Many of our supporters often ask us what it is like to be on a raid and what it involves. Earlier this year, Freedom Firm staff traveled to the state of Uttar Pradesh in North India to investigate the presence of minor girls in prostitution in the region and to conduct a raid. One of our staff, who was a part of these investigations and raid, shares his thoughts and experiences.
The Road: Five of us from Freedom Firm - Gerard, Manoj, Gautam, Kunal, and I- are in Lucknow to investigate the prevalence of human trafficking in Uttar Pradesh. If the need is great, we will open an office in this city so that we can begin regular raids and rescues.
First, we need to learn our way around the city. Lucknow, like every other Indian city, has vibrant, bustling streets. Time slows down in misty hill stations like Ooty but here in the plains, the fights in the streets and the shops and temples that spill onto footpaths and main roads create an atmosphere of chaos. Bicycles, rickshaws, and cows all push, crowd, and jostle for space. There are piles of garbage, buses thundering along that tilt precariously as people hang out of the open doors, and every imaginable conveyance all honking simultaneously, men swearing, policemen yelling, confusion at the signal lights - it is all a kaleidoscope of color, smell, and noise.
It reminds me of that old story of the atheist who came to India and started to believe that yes, there is a God, because somehow in all the chaos things seem to work, despite the sweat pouring down his face, exhaust fumes down the back of his throat, holy men after his money, and the endless walking and navigating through the madness.
Nai Asha, a local NGO, is hosting us. We talk about leads and information they have on prostitution in the city and whether they have seen any minor girls. One lead brings us to a community of dancing girls. The girls are of borderline age, around 17-18 years old, but are not involved in the sex trade. After a short investigation, we move onto another location, a highway on the outskirts of Lucknow where we break up into teams. Gautam and Kunal go to meet someone who knows a pimp. Manoj and I hang back across the road watching the guys. It’s a forgettable place; tobacco vendors, some houses, a small empty hospital, and a couple of barbershops. We sit down at a local store that sells drinks. We order lassis (a yogurt drink) but I change my mind and opt for a small Coke instead. Subsequently, a guy shows up with a block of ice for Manoj’s lassi, drops it into a black rubber tube from a car's tire, picks up a small wooden bat, and begins to smash it into smaller pieces. I nearly swallow my bottle. Manoj simply throws his head back and laughs. Ice, curd, whey, a little bit of a pink sweetener, all poured into and overflowing from a large clay cup. Manoj toasts the sky and drinks deeply. I've seen other people doing this; it’s called ‘drinking with faith’.
We wait around in the heat for over an hour for the guys to come back. Eventually, they call us, telling us to head back to the car. We join Gerard as he is waiting with the driver in the car. As we drive back, Kunal and Gautam brief us on the outcome of their investigations. There were no minor girls and it wasn't exactly a brothel. The girls were borderline or majors and were all asleep. We mark the location but won’t be conducting further investigations if there are no minor girls present.
From the beginning, Nai Asha had been talking about a pimp known as Sahil. No one seems to know what he looks like or from where he operates. However, girls are dropped off at a government-approved guesthouse where customers have to rent a room a night in advance. Manoj gets on the phone with Sahil as we drive near the guesthouse; they talk easily like old friends. Manoj talks about his requirement when, barely a few minutes into the call, Sahil hangs up. Manoj calls back and sets up a time with Sahil.
We decide to go to the guesthouse in the evening and the four of us get off a block away from the guesthouse, opposite a local cafe. The sun has just set but there is still light in the sky. Headlights are being switched on; darkness is descending. Kunal is to be our eyes on the outside. Gautam, Manoj, and I wind our way towards the guesthouse. The guesthouse is a well-maintained mansion with dark windows, a huge generator next to the driveway, and a basement for underground parking. All is uncannily quiet. A shaft of light falls through an open door at the end of the driveway; a couple of men sit there, one of them dressed in a long kurta, drinking chai. We go over to talk to him. At first, he completely ignores us and comments on how right the balance of tea leaves are in the chai today. His comment is directed to a young teenager who seems to be employed as the help. In exasperation, Manoj simply recounts everything Sahil had told him over the phone. The details seem to get this guy’s attention. The other man takes Manoj to the reception to pay for a night. Soon Gautam and I are beckoned into a large, spacious living room that has the faces and figures of many gods, plastic flowers, and plants everywhere.
