On September 1, 2010, the Supreme Court of India, dealing with the ‘Exploitation of Children in Orphanages, State of Tamil Nadu vs UoI and Others’ case, concerning large-scale transportation of children from one state to another, said: “The State of Manipur and Assam are directed to ensure that no child below the age of 12 years or those at primary school level are sent outside for pursuing education to other states until further orders.”
This came after a probe into the trafficking of 76 children from Assam and Manipur, most of them minor girls, to “homes” run by Christian missionaries in Tamil Nadu. In spite of this apex court order, according to a CID report from Assam, over 5,000 children have gone missing in 2012-15, and activists are convinced this roughly corresponds to the number of children trafficked on the pretext of education and employment. At least 800 of these children went missing in 2015.
“I never wanted to send my daughter so far. What if she fell sick? What if she needed me? Where will I go looking for her? But this guy forced me,” says Adha Hasda, his eyes bloodshot with anger.
Mangal Mardi, his neighbour and a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker, stood by the barbed-wire fence marking out the small cowdung-plastered patch on which Adha Hasda’s house stood. He got me to meet Adha to hear for myself about the excellent welfare work that the RSS was doing in Bashbari village of Gossaigaon area in Kokrajhar district. Adha’s unexpected outburst has stunned him. He uttered something in Assamese but Adha was undeterred.
“Then where is Srimukti? Tell me? You sent her!” says Adha, breaking down. His wife Phoolmani consoles him.
“Do you plan to send the other three children too, like Srimukti?” I ask.
“No,” he says, looking up in anger. “Not even if they pay me money.”
Mangal smirks at this exchange, kneeling by the pillar of house as he twirls a smartphone in his hand.
Adha, a landless labourer of the Santhal tribe, earns Rs 200 daily. He’s 30, but looks much older. He has four children. His daughter, six-year-old Srimukti, is one of the 31 children trafficked by the Sangh.
“But why did you send her in the first place?” I ask.
“Because he helped me set up home after the 2008 riots,” says Adha. That year, his house was damaged in the Bodo-adivasi conflict. He had to spend a month in a relief camp before Mangal stepped in as an RSS volunteer.
“You are complaining as if I did it for my benefit,” says Mangal. “She has gone to study. Even my daughter is gone.”
“How come you can speak to your daughter on the phone every day and I have not been able to do that in a year?” Adha retorts. “Who knows whether she’s in school or not!”
“This guy has gone mad,” says Mangal, clearly upset, and signals me to walk with him. “You come with me.”
Adha and Mangal’s daughters, Srimukti and Rani, both six, had left together last year for a school in Gujarat. “He told me both of them will be together. But now he says Srimukti is in Punjab and will not come back for the next four years,” says Adha. “What kind of education is this that does not allow parents to meet their children?”
Phoolmani joins him, “Who do we ask now? We only have Mangal’s assurance to continue hoping that she will come back one day.”
Mangal’s house is ten times bigger than Adha Hasda’s. It has a huge compound with neatly planted trees, several rooms, a temple to the left of the entrance and a tulsi plant in a yellow enclosure. A glossy poster of Ram adorns the front wall of the courtyard. Mangal, with a saffron teeka, a red holy thread around his wrist, sits under the poster in a white vest and dhoti. He has stress lines on his sweaty forehead, and is visibly angered by Adha’s flare-up. As I enter, he surreptitiously tries to click my picture on his phone. I catch him in the act and offer to pose. He is taken by surprise. “There have been four such visits in the past to enquire about the girls. I don’t know what is up.”
On June 16, 2015, a week after the girls were taken away, the Assam State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (ASCPCR) wrote a letter (ASCPCR 37/2015/1) to the ADGP, CID, Assam Police, and marked it to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, calling this incident “against the provision of Juvenile Justice Act 2000” and concluded that it amounts to “child trafficking”. The commission requested the police “to initiate a proper inquiry into the matter and take all necessary steps to bring back all 31 children to Assam for their restoration”. The police was asked to submit an Action Taken Report to the ASCPCR within five days of receipt of the letter. No action was taken; no report was filed; no cognisance was taken by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, which is monitored by the BJP-ruled Centre.
