According to the Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, “Children must not be separated from their parents unless it is in the best interests of the child (for example, in cases of abuse or neglect). A child must be given the chance to express their views when decisions about parental responsibilities are being made. Every child has the right to stay in contact with both parents, unless this might harm them.” India ratified the Convention in 1992.
Now to get to the 31 children from Assam, a letter dated June 16, 2015 (ASCPCR 37/2015/1), from Runumi Gogoi, chairperson of the ASCPCR, to the ADGP, CID, Assam Police, says: “The Childline India Foundation, Central Zone, with the help of informer and anti-human trafficking unit, Crime Branch, GP, and RPF rescued children on June 11, 2015, at about 7.40 pm at New Delhi Railway Station.” It refers to the same 31 children.
The Childline India Foundation (CIF) is the nodal agency of the Union ministry of women and child development, acting as the parent organisation for setting up, managing and monitoring the Childline 1098 service across the country. It is a free, 24-hour emergency phone outreach service for children in need of care and protection. It has set up emergency phonelines for the purpose.
On June 11, Childline Delhi got a call from an informer about the trafficking of these girls on the Poorvottar Sampark Kranti Express. The girls were rescued at Paharganj station in New Delhi. The same day, Shaiju, a coordinator of Childline, wrote to Sushma Vij, chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee in Mayur Vihar, Delhi, informing her that the children, who were accompanied by “a lady called Sandhya from Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon in Assam”, were rescued and taken to the police station for cross-checking their documents. But at this juncture, strangely, an order of the CWC, Surendranagar, intervened and within a day, the girls were sent onward to their destinations from the police station itself—20 to Halvad, Gujarat, and 11 to Patiala. Shaiju wrote, “There is a need to collect more information about these children from the police department of Delhi and concerned CWCs of the aforementioned districts with proper/relevant support documents. I would like to request you to kindly investigate the matter for the best interests of the children.” No action was taken on this request from the CWC, Mayur Vihar, Delhi. Responding to the concerns, the ASCPCR wrote to the ADGP, Assam, on June 16: “The mentioned children were rescued on June 11, 2015, but the written evidence showed that Child Welfare Committee (CWC) (Surendranagar) issued the order to Secretary, Children Home, Halvad, under section 33 (4) of Juvenile Justice Act 2000 on June 3, 2015. Without producing the children before the mentioned CWC, how can they issue order with regard to proper custody of the children in the children’s home situated at Halvad.... How can children of Assam who are with their parents/guardians have previous record, case history, individual care plan in a Child Welfare Committee of Gujarat state?” Outlook has a copy of the letter from the CWC, Surendranagar, that blatantly violates this clause of the Juvenile Justice Act.
The letter from the ASCPCR also directed the Assam police “to initiate a proper enquiry into the matter and take all necessary steps to bring back all 31 children to Assam..... The government of Assam is implementing the Right to Education and other developmental work as well as a protection scheme for children in the state, then why should children go away from their families in the name of better facilities. This is against the best interests of children and against the provision of JJ Act 200. It can in fact be termed as trafficking.”
A day later, on June 17, 2015, the Gujarat Samachar newspaper, Ahmedabad edition, published the following: “Saraswati Shishu Mandir in Halvad, which is affliated to Vidya Bharati Trust, organised a meeting in Delhi, during which it adopted 20 girls who have been orphaned during the recent floods in Assam. This humanitarian move has contributed to enhancing Gujarat’s image and made the state proud. The girls who have been adopted are aged 5-8 years, and a majority of them are totally without any support. The children were received at Delhi railway station by trustees of the Saraswati Shishu Mandir, Mr Ramnikbhai Rabdiya and Ms Varshaben Rathod, as well as two police officers.”
The next day, on June 18, Kumud Kalita, IAS, member-secretary, State Child Protection Society, Assam, wrote to the CWCs in Kokrajhar and Bassaigaon, saying, “You are aware of the trafficking of the 31 girls from the districts like Kokrajhar, Chirang, Dhubri, Goalpara, Bongaigaon. Salaam Balak Trust Childline managed to rescue girls with the help of police, crime branch, at New Delhi Railway Station. Though the girls were rescued, some political power managed to take them to the destined places at Gujarat and Punjab. The most shocking part of this incident is that Surendranagar Child Welfare Committee has passed an order to keep 20 numbers of girls in children’s home in RSSP Halvad, Gujarat, despite knowing that Child Welfare Committee of the source district is not informed about the movement of children of their district. Please do at the earliest to bring back our children to Assam for their best interest.”
After this, the CWC, Kokrajhar, wrote a letter to CWC, Surendranagar, on June 22, 2015, to request the restoration of the children from Assam. The CWC, Surendranagar, never responded. In fact, the only letter (CWC/SNR/150) they wrote was on February 2, 2016, eight months after CWC, Kokrajhar, requested them to restore the girls to Assam. This was to D.B. Arthakur, member-secretary, Assam government, to “send home study of 20 girls from Assam” who are there at Rashtriya Seva Sansthan Institue in Halvad in district Morbi.