We sit in the room and wait. After about 45 minutes a young woman walks in. She is beautiful. She had conditioned her hair and wore a perfume that wafted around her; not too much, not too little, a good perfume. She looks at each of us and I wish I know what she is thinking, but it's a mystery. Manoj tells her that we require new girls, young girls. To my surprise, she is furious that we are turning her down and calls the pimp. Manoj presses a big rupee note in her hand before she leaves, the scent of her perfume lingering in the room.
Gautam is as surprised as I am about this woman and her beauty. He simply says something about this being the kind of woman that men kill over. Manoj, unperturbed by the incident, is already talking to Sahil over the phone, complaining, “I've been asking specifically for young girls, fresh girls.” One more girl comes over. She is a sweet girl, but undoubtedly in her early twenties. Again Manoj takes her hand and gives her some money before calling and talking heatedly with Sahil. It is established at that point that Sahil has no minor girls in his network.
As we walk out of the guesthouse, we see the silhouette of a person we think is Sahil as he turns his car around, the girls seated in the front and at the back of the car. Kunal is outside but even he is unable to see Sahil. We walk a good ten-fifteen minutes before Kunal appears. But I don’t notice him. I am busy thinking about the differences between professional prostitution and girls trapped in the sex-trafficking industry.
We are all quiet; we had heard so much about Sahil and yet had barely seen his face. We didn't even know if that was Sahil. But from the get-go, for some unspecified reason, the guys had wanted to bring him down, as had I.
We are 70 km outside of Lucknow, a city situated in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, North India, on the road headed for Natpura, a small village. The earth here is broken, the ground rent in deep red crusts, beaten by the unyielding summer sun. The wind seems to have swept across the land, unhinging the earth and causing clouds of dust to mix in the air. A few farms lay scattered across the barren landscape, but the road is shaded by tall trees that are resilient to the heat; their leaves dark green to protect themselves from the sunlight.
The sun starts to set, slowly sinking in a sky of pale honey. The evening turns the landscape to gold, shadows lengthen, and the darkness rises up from the ground and cloaks the earth with night. There are no street lights, just our headlights beaming into the night. Everyone is on the edge because this is Uttar Pradesh. We are outside Lucknow - in gangster country. Earlier we joked about the movies on the state and how they mirror the truth - that everyone in Uttar Pradesh owned guns, carried guns, or had access to guns. So here we were, driving to a village famous for prostitution, thinking about guns and gangsters. I still manage to catch some sleep; it had been a long day.
Soon the jeep turns onto a dirt track which is not much more than a corroded path that dissolves into clouds of dust as we bounce along. It is a long drive to Natpura; long enough for us to doubt the route and be amazed that customers would make this long hard trip to the village for sex. We stop to ask goatherds and passersby for direction. The language is rough and difficult to understand, but we are on the right path, and we are told we will find girls in Natpura.
As we drive, an old childhood nightmare from road trips and trains comes back to me. In my dream, lights in the distance close in on me as we drive along. But the memory fades. We reach the village, stumble out of the car and into the dark night. There is no moon overhead, but every possible star studs the night sky like beads of flickering silver.
Natpura Village, Hardoi District. We walk through the village, our eyes still adjusting to the dark. It is very quiet, with few people around. There are many half-constructed houses built with red bricks and hard, grey mud or cracking concrete - features constant across village housing in North India, famous for the brick kilns and smokestacks that dot the countryside.
