This is the first of a two-part series investigating the growing menace of human trafficking in Bengal, which has turned the state into India’s biggest zone for sexual offences.
little over 500,000 women, including Rohingya girls, have been trafficked during the last decade from Bangladesh into West Bengal, turning the state into the world’s worst human trafficking zone. The 2,217-km border in Bengal is fenced and patrolled by soldiers of the Border Security Force (BSF), but the women, including teenage girls, find their way into India through the land and river routes, the journey backed by a sophisticated racket where middlemen in the business use satellite phones to avoid arrest.
More than four decades after gaining Independence, no one knows where India ends and Bangladesh starts. Infiltration is relatively easy, thanks to the border’s irregular nature. In many places, the border cuts through houses and buildings. Historians claim the lacuna in drawing a proper demarcation between India and East Pakistan (and eventually Bangladesh) lies with the subcontinent’s erstwhile British rulers. Nothing can be done to rectify it.
There are two crossover points. Petrapole, on the India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, along with Benapole, situated a few miles west, in Bangladesh. High, wire-meshed fences separate the nations at these two land ports; there are gun-toting BSF soldiers. There are soldiers and checkpoints on the river banks as well, but it is humanly impossible to monitor the vast expanse of paddy fields and water bodies. No one knows what exactly the line of demarcation is.
“This is becoming a huge problem. Operators have powerful, political backing. It is tough to manage such a fluid border,” says BSF DIG R.P.S. Jaiswal.
The demand from India is huge. Agents in Kolkata, claim sources in the city, routinely interact with their counterparts in Bangladesh—mainly Dhaka—for women and girls for supply across India. The Indian syndicate demands young girls and women for brothels in Delhi, Mumbai, Patna, Chennai, Bangalore, Surat, Agra, Raipur, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Hyderabad and Kochi, also in tourist destinations in the hills. Many head to dance bars, massage parlours and special massages at homes, all invariably ending up in sex for charge.
In Kolkata, newspapers carry full page advertisements of special massage services, cops in the city claim there is no way the girls can be booked and sent back home because they do not have valid papers. A recent study, titled “Human Trafficking: Modus Operandi of Touts on Indo-Bangladesh Border”, says syndicates across poverty-stricken Bangladesh promise the women “a better life in India with good jobs, household work, roles in movies, marriage, even visits to the Taj Mahal”. Mostly picked up from bus stands and railway stations, the victims are mainly Bangladeshi internal migrants.
Ashok Sadhu, who works with a local NGO in Bongaon near the Bangladesh border, says the demand has even pushed Rohingya girls and women into the sex trade, most of them coming from Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar where they are sold as sex slaves.
Many of these women and girls come to Bangladesh by boat to escape a brutal military crackdown. “These women are approached by touts in Bangladesh, mostly women, and then sent across to India with high hopes. And eventually, they land in brothels, or are made to perform in dance bars.”
As per records, there are a little over 3,000 dance bars across Bengal—popular as Chullu Bars—where country liquor is served to lowly workers who watch these girls perform and then engage in sex for a cost. “Bulk of these Rohingya girls do not speak any Indian language and communicate through signs,” says Sadhu.
Khartoun, one of the victims rescued by cops in Cox’s Bazar, told Al Jazeera news channel that she was locked up for three weeks and sold to a Bangladeshi man, who she said, sexually abused her for 12 days. The channel said the man who bought Khartoun returned her to the women who sold her after 12 days. She now lives at the Kutupalong refugee camp.
The United Nations and aid agencies claim sex trafficking in refugee camps in Bangladesh has gotten worse with the recent influx of more than 620,000 Rohingya.
Olivia Headon of the International Organisation for Migration says recruiters in Cox’s Bazar are on a high, their networks have swung into action to traffic both women and girls to India.
HERDED LIKE GOATS
Jaiswal says the bulk of the victims are trafficked from Jessore and Satkhira to Gojadanga and Hakimpur in Bangladesh, because the border there is completely unfenced and people live till the zero line. “It is easier for the touts to bring people into India from that area. The Benapole border, the south-west transit point, is also used by the touts as it is the easiest land route to India.”
Jaiswal says women are trafficked from other parts of Bangladesh, notably Dinajpur, Lalmonirhat, Chapai Nawabgunj, Rajsahi, Thakurgaon, Nilpaharai, Panchagarh, Kurigram and Noagaon. With the demand for women at an all time high in India, Bangladeshi touts are too happy to send in supplies through their Indian contacts. “There are powerful bases across the border on both sides, these are the favourite transit points of human trafficking.”