Halvad is a small town, previously in Surendranagar district, now in Morbi district, and lies at the southern edge of the little Rann of Kutch, 100 km from Ahmedabad in Gujarat. According to the JJ Act, the home study of any child—basically, a report on the child’s family and socio-economic background—has to be handed over to the CWC before it orders her to be sent to any government or NGO-run children’s home. In this case, the CWC, Surendranagar, had ordered the police to escort the girls to the Rashtriya Seva Sansthan without the home study report on June 3, 2015.
It is 6.45 am on a hot June morning in Halvad. The Saraswati Shishu Mandir campus is abuzz with young children measuring the distance of the building corridor. There are a number of young girls who are playing in the unkempt fields of this institution. I show a clipping of the June 17, 2015, Gujarat Samachar that mentions the adoption of 20 orphans of Assam by the institute to Sunita, the music teacher at the institute. I tell her that I want to meet these girls.
She points out a group of young girls playing in the courtyard. Divi, Ambika, Bhumika, Babita, queue up to talk to me.
Sunita tells them, “Babita, tell her your favourite story.” Babita is tutored. “The Rani of Chhota Kashi?” she asks her teacher, who nods agreement.
Tribal girls from Assam taking part in prayers
“Once upon a time, there was a brave king and a pious queen who lived in Chhota Kashi. Each morning, they would wake up, take a bath and pray to Shiva. They would dutifully wash the Shivling, chant the Gayatri mantra and meditate. This pleased Shiva so much that he blessed the rani with good clothes, several able sons and nice jewellery. The raja was blessed with a mighty army and a prosperous kingdom.” As she narrates the story, next to a small white marble temple with a framed portrait of Goddess Saraswati, several other girls surround her.
Babita continues with her story: “They were living happily when one day, the peace was disrupted by Khan, the Sultan of Gujarat, who attacked their kingdom. He killed children and animals, broke temples and chhatris of the ancestors, kidnapped women and young men.” From the narration, one could tell that Babita has heard and narrated this story several times. She could enact fear at the mention of Khan’s name and shudder while describing the killing. She makes for an impressive storyteller.
“To save his kingdom, the king decided to put the sultan in his place. As he left, he announced to his kingdom that the flag in the battleground will only be lowered if one of the two kings dies in the war. He made the rani promise that if he dies, they should not allow themselves to be defeated by the cruel invader,” she says.
Pointing vaguely in the air, she continues, “Days passed by as the rani waited in the Ek Dandiya Mahal, day and night, to keep an eye on the battlefield. And then one evening, the Chhota Kashi flag lowered. Rani did not take a minute to run down to the open field. ‘The invader must be coming any minute,’ she told her daasis (servicewomen). To save the honour of her husband and her motherland, they must end their lives instead of giving a chance to the enemy to defeat them. Huge piles of wood were collected and set on fire. Ghee and havan saamagri were added to it to make the biggest bonfire possible. The rani jumped and then the others followed. As they burnt, the whole kingdom gathered to witness their supreme sacrifice,” she sighs. She’s now a product of ideoogy, not reason.
“That evening, the raja returns. The rani and others had been reduced to ashes by then. The king was distraught. The previous evening, the flag was lowered by mistake. How could he forget that the rani always lived by her word. Heart-broken yet determined, he returned to the battlefield. Even the gods cannot avoid a determined woman who cares for honour. The Rani of Chhota Kashi had impressed Shiva with her supreme sacrifice for preserving her motherland’s honour. That day, he fought with such might and bravery never witnessed before. He continued till every single soldier of Khan’s army was reduced to dust and the sultan ran away. That day, the happiness of Chhota Kashi was restored. Since then, Shiva guards every nook and corner of Chhota Kashi. No outsider can disturb its peace and honour. The rani still comes to the Ek Dandiya Mahal every pooranmasi to check on everyone.”
Halvad is also known as Chhota Kashi. It’s known for its annual laddoo-eating contest, organised by the dominant Brahmin community, and its paliyas, stones commemorating the jauhar by ranis of the town, like the one in Babita’s story.
It is 7.15 am. All the girls run to the hall for the morning assembly. The assembly hall has a big stage and pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses, Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Hedgewar, Savarkar, Shivaji, Jijabai and Bharat mata with a saffron flag all over the walls. One picture describes the tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, as “Hindu dharmarakshak”. The assembly hall has 60 young girls lined up on the right and close to 30 young boys on the left.
A small altar under the stage has an ‘Om’ sign, a picture of goddess Saraswati, and another of Bharat mata with a saffron flag. A teenage girl walks up to the altar to light a lamp as the assembled children sit cross-legged on the ground, their arms folded. After the incense sticks are lit and moved in circles around the three picture frames, Sunita, sitting on the left side of the gathering, breaks into the Gayatri mantra as she plays the harmonium. The children attempt to repeat in unison, eyes closed, “Om bhur bhuva svaha....” Four-year-old Devi, a Bodo girl from Goalpara, sitting right in the front, has one eye closed tight, the other peering at Sunita in an attempt to lip-sync the mantra, difficult for a four-year-old to get right. The other girls giggle as I catch her at her attempt to keep up with the prayer. A few more mantras follow after this, before Suneeta asks everyone to get up and stand at attention. She then leads them in singing ‘Vande mataram’.
