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22 July 2002 Making A Difference

Rani Begum, ex-courtesan, now helps heal the lives of her sisters

Prashant Ravi
Chaturbhuj Sthan in Muzaffarpur town is perhaps the biggest red light area in north Bihar, with around 3,500 sex workers plying their trade there. The area—infamous for the most part of the last century—or its residents have mostly been shunned by the powers that be. Fed up with the situation, they have now manged to elect one of their own, Rani Begum, as ward councillor to the Muzaffarpur Municipal Corporation. This, despite all the political pulls and pressures, and even threats from underworld dons.

In her mid-40s, Rani Begum is a name to reckon with not only in Chaturbhuj Sthan but in all of Muzaffarpur town, which stands to reason since she’s all set to take up the post of mayor or deputy mayor. It’s not that the self-professed former tawaif (courtesan) ever had ambitions of rubbing shoulders with the political masters of the state—it’s simply been her dream to work against the "exploitation of her sisters engaged in the flesh trade". She should know, for she has seen it all from close quarters. "Baarah-terah saal ke umar se main naach-gaa rahi hoon. Maine apne biradari ki behanon ka dukh-dard bahut karib se dekha hai (I have been a nautch girl since the age of 12-13. I’ve seen the miseries of my sisters from close quarters)," says Rani Begum. She gave it all up in 1987, the year she married off her only daughter to a businessman. Since then, for the last 16 years, Rani Begum’s mission has been making herself available "anytime, anywhere" for the members of her community.

"Whatever be the crisis, Rani Begum has always been there for us. She’s our guardian," says Guddi of Chaturbhuj Sthan. Working without any organisation or government help, the lady has been instrumental in getting at least six pds shops opened in the locality, as well as organising anganwadi programmes for the women and Prime Minister’s Rozgar Yojana benefits for the area’s unemployed youths. She’s also never shied away from taking the fight to the criminals, politicians and police whenever they harassed her ‘working’ sisters. "She always stood like a rock in the face of their lecherous advances, helping to bring the matter to light and exposing them. She’s sat on dharnas and organised protest marches for our cause, fighting with the administration and people alike," says Munni Devi, another co-worker.

In the mid-’90s, she got some help from the then Muzaffarpur district magistrate, Rajbala Verma, who started "Operation Ujala" for the welfare and development of the sex workers of Chaturbhuj Sthan. Rani Begum became the DM’s contact person and with her support a number of programmes were initiated in the area. The main focus of these programmes was to bring "destitute sisters back into the mainstream", creating awareness about the ills of the profession as well as the incidental health problems attached.

"We could do very little but at least we were successful in starting the process", says Rani, ruing that "unfortunately with the transfer of Verma, Operation Ujala came to an abrupt end. Since then, no effort has been made by the DMs or the politicians for Chaturbhuj Sthan". Predictably, the situation had again deteriorated.

But even this didn’t deter Rani Begum. Taking inspiration from Mother Teresa’s life, she continued her social crusade. And when, after an 18-year gap, elections for the municipal corporations were announced in the state, the people of Chaturbhuj Sthan decided to field her for the post of councillor from Ward No. 16. Though a bit hesitant initially, she fought and won the election, setting an example in the electoral history of the state. This was all the more credit-worthy since her opponents were candidates supported by independent MLA and known criminal Munna Shukla as well as that of a senior ruling party minister, Ramai Ram. "If one is sincere and honest in one’s work, even in the badlands of Bihar bullets cannot win elections. My victory has proved it," she says in a firm tone. The ever-smiling Rani Begum’s most pressing concern now is to get "reservation" for the unemployed youths of her constituency. As she asks, "Humse pichhada kaun hoga, hum to ati pichhadon mein ate hain (Who is more backward than us, we come from the most backward section)". For more information, contact: Rani Begum, Councillor, Kanhauli Naka Road, Chaturbhuj Sthan, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Ph: 0621-244015.
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AUTHORS: Amarnath Tewary
PLACES: Bihar
SUBSECTION: Making A Difference
OUTLOOK: 22 July, 2002
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