What is extremely depressing is the way the women are trafficked. Sometimes they are herded like goats in boats that cross the Ichhamati river in the dark of night, others are camped in homes close to the border and pushed in regular intervals throughout the night. Some are bold enough to cross over during the daytime. Victims, touts arrested and interviewed by BSF for the study say for every person to cross over to India, a tout has to pay 200-400 takas (Bangladeshi currency) to the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), but BSF’s involvement was not found at organisation level.
But what is interesting is that there were “instances of individual involvement (of BSF personnel),” says the study. Jaiswal says action has been initiated against those found to be involved in the trade.
But one thing is clear, the trade is flourishing and cannot be contained in a stipulated time frame.
“The demand is now sky high in India, it is a herculean task to stop trafficking across the Bangladesh border,” says historian Tanveer Nasreen Ahmed, who has worked extensively on such issues in Bengal.
Post trafficking, the victims are kept inside Indian homes at the border villages for a little over two months so that they can acquire travel documents with changed names. Often Muslim women are asked to wear vermillion to project themselves as Hindus.
Ahmed says what is interesting is that Kolkata is not seen as a sex-hyped city despite this huge influx. Sonagachi, the city’s biggest red light area—among the largest in Asia—has a little over 9,000 women and the majority are from Bangladesh, while some are from Nepal and Bhutan. And the numbers have remained static for quite some time.
“It is the nationwide demand that is fuelling the supplies. It is very, very unfortunate,” says Ahmed.
She and her team members have pushed for self-employment projects on the border so that those on the Indian side do not indulge in trafficking. Regular meetings are held with soldiers of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) and Bangladeshi and Indian authorities but it is easier said than done because of lack of opportunities.
As a result, human traffickers operate openly in North 24 Parganas, close to the Ichhamati river, which flows along the border between India and Bangladesh. Parents who were interviewed in the study said all schools in the borders have a mandatory course on how to identify and avoid human traffickers, ostensibly because of an upsurge in kidnapping of girls from villages. Once Bengal was number two in terms of trafficking after Assam, but now the status has reversed.
The crisis is serious, on an all-time high.
70% FROM BENGAL
In one case last year, it was found the sales staff of telecom companies were sharing with traffickers pre-paid numbers of young school and college girls. “And then the shadowing the girls start. Eventually, some of them are lured and taken away,” says Ahmed. For each girl, the middleman get approximately Rs 50,000, while the women are sold in the brothels of Delhi, Ghaziabad and Agra for at Rs 2-3 lakh.
Shakti Vahini, a pan-India anti-trafficking NGO, estimates, out of every ten girls rescued from brothels and red light areas across the country, seven are from Bengal’s North and South 24 Parganas districts. Last year, the West Bengal government set up a separate police district that covers the crocodile-infested Sunderbans area, also known as a habitat of Royal Bengal tigers. The cops routinely look for cross-border traffickers and their catch from Bangladesh and also from Bengal.
Tathagata Basu, a senior West Bengal cop, says he travelled all the way to the national capital and Agra to bust a trafficking racket in the brothels of these two cities after gathering information that bulk of the girls were from South 24 Parganas. “The touts always talk of jobs, and the families happily comply, both in Bangladesh and in Bengal. What is interesting is that cash is regularly sent to the families so that the traffickers can pick up more girls. Often parents of girls in the village are shown photographs of the flashy lives of those in Delhi.”
Basu’s men worked on a tip-off when one family member confined to the cops that they were worried about the girl who had sent two postcards from Delhi highlighting her plight. “The girls serve 25 customers a day. If they refuse they are beaten, burnt with cigarettes butts,” says Ahmed, adding, “those who are lucky are rescued and sent home”. But the touts are difficult to catch because they constantly change homes and source new mobile SIM cards.
So what makes the infiltration easy? Jaiswal says the Bangladeshi women are stuck once in India because of their status as illegal immigrants. As a result, these women are totally dependent on the traffickers for protection from police. The traffickers also put tremendous fear—of torture in Indian jails—in the minds of the women if they raise an alarm. “The fear of prison is high in the minds of these women, they do not want to return after being rescued,” says Ahmed. Return is not easy even for those who have families in India, as their families refuse them because of societal stigma.
There are other troubles as well: investigating officers hardly get any support from public prosecutors in the district courts, while traffickers or brothel keepers are defended by a battery of expert criminal lawyers. As a result, the victims of organised crime are left to fight their case alone. Worse, the traffickers use fake identify cards, while taking the girls to the brothels to avoid arrest.
As a result, trafficking continues unabated.
Across the Bangladesh border in Bengal, some swim across under the cover of the night, some slide through the wired border after creating gaps into it. And once they are in India, the traffickers move in. There are many who work in such groups, young and handsome men who trick and lure young women. (To be concluded) …