After the half-hour-long assembly is over, I request Suneeta and a few other adult attendants to allow me to speak to the 20 girls. Nineteen out of the 20 from Assam are asked to wait in the hall while others leave. I ask them, in Hindi, for their names—Suneeta repeats the question in Gujarati. They reply, turn by turn, “Ombika, Babita, Morobi, Divi, Sorogi, Suragni, Sukurmani, Riyajajot, Suriya, Neha, Bhumika, Sushmita, Sushita, Rani, Gujila, Rumila, Surmila, Devi, Mulita.”
Most girls only understand Gujarati now, since the medium of education is primarily Gujarati, although they are encouraged to speak Hindi. Back home, in Assam, they spoke in either Bodo or Assamese.
I ask Sushita, “Do you want to go home?” She nods. Sunita asks her sternly, “You want to go home?” “No,” she says, staring at the carpet.
I ask Divi which class she studies in.
“The bhajan class,” she says. I look to Suneeta for coding. She tells me these kids are new, so some of them haven’t been allotted a class.
“And you?” I ask Ombika. “We’re learning sanskaar,” she says.
“Like?” I ask.
In terse Hindi, she answers, “Honour of a woman, honour of the motherland, praying every day and saving the animals by not killing. Even for food.”
“Save your honour from whom?” I ask.
“From invaders. Who attack Hindus. Like Bangladeshis and missionaries in Assam,” she answers.
“Did you practice Hinduism at home?”
Sushita butts in, “We did not know that we all are Hindus. Krishna’s wife Rukmini was from our tribe.”
On December 7, 2014, after the flagging off of the Gyanodaya Express, Delhi University’s annual ‘Train of Learning’ to the Northeast, RSS joint general-secretary Krishna Gopal spoke of the Indian motherland and its links to the Northeast, focusing on Hindu gods and Hindu freedom fighters. “Lord Krishna’s wife Rukmini belonged to an Arunachal tribe,” he told them. In the same lecture, he narrated the story of the valiant Naga woman freedom fighter, Rani Gaidinliu, who fought against conversion of Hindus to Christianity. The message was clear—that if you’re from Northeast, you are Hindu—and it is being clearly indoctrinated in these young girls in Halvad.
I specifically ask Babita, “But don’t you like the non-veg food at home? Crab curry and pork?” Babita nods. “But a good Hindu girl should not touch maas.” The young girl’s likings have been slaughtered at the altar of a homogenised Hindu rashtra.
This conversation was paused when a guard came to tell me the trustee of the school, Ghanshayam Dave, has asked not to talk to the girls or take any pictures. I agree and offer to leave. As I get in the car, the gates of the institute are locked. The guard walks up to say that till Ghanshyam Dave arrives, I am not allowed to go.
I call Dave on the phone number provided by the guard, which goes unanswered. After an hour of waiting in the corridor, I tell the guard I am leaving. He stands in front of the car and refuses to budge. I tell him I have a flight to catch to Delhi but he said he will not let me out. I tell him he cannot stop me and I will call the police. He says, “You don’t know who Ghanshyam Dave is. Call the police if you want to.” Sikander, my local taxi-driver, tells me: “Ghanshyam Dave’s brother is a BJP member and his other brother is in the police.”
Meanwhile, Ghanshyam Dave, rides in on his bike in a starched kurta-pyjama and a tilak. He is in his fifties. He asks me to walk to his office and takes my business card.
“What have you come for?” he asks.
I tell him I wanted to know more about the adoption of the 20 girls from Assam.
“You know, two girls from Meghalaya ran away from the hostel three days back. We have yet not been able to trace them. That is why the guard was stopping you,” he says in an upset tone.
“These girls were orphaned in the Assam floods. I was in Delhi when Mohan Bhagwatji asked me to take them to our institute here. We agreed,” he says.
After verifying my details, place of work and googling my blog, Dave says, “After all, you are a Brahmin. You won’t harm us.”
I did not confront his characterisation of me and get up to take leave. The wall in his office has a few framed certificates. The first one is from Vasuben Trivedi, MoS for women and child development, Gujarat. It’s dated June 23, 2015, and laudatory: it says the institution was inaugurated by Modi in 2002 and is a “pride of the state”.
The other is from the directorate of social defence, Gujarat, certifying the registration of the Rashtriya Seva Shikshan Seva Pratishthan, Halvad, under the Juvenile Justice Act for keeping children needing care and protection. The certificate has expired—on March 3, 2016. Under the Juvenile Justice Act, needy children can only stay in a registered home with current validity. Ghanshyam Dave clearly has support of the BJP-led Gujarat government.
Part 1: Baby Snatching
Part 2: The Trail
Part 4: ‘Those Nimn Jaati Girls’
Part 5: Ghar Wapasi For The Girls?