The guys begin to investigate, posing as customers. Judging from the lights around us, we are walking deeper into the heart of the village, and mostly, we are surrounded by darkness. A couple of young men in their early twenties lead us to a simple, red-bricked structure, which is actually a storage space for grain and farming equipment. The space in each room is divided by a curtain for privacy. We are invited to sit outside on plastic chairs. The young men acting as pimps introduce us to an older girl in her twenties. She talks a lot, laughs at jokes, and is conversational. We continue to insist on minor girls only. After some time, a young girl is brought over, a sweet girl, no more than 16 years old. The guys now insist on options, “We need more girls, 'fresh' girls.” Ten minutes later, there is the sound of tinkling anklets as a man leads Dipti along. Dipti is a teenager and is being led along by the arm. At one point she suddenly turns around and goes back the way she came, only to have the man who brought her yell and run after her to bring her back, a bit more roughly this time.
In the darkness, the girls’ faces are shown to us with the light from a cell phone. Things are getting a bit bizarre. The conversation turns to money. The pimp is subservient, bowing before us, telling us about the poverty of his region; how they were simple, out-of-work goatherds and that there had been no rain. Suddenly, the older girl interjects and adds to his claims, saying that what he said was true; the village and the people here had been facing hard times. I am shocked, and for a long time can’t work my head around this girl's enthusiastic and continuing foray in the bargaining process. To confound me further, a simple price of Rs. 400 (approx. $6) is set.
What always surprises me about the sex-trafficking industry here in India is how cheaply you can get a girl. Later in Allahabad, I am further surprised by the positive demeanor of very young girls, using simple gestures that say, “Come, come in and have sex with me”, that conditioning to the work, the way they can joke, laugh and - with such an air of confidence – bargain. It just makes the trade and its hold on society or perhaps societies’ hold on the trade a much darker and more satanic force to have to reckon with.
Here we are in Natpura, sitting around in darkness, under the most incredible night sky. The only lights are a few bulbs in the distance. Is prostitution part of family businesses in Natpura? Is there so much poverty? Are the girls trafficked? Which idiot drives all the way out here, in the middle of nowhere, to have sex?
Conversation with the pimps is now dying down. The young pimp impatiently shifts his balance from leg to leg; wringing his hands together in nervousness and calls out randomly into the darkness to people we can't see. Replies follow in a language I don't understand. The stalling is fast becoming long awkward silences. The pimp doesn’t understand why we aren't taking the girls to the rooms. He slaps his hands together, a sharp crack in the darkness, like a frozen tree snapping, and asks, “Who wants who? Who is going first?” He demands money upfront and a barrage of nervous and increasingly aggressive questions starts. The mood is notched up from a general restlessness to aggression. The fire in the corner seems to blaze brazenly. During everything we had been doing the last couple of days, my sense of self, and my own confidence has surprised me. Despite everything that is happening, I am calm and relaxed. But right then, Manoj comes and sits by me and whispers, “Things have gotten a little risky, but don't worry, we're going to get you out of here.” Then he gets up, grabs Dipti, the most vulnerable girl amongst the three, and walks into one of the rooms. My prayers begin in earnest. Fear kindles in the pit of my stomach as I start to wonder who I am going to have to kill to get these guys out of here.
On cue, Kunal follows Manoj's example and takes the other minor girl into an adjoining room. Gautam and I sit around in idle conversation with the other locals. Not too long later, the guys emerge with the girls who then quietly disappear. Money changes hands. Soon we get in the car, are directed to a road where the highway accesses the village, and are off. I see several gaps in the whole transaction, the ambiguity, and room for suspicion, the questions, the seemingly obvious stalling, but later, on similar investigations, I see the same kind of exchanges. It takes me a while to understand that all this is the normal way of things. It is about money. You could come here, look at a girl and be on your way or come back the next day to have sex with her if you wanted. Anything is acceptable to the pimps and the girls. This is the business of sex. This is the industry and it is blatant. I find the real danger in the casualness of it all.
The Waiting Period
“It isn’t that bad”, says Manoj, arms tightly folded, chair precariously tilted back as he stares at the ceiling, “It gives me time to think, to prepare. The others hate it and really want to get on with things. When events do unfold; things fall in place or out of place in moments.” We're at Nai Asha’s office in Lucknow, waiting for the police to give us the green light to do the raid and rescue the girls. They know the situation but they are either busy or stalling.
