In the Land of Abolitionists – Forbesganj (Bihar)

BY JUANITA KAKOTY

For about ten days now I have been in Forbesganj, a small town on the Indo-Nepal border, in Bihar. It is beautiful and very peaceful. But behind this serenity, lies the history of an important abolitionist movement. This small town is where abolitionist and feminist organiser Ruchira Gupta started her work in 2002 – to end trafficking for sexual exploitation. She founded Apne Aap Women Worldwide with this aim, which began to work with the Nat community in Forbesganj, a community which suffered (and still does) from inter-generational prostitution. Ruchira realised that it was not only poverty but the lack of choices for people in this community which pushed them towards prostitution and families lived off the sexual exploitation of their women as their men brought their own women customers.

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A movement can bring results only when there are leaders from the community, is what Ruchira has always emphasized. And in Apne Aap, that is what she has tried to do all these years with the support of her fellow abolitionist Tinku Khanna. In this photoessay, I try to paint a picture of beautiful Forbesganj and its fiery abolitionists.

Meet Meena. She used to live with her grandmother in Bhutan.When she was a little girl, some men sold her and sent her off to Katihar. She stayed at a brothel there for some time, gave birth to a girl, but managed to escape and flee to Forbesganj. She couldn’t bring her infant daughter with her though. It was much later that she rescued her daughter from the brothel, the daughter now a young girl, with the help of Apne Aap activists and the police. Her story has been well documented in a short film by Lucy Lui and The Sibbs (Negan Raney Aarons and Colin Keith Gray). This story has also been captured in The Town of Love by Norwegian writer Anne Ostby. For the last several years now, as an Apne Aap activist, Meena has been mobilising girls from vulnerable communities in Forbesganj to attend school and the Apne Aap community centre at Uttari Rampur. Meena has put around 12 – 13 traffickers from Forbesganj and Katihar behind bars till date with the support of other Apne Aap activists and the police.  

Fatima is a human rights defender with Apne Aap. She is from the Nat community, where girls are subjected to inter-generation prostitution as a form of livelihood. “I was married at the age of nine,” she tells me, “When I had no idea what marriage is or what a husband is. I saw that my mother-in-law used to buy girls and put them into prostitution. A few of my sisters-in-law were also into prostitution. But I saw how they suffered and lived in fear of my mother-in-law. I didn’t like it, and I helped them escape. I have been beaten up harshly every time I helped a girl escape. My mother-in-law and husband were very crude. Once, my mother-in-law bought a girl at Rs 1,00,000 and I helped that girl flee. That was when she told my husband to put me into prostitution. She said, ‘Isko dhande mein dalo, issi se paisa nikalo’ (put her in the trade and get money out of her). But it was when they put a little girl called Afsana into prostitution, my blood boiled. I was very fond of Afsana and would never part with her. My mother-in-law asked me to go home for a few days. And I was so excited because they never let me go home. When I came back, Afsana clung to me and cried that she has been put into prostitution. That was it. I rebelled against my family!” Fatima has so far played an important role in putting several traffickers in Forbesganj behind the bars, including the most dreaded Gainul. She has been with Apne Aap since 2005. She tells me that today, in the Nat family in Forbesganj, only those who have been in prostitution from before are still in it, no girl from the family is anymore put into prostitution, nor is any girl bought by a Nat family to be prostituted. People like her and Meena and the other Apne Aap activists in Forbesganj have a huge role to play in this.  

Kalam is an Apne Aap activist and is from the Nat community. “We were a nomadic community,” he tells me. “We didn’t own land and used to travel from one place to another. Often the eldest daughter of the family was prostituted and the other girls were groomed for marriage. So the daughters who were groomed for marriage were never put into prostitution.” Kalam, like Fatima, struggled within his family and the community to end the custom of inter-generation prostitution. Today, he is a role model for the boys of his community. He is a lawyer and encourage community members not to groom boys for pimping their own women. He has also played an important role in putting traffickers behind the bars, and along with Fatima, Meena, Tinku and Ruchira conducted several rescue operations in and around Forbesganj.  

In the middle of our documentation exercise at the Apne Aap Forbesganj office, social activist and livelihood design expert Samhita Barooah interacts with Kalam, as he tells us his story. Kalam told us that today, out of the total 50  households of Nat community in Forbesganj, only 10 are into prostitution.  

There is a beautiful spot called Sultanpukhor in Forbesganj. The British used this whole geographical area, which is now Forbesganj, for indigo cultivation. Forbes, a British administrator, was sent to this place to oversee the cultivation. What you see in the picture is Forbes’s house, where some other family has moved in long long ago. Forbesganj is named after Forbes. And this is where Forbes lived.

We met a few beautiful and friendly women in the paddy fields. They told us that they are daily wage labourers and work in the ‘zamindar’s land’. They told us that they are paid Rs 50 per day while for the same work the men are paid Rs 200. 

 Now that we are in Forbesganj, of course we have to make a trip to Nepal. There is a gate is at Jogbani, the last point in India, after which there is a tiny patch of no man’s land, and then Birat Nagar in Nepal. In Jogabani, one can see houses where parts are both in India and Nepal. So, if the entrance opens in India, the house is in Nepal. And we also saw a few sheep grazing at no man’s land. Fascinating place this is with so much hustle and bustle! Birat Nagar in Nepal is just 40 minutes away from Forbesganj.
 
We are finally at the local market in Birat Nagar, Nepal, which used to be the largest industrial hub of Nepal at one time. It is Nepal’s second largest city and mainly a commercial centre.
 

Juanita Kakoty

Juanita Kakoty

JUANITA KAKOTY loves to document life in all its complexities and textures. She has regularly contributed feature stories and documentation of socio-political issues in publications like The Deccan Herald, The Thumb Print and The Book Review. Her short stories (fiction) have appeared in Himal Southasian, Earthen Lamp Journal, Eastlit, New Asian Writing and Writers Asylum. She also has about a decade of experience in the field of development communication, where she has worked with both national and international organisations, state and central governments. Her academic articles on gender and identity have appeared in two books, published by Routledge and Anwesha; and she has contributed learning units in Sociology for the University Grants Commission (UGC) e-Pathshala programme and KK Handique Open State University, Assam. She quite enjoyed teaching Sociology to BA and MA programme students at Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi and Gauhati University, Assam for a while. Juanita is from Assam, a northeastern state of India, and works with Apne Aap Women Worldwide as a communication and documentation specialist.