A blot on our conscience

Human trafficking continues to thrive because of our misplaced priorities, writes Namita Bhandare.

For close to a month, a two-year-old baby girl called Falak has gripped the imagination of a nation. Brought in with a fractured skull, bite marks and bruises, she has undergone four surgeries, and is on and off the ventilator. Who knows how her story will end? Will she have permanent brain damage? Will she end up institutionalised? Will she live? For now, it’s just a struggle to make it through another day.

Falak was brought to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences by a 14-year-old child entrusted with the baby’s care. Sold into a brothel where she got into a ‘relationship’ with a married man, that girl is now in a juvenile home. There’s a third woman in this tale: Falak’s biological mother, 22-year-old Munni, who was sold by her first husband through an agent to a man in Rajasthan.

It’s hard to say which of the three, the child, the carer or the mother, have suffered the most but there is one common strand: the home ministry says this is a case of human trafficking, a euphemism for what columnist Nicholas Kristoff more bluntly calls the ‘21st century slave trade’.

Statistics on trafficking vary. Over 1.17 lakh children were reported missing between 2008 and 2010, according to a study by Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA). Of these, 41,546 remain untraced. Another report, Action Research Trafficking in Women and Children in India, 2002-2003, indicates that many of the missing are not really missing but are instead trafficked.

We also know this. Two hundred women enter prostitution daily of which 20% are below 15. The National Human Rights Commission estimates that there are between 70,000 and one million women and children in sex work in India. Research also indicates that in the last decade, the average age of trafficked girls has fallen from 14-16 years to 10-14 years. Many end up in the sex trade, some are used for forced labour, others are recruited for begging and a few end up in adoption rackets. Delhi has 2,300 ‘placement agencies’, only 300 of which are registered, says BBA’s Rakesh Senger. A majority place trafficked children as domestic workers in urban homes. More recently, the falling sex ratio, particularly in states like Haryana and Rajasthan, is resulting in trafficked women being sold in forced marriages.

If cities are the markets where trafficked children are sold then this is a problem that exists under our noses. We see these children begging and performing at streetlights, we find them in the homes of our neighbours washing dirty dishes, we come across them in dhabas. And we remain blind and silent.

It’s when a baby Falak emerges that the curtain falls back, exposing the stark reality of human lives. It’s when evidence of abuse is so obvious that it can no longer remain hidden that our conscience temporarily awakens. But Falak is just the embodiment of a larger, widespread malaise.

Can anything be done? Yes, plenty. The Immoral Trafficking of People Act, urgently in need of amendment, does not even define trafficking. There is no standard operating procedure on how to respond to a missing child case. Most states do not define who is a missing child. There is no centralised data base on missing children. There is little gender sensitisation at the enforcement and administrative level. Police stations lack manpower and funds to appoint dedicated personnel.

Finally, there is no comprehensive rehabilitation plan for rescued victims: families are often loathe to take them back, particularly if they have been in the sex trade and institutionalisation sometimes provides a remedy worse than the disease — Delhi’s Arya Orphanage where an 11-year-old girl died after repeated sexual abuse tells its own story.

But the biggest stumbling block is a lack of will on the part of both citizens and legislators. A problem that is so obvious, so widespread and so perverse should be confronted with the same seriousness as, say, terrorism or Naxalism. That we choose to ignore it, says a lot about our own priorities.

(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer)

The views expressed by the author are personal

Question nothing

Symbiosis College should not have ‘postponed’ the screening of Jashn-e-Azadi. Namita Bhandare writes.

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Days after Salman Rushdie cancelled his visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival, the Symbiosis College of Art and Commerce in Pune, acting on a prompt by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing of the BJP, postponed indefinitely a seminar on Kashmir that included a screening of Sanjay Kak’s film Jashn-e-Azadi. Elsewhere, in Kolkata, protesting Muslims succeeded in cancelling Taslima Nasreen’s book launch, an event that her publishers held eventually at their own stall at the book fair.

Hooliganism’s multiplying effect has been on display for a while now. We’ve seen it when young men and women get beaten up for going to pubs in Mangalore. We will undoubtedly see it again when ‘nationalist’ youth ransack card shops on Valentine’s Day. What is alarming, however, is the increasingly visible presence of this intolerance in universities and at book festivals.

The list is long. Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey was taken off the Mumbai University syllabus because it offended the sensibilities (such as they are) of the Shiv Sena, the same organisation that ransacked a newspaper office earlier this month. The Lingayat community succeeded in removing a biography of Basavanna that suggested he had Dalit lineage. In Kerala a professor’s hands were cut off for asking an inappropriate question about the Prophet. And in October, the ABVP’s loud protest against AK Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas resulted in its eventual removal from the Delhi University syllabus.

Universities are not degree-producing factories. They must be the location of change, debate, even dissent. Universities must be the birthplace of ideas and academic and intellectual freedom. They must be knowledge centres where opinion, even an unpalatable one, is debated. When we fail to quarantine our universities from the rabble outside, we end up creating robotic students, masters at crac-king the exam code but unable to think independently.

Symbiosis has gone against every principle of higher education by submitting to the ABVP’s demand. If the demand was to make the seminar more inclusive then it could have been done by expanding the list of speakers. If the objection was that the film was ‘anti-national’ for its portrayal of human rights violations by the army, the answer was to invite army personnel to refute its claims. If the concern was the film’s apparent lack of a Censor Board certificate — and incidentally it has been shown several times before in India — the college could still have invited Sanjay Kak for a discussion. Symbiosis did none of these. The principal simply called off the seminar, choosing silence over debate.

Religion and politics is at an unhealthy intersection in India. We accept that politicians act out of short-term motivation, fanning religion to protect their vote banks. The Rushdie controversy, for instance, was timed with the UP election. But why should universities bend? Symbiosis principal Hrishikesh Soman is reported to have said that an ‘educational institute is not a proper forum’ to discuss politics. Seriously? He is prepared for a discussion on Kashmiri culture, food, music, literature but not its politics. This argument reduces Symbiosis to the level of a finishing school. It goes against the grain of higher education and against the grain of enquiry.

Kashmiri Pandits say Jashn-e-Azadi, which can be seen on the internet, is one-sided. But Kak has maintained that he is telling a particular story. He is under no obligation to tell all sides. And nothing stops Panun Kashmir from making its own film. Writing for The Telegraph in 2007, historian Mukul Kesavan questioned the film’s many assumptions — the number of Kashmiris killed from 1989 to 2006 and the absence of Kashmiri Pandits in the frames — but concluded, “Good documentaries don’t necessarily change your mind; they do, however, prompt you to take your opinions out of mothballs and give them an airing.”

Universities like Symbiosis could do with some airing. Or perhaps it could learn from Berkeley, hotbed of ideas, where students in the 70s put up posters that stated: ‘Question Authority’. In 21st century India, we would do well to declare: ‘Question Everything’. And then draw your own conclusions.

(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer)

The views expressed by the author are personal