Gerard and I have to take the morning train to Allahabad. The guys stay on in Lucknow waiting; waiting to get on with the raid. They get the green-light and the raid begins as I jump on the moving train with water-bottles.
Details of the raid start to trickle in over the phone, “The police are arming themselves!” says Kunal. “They have AK47s in their jeeps”. Talk about guns and glory! Where did they get AK47s from? “I'm not sure, but my hands were literally shaking when one of the constables agreed to let me hold his weapon. He took out the bullets and everything, but still let me hold the gun!” I have to laugh, “Hey, this is UP, everybody's got a gun.” And again it rang true; this is UP and like the movies made things out to be, you either had a gun or could get one.
The investigators record everything that happens once they engage the girl. In the footage, it is really funny to see a constable in civilian clothing sitting around trying to act casual while posing as a customer. But you could tell he was on edge, unsure of what to do. A thin towel is wrapped over the tension in his shoulders and a gun jammed at the base of his back. In the footage, Manoj can be heard, sitting on a string bed next to the girl. He's contacting Gautam, communicating that the girls are engaged and the police can come in now. The girl is constantly pestering Manoj to have sex, almost as if she wants to get it all over with and go watch TV. But Manoj keeps at his phone, telling her that he's not in the mood yet. Then she insists he takes his shoes off to stay on the bed, which he doesn't do, but in the video, she's pestering him. “She probably wanted to get it over with and leave...” is what Manoj has to say about her attitude, which made sense to me. I had heard from friends who had been to brothels and paid for sex, the feeling they all experience after being 'done' with a woman, a sense of defilement and self-loathing, a wrongness.
Finally, she's almost convinced him to take his shoes off to stay on that jute strung bed, in the red-bricked room filled with sacks of grain and some tools. The young girl tells Manoj that he really should have sex with her and soon, “The police are coming today, and will be here in the next hour or so…”
77, Meerganj, Allahabad, UP. Allahabad is the birthplace of Jawaharlal Nehru and claims seven Indian Prime Ministers. The city is also where two key North Indian Rivers, the Ganga and the Yamuna meet, making this juncture an important stop for devotees who seek cleansing by the purifying waters. Allahabad was once known as “Prayag”, meaning “Offerings” and is the second most important Indian city in the context of Hinduism. Colleges, universities, old colonial buildings, and several museums, including Nehru's house, fill Allahabad.
Ananda Bhavan, now a museum, was once Nehru's ancestral home. It served as the place where a lot of key Indian political figures, including Mahatma Gandhi, met to talk about independence. Decisions were made here. Walking around the museum, Gerard points out a model of the house Nehru was born in, 77, Meerganj, Allahabad, UP. At some point, the house was given to the municipality, and there it stayed, derelict. Over time, people moved in and set up brothels and the area soon became the city’s red-light district.
Gerard and I walk in the evening to Meerganj to get an idea of what the situation here is in terms of minor girls in prostitution. The first time I walked into a red light area, in Mumbai, the shock of the place came over me. I jammed my hands into my pockets, walked like I'd fall over, and got quietly scolded by my friend who was showing me around. It was only after he took me to a local chai shop and I ate a few samosas that I calmed down.
In Meerganj, the alleys are narrow and winding. A lot of customers come and go, a lot of young men are around my age - adding to my sense of disturb when trying to understand who these men are who come to these places to have sex. But like in Mumbai, the red-light area stirs with life as usual. There are kids coming home from school or tuition, shops on the street, the same tall lights with their orange blasts of light, telephone and electricity wires all tangled up. There are pushcarts, vendors of vegetables, dogs, cows, tea shops, and tobacco stores that make paan and sell cigarettes.