After the ASCPCR letter to the police and other government bodies, members of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) of Kokrajhar made several visits to the houses of the trafficked girls.
CWCs are established by state governments, according to mandates of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 (amended in 2006). Each district-level CWC has the powers of a metropolitan magistrate or a first class judicial magistrate. It can hold people accountable for a child, transfer the case to a different CWC closer to the child’s home, reunite a child with his/her community. Children can be produced before the committee or one of its members by police, public servants, Childline, social workers or public-spirited citizens. A child may present himself/herself before it too. The probation officer for the case is required to submit regular reports on the child. After gathering background information and interviewing the child to understand his/her problems, the committee determines the best interests and safety of the child and may unite him/her with biological or adoptive parents, find a foster home or put him or her under institutional care. The committee is to give final orders on a case within four months of a child being presented before it.
Besides violating the SC guideline of 2010 not to take any child outside Assam and Manipur for any purpose including studies, Sewa Bharati, Vidya Bharati and Rashtra Sevika Samiti also violated the Juvenile Justice Act by not producing the girls before CWCs in Assam or obtaining NOCs from them before taking them away to Gujarat and Punjab.
On June 22, 2015, Malaya Deka, the chairperson of CWC, Kokrajhar, wrote a letter(CWC/KJR/06/2015) to the CWC, Surendranagar district, Gujarat, requesting the “restoration of children from Assam staying at Saraswati Shishu Mandir, Halvad, Surendranagar”. The letter says: “...we have to look into these girls’ tender age and agony of being separated from parents and relatives that violates their rights and the whole spirit of Juvenile Justice Act. It will be convenient for you to bring children to Guwahati from where concerned District Child Protection Units will be entrusted to take back children to their families in Kokrajhar.”
Sewa Bharati and Rashtra Sevika Samiti, however, sought to circumvent this by obtaining affidavits from the children’s parents, signed in the presence of a notary public and judicial magistrate in Kokrajhar on July 13, 2015, a month after the girls were taken away. The 31 affidavits give consent to the RSS-affiliated “Shikshika Manglaben Harishbhai Raval Kanyachatralaya/ Vidya Bharati Saulagna Saraswati Shishu Mandir, Surendranagar, Gujarat” to take the girls away for education. Outlook has copies of the affidavits—all in English, signed in English, and identical, while most of the parents Outlook met are either illiterate or don’t know English. Actually, this is what the parents’ affidavits say:
- I am a cultivator and a riot victim.
- My home is totally damage(d) in the riot which occurred on 25th January 2014.
- I still stay in relief camp.
- I don’t have source of income.
- I could not afford the school fees for my daughter.
- So, for better education I am sending my daughter to Gujarat to study in (by) my own will.
Malaya Deka, CWC, Kokrajhar, says, “This in itself is a violation of the law, since the affidavits should have been made before the children were being taken away, not a month later.” The CWC, Kokrajhar, visited the parents of each of these girls to verify the details of the affidavits. The CWC probation officer found that none of these parents were affected in the ‘riots of 2014’ or lived in relief camps. Instead, most of them were landed and had some source of income. The most glaring lie was that the affidavits said the Bodo-adivasi violence took place in January 2014, whereas the incidents date from December 2014.
She says, “In February, 2016, a probationary officer of the CWC was physically threatened by Mangal Mardi. He was told that if he comes to enquire about the children again and meets parents, he will be bashed up.” An FIR was registered against Mangal and a few others in the Gossaigaon police station in Kokrakhar. The probationary officer had confirmed that all the information provided in the affidavits was false. In March 2016, Malaya wrote a letter to the (Gauhati) High Court and the CJM and district sessions judge, Kokrajhar, requesting them to take action against those involved in filing fake affidavits. There was no response.
