. France was shocked by the extent and nature of Lalita's injuries. The French are a generous people, who willingly contribute to humanitarian causes. Their sense of outrage as the gory details of the injuries were made public was natural and understandable.

Lalita was described as a minor. By her own admission she was poor, oppressed and downtrodden. Slavery, mutilation, exploitation and possibly sex - all the ingredients of a great press story coalesced in Lalita's case. The media onslaught - and there is no other word for it - against Amrit Lugun was relentless, extreme and sensationalist.

What really happened to Lalita, however, remains a mystery.

Gynaecologists in both India and France contacted by this correspondent say that it would be difficult for any woman, howsoever brave, to act and move normally with the kind of injuries described by Prof. Debre. He initially agreed to an interview with t his correspondent, but when called to fix an appointment his secretary said that he would not be free until March, "not even for ten minutes".

Media reports have condemned what they describe as the Indian Embassy's callous attitude towards Lalita. But the Indian mission has been angered by the presumption of guilt contained in many of the reports. "Amrit Lugun has been given no chance to defend himself. His career is in ruins, his reputation is mud," an embassy employee said.

"It is also very unusual for a country to set aside as fake or untrue a genuine, official and valid identity and travel document issued by a government with which it enjoys friendly relations. Suppose a 16-year-old French boy were to go to India tomorrow and was caught with a marijuana cigarette in his pocket. What would happen if the Indian authorities were to say 'You look too hefty and big to be a minor even if your passport says so. We shall do an X-ray'? They then declare him to be a major and try him for the possession of narcotics. That would be highly arbitrary and dangerous. The French action has set a dangerous precedent," says Paris lawyer Michel Puechavy.

In Siramtoli, Lalita's friends and relatives are worried and angry. They would like the Indian Government to act. They want Lalita home. Dayamani Bahra, who organised a demonstration last September for the return of Lalita and against the exploitation of tribal girls, said: "Lalita is a tribal girl. She will not talk to foreign judges, especially given the nature of her injuries. Let her come home. Only then can we get to the bottom of the story and if Amrit Lugun is guilty he must be given the most sev ere punishment possible."

What is puzzling is that French judges have so far made no effort to verify Lalita's claims that she is a minor and an orphan. But investigations by this correspondent have disproved both these assumptions.

Informed sources close to the prosecution say that Boudin too has not been allowed to meet Lalita for several weeks. "We are not very sure of his motives. He has flogged this story for all the publicity he can get so the judges have decided to keep him a way from her," a source said. Contrary to what the embassy believes, it is not the judges who are keeping consular officers or journalists away from her. Lalita has reportedly refused to see anyone from India.

Lalita obviously does not wish to return to India. Why should she, when all that awaits her here is grinding poverty and a slur on her name? The CCEM would like her to become an icon in its drive against the exploitation and ill-treatment of hapless wome n from poor countries. The Committee is attempting to persuade the French government to give Lalita a work permit. She is reportedly learning French and has recovered from her injuries, and is happy. The French Foreign Office has told the Indian Governme nt that the girl has made no charges against Amrit Lugun. The judge would now like to hear him as a "witness". The Indian Government says that unless there is a substantial case against the officer, his diplomatic immunity cannot be waived. In any case, no such request has been formulated by the French.

The two governments must cooperate to shed light on what really happened to Lalita. The French Foreign Minister's visit to India starting February 17 might provide the opportunity for serious discussions on the best way to end the impasse.

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