The girls stand dressed up in little groups by the sides of the shops, above on the balconies, and along flights of stairs. I see no pimps, just the girls, doing it all themselves, standing in the shafts of orange light, well dressed, smiling, talking, laughing, bargaining. One of the girls smears my cheek with lipstick as I walk past. I am pretty confident walking in the red-light-area this time, but I am starting to get increasingly alarmed by the number of girls I see who are minors. I watch a beautiful young girl standing up a flight of stairs, talking to a pair of older boys who stand at the bottom of the stairs; they have to be older schoolboys. There is a price being negotiated. The boys have hearts and stars in their eyes.
Walking along a cobbled footpath with an orange temple almost in the middle of the street, I hear a sharp crack and turn back to see a group of men who suddenly run in every direction. You know insane panic when you see it, the fear in their eyes. The street empties itself of people. One policeman walking the beat turns a corner and comes into view. Gerard and the girls notice this too. The girls tell us to get out of here, but they are unafraid; they stand outside the doorways, no fear, no reaction, nothing.
Later Gerard and I sit in silence near the lodge we're staying at, the roads teem with people - vendors, food, drink, the usual Indian hustle. It's strange to find solace and silence in the chaos of India, but it’s possible; it can even be relaxing. “It can be surreal, Peter,” Gerard says, “the girls, they're pretty, their gestures beckoning you forth to come have sex with them.” I hadn't been able to put that in words, but that's exactly how it was, the girls standing there pretty, young, making you wonder how old they were when they were trafficked to Meerganj, nobody that age can be there by choice. I could imagine them in any setting, working hard at school or at work. There were also girls sitting there, so sick, so obviously sick, their eyes glazed over, waiting for the doors to open.
The Raid at Natpura Village, Hardoi
“When we were leaving Natpura, a man jumped into the middle of the road, in front of the police car claiming that we were taking his daughter...” says Kunal
Q - “Well, was she his daughter?”
“That's what he claimed, but the girls made their statements at the police station, they said that they had been trafficked from other villages nearby. But you should have seen this guy, jumping in front of the car.”
Q - “What happened on the raid?”
“Everything, you should have been there, you need to be on a raid.”
Q - “How was there a tip-off? How did they know the police were coming?”
“No idea, but there very often is a tip-off from someone working with authority.”
We are standing around Allahabad station talking. The guys check into their room and sleep for a good few hours before waking up and briefing us on the details. We watch some of the footage of Manoj sitting on the bed with his ankles crossed. You can't see his face from where the camera is, but you can get a glimpse of the girl. You can hear cars and jeeps driving up. Suddenly there is a rattling on the door and Gautam's voice booms at Manoj, asking him to open up. He may as well just kick the door in. Manoj opens the door to bright daylight. The camera takes a moment to balance out the brightness, revealing in the short distance men and women walking towards the rooms dressed as civilians but with an unmistakable air of authority about them. The pimps bolt for the sparse tree line. One of the girls starts screaming for a long time until one of the lady constables slaps her. A motorcycle is spotted ripping away from the village, a thin expanding cloud of dust rising up behind.
One of the girls is caught with a customer right in the middle of sex. The boy is a college student from nearby; he's caught, slapped around, and hauled off to the police station. The guys, Kunal and Manoj, who have engaged the two girls, walk out of the rooms, out into the chaos of rescue, people running, police chasing, but they simply walk on. Doors slam, three girls, two including Dipti, are minors. The police leave Natpura, Hardoi district. Apparently, the young man caught having sex is a student from a nearby college and is “visiting” Natpura with his friend. But once the police come, the friend bolts and is last seen hurtling away from Natpura with all the dust of UP trailing behind him.
Natpura will have to be investigated from time to time, perhaps once every six months. I ask Manoj how as investigators they are able to visit the same brothels in different parts of the country that Freedom Firm operates in. “Usually there are tip-offs and we are ushered out by the pimps themselves, we walk away from the raids unsuspected. Of course, we've been caught, had stones thrown at us, experienced times when the buildings were surrounded by mobs; some of it can be really scary, but mostly we just walk out (laughs) between the raindrops. But it gives us the chance to come back and fight another day.” Fight another day.