“What’s the problem if a Hindu sends his children to a Hindutva organisation?” Mangal asks me.
“But all adivasis aren’t Hindus,” I say.
Traditionally, Santhals worship Marang Buru (or Bonga) as the supreme deity, and according to their religious view, there is a court of spirits handling different aspects of the world. All through the year, they have rituals connected to the agricultural cycle, besides rituals for birth, marriage and burial at death. They all involve petitions to the spirits and sacrificial offerings, usually of birds.
But Mangal has his own reasoning. “You see, Hinduism is not a religion per se,” he says. “All those who believe in god are Hindus. The world was once inhabited by Hindus.”
Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Praveen Togadia had said the same thing at a rally in Bhopal on December 22, 2014. He’d said the VHP would go all out to raise the population of Hindus in India from 82 per cent to 100 per cent.
Mangal repeats what Phoolendra Dutta, an RSS worker who has worked in Kokrajhar for 19 years, told me earlier: the RSS tells tribals that anyone who worships the sun, trees, wind and nature is a Hindu. The complexities of the tribals’ animist practices are flattened out for the Sangh parivar’s agenda. Dutta had told me they tell the Santhals and other tribals to plant tulsi as an initiation into Hindutva.
I ask Mangal which gods he speaks of, and he says, “Ram, Durga, Hanuman, Shiva, Tulsi, Bharat Mata.”
Mangal Mardi, Sangh activist, at his Gossaigaon home
“Which god do you believe in?”
“I believe in Ram. But the Bodos believe in Shiva. That is why Bodos and adivasis are different.”
In fact, the original religion of Bodos is Bathouism, which does not have any scriptures, religious books or temples. Bathou, in Bodo language, means the five principles: bar (air), san (sun), ha (earth), or (fire) and okhrang (sky). Their chief deity Bathoubwrai (bwrai meaning elder) is believed to be omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. The five principles are Bathoubwrai’s creations.
But the Sangh’s neatly articulated difference between Bodos and adivasis is newly engineered to serve their own purpose. The decades-old conflict between Bodos and the Santhals and Mundas in Assam rests on the Bodos being granted Scheduled Tribe status, while the Santhals and Mundas, who have ST status in Jharkhand, Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal, do not have that status in Assam. The explanation cited often is that they were outsiders brought in as tea-garden workers during colonial times and hence cannot be counted as indigenous.
Says a child rights activist who has been repatriating children trafficked from border areas for over 20 years, “In an attempt to get both under the Hindu fold, the Sangh parivar outfits have come up with this convenient divide: Bodos are Shaivites, adivasis are Vaishnavites. This keeps them together as Hindus and also lets them marinate in their old ethnic conflict.”
Mangal has pat answers to all questions. “Since when have you been associated with the Hindutva sangathan, the RSS?” I ask.
“All Hindus are automatically part of it. But I became active in 2003, when Virendra Lashkar, the Kokrajhar zila pracharak of RSS, made us aware of this fact,” he says with a contented smile.
“What do you do as an active member?”
“People are forgetting their sanskaars: rituals, customs and duties. Like each house should have a temple and a tulsi (holy basil) plant. I teach them about their Hindutva identity, the Hindu nation and their duty towards it.”
“What is our duty to the Hindu nation?”
“To save it from Muslims and Christian intruders. Look at what the missionaries and Bangladeshis are doing here.”
“And how does forcefully sending girls to other states help the Hindu nation?”
“It is for their own good. Hindu girls must learn sanskaar. Illiterates like Adha know nothing,” he says, trying to be convincing.
“But why fake documents? And why cannot parents not meet or talk to their daughters?” I press on.
His face is flushed. “I can’t talk to you any more. Ask Korobi.”
Part 2: The Trail
Part 3: Ranis Of Chhota Kashi
Part 4: ‘Those Nimn Jaati Girls’
Part 5: Ghar Wapasi For The Girls?