Crusade, with Complications

by TaoTao Holmes

It’s like poking a bear,” Kristin Braddock said. “You start doing good work in a community and this is what happens. You poke the bear, you wake it up.” And after a while, Braddock discovered, the bear bites back.
Braddock, who is spearheading an income generation program in Delhi, has been a social worker in India for three years. At this point, little surprises her—she has participated in brothel raids, seen staff members stabbed, and was herself beaten once. However, Braddock found herself stunned by the sudden arrest of one of her coworkers, Mohammad Kalam, an anti-sex trafficking activist.

On the morning of June 1, 2012, Forbesganj police accused Kalam, a legal officer for the Indian NGO Apne Aap Women Worldwide, of marrying and selling a girl, Sony, into prostitution in Delhi. They were charging an antitrafficker with sex trafficking. Not only that, but the complainant, Sony, was a girl he had helped rescue just months before in February of 2012. In fact, it was Kalam who wrote the complaint that freed Sony.

Forbesganj, where Kalam works, is a remote town less than two kilometers in diameter.  It is tucked in the forgotten farmlands of Bihar, India’s poorest state, in the northeast of the country. In Forbesganj, money is everything. The police tolerate the pressure from NGOs and accept bribes from traffickers.  Since many traffickers can pay good money, alliances sway and loyalties blur.

Who instigated Kalam’s arrest is unclear, but Apne Aap suspects it to be one or more of the traffickers negatively impacted by Kalam’s interference in their work. “It is not possible that a person with eight years of experience in anti-trafficking will file a complaint against himself,” Apne Aap President and Founder Ruchira Gupta wrote in letters to the Bihar State Commission for Child Rights, the National Human Rights Commission, and several other organizations, none of which took any action.

Apne Aap Women Worldwide is trying to bring an end to the exploitation and abuse that have become a part of the everyday business of prostitution and sex trafficking across India. Over the past ten years, the NGO has developed a network of self-empowerment groups, community learning centers, and legal rights sessions to encourage at-risk women to learn skills that could free them from the sex trade.

Since Apne Aap’s arrival less than a decade ago, Forbesganj’s red-light area, a dirt road lined with wood and cement shacks, has shrunk to half its original size, and over the last three years, the police have arrested a reported 53 traffickers.

However, on the day of Kalam’s arrest, the local police were on the traffickers’ side. They didn’t care that there was no proper investigation or evidence, nor did they offer Kalam any legal assistance. It all occurred under an unbending judicial magistrate’s directive. “I asked the officer to investigate [the case] first so that then he would know that what the girl had said was not true,” said Kalam. “Because I was the one who gave information to my organization about the girl being trafficked and that’s how the girl was rescued.”

Under proper circumstances in India, citizens have a right to be arraigned without unnecessary delay, usually for a maximum of two days. Kalam spent five days as one of 150-plus inhabitants of a jail meant for 35 to 40. On June 6, a cell phone in the Delhi head office of Apne Aap rang. Upasana Chakma, head monitoring and documentation officer, answered the call.  “Kalam got bail!” she squealed.

When Kalam was finally taken to court, he was handcuffed and roped by police, and paraded before the media and public as a trafficker.

“It was a very miserable feeling to stand in front of the judge where many times I have stood as an advocate for girls and women, where I had given statements that led to the conviction of many traffickers,” he said later.

What complicates the matter are Kalam’s roots in the Nat community, a group in the Indian caste system that engages in intergenerational prostitution. In such communities, prostitution of the women is the primary— and in certain areas like Forbesganj, only—form of income. Men live off the earnings of the women and the practice is passed down from each generation to the next. Husband, in such communities, is synonymous with pimp.

Kalam’s mother and sister were both taken into prostitution as minors, and they serve as constant motivators for Kalam’s job. “The traffickers are my relatives,” said Kalam, sitting under the whirr of the fans in Apne Aap’s rudimentary office in Forbesganj. “I am the one being from the Nat community, not indulging in trafficking,” he said. “And moreover, fighting against it.”

Indeed, Kalam has been with Apne Aap for eight years, and has been instrumental in putting traffickers in jail, rescuing girls in local brothels, and working to inform women of their legal rights. India’s The Week magazine named him “Activist of the Year” in 2004 and his story inspired a recently released book by Norwegian author Anne Ostby, “Town of Love.”

Kalam’s arrest isn’t the first instance of backlash from the community. “Our own colleagues have been harassed, stabbed, charged, put into jail,” said Tinku Khanna, a staff member in Bihar. “We try to stop girls from being trafficked, even if that means getting their parents arrested,” she explained.  Despite its foundation only a decade ago, the grassroots organization now has offices in Forbesganj, Kolkata, and Delhi. Its success has garnered an impressive amount of media coverage.  President and Founder Ruchira Gupta
has received numerous accolades, including major Indian network Times TV’s “Amazing Indian” Award and the Clinton Global Citizen Award. In May, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with members of Apne Aap’s office in Kolkata and watched a karate performance by a girl taking classes in Bihar.

Apne Aap also found itself in the spotlight after the publication of Nicholas Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s bestseller “Half the Sky.” The book details the worldwide oppression of women and mentions Apne Aap among a number of small organizations making a big difference.

Limelight for grassroots work in off-the grid places like Forbesganj doesn’t make the work much easier. As Apne Aap’s work grows more effective, traffickers are feeling increasingly threatened, as Kalam’s case shows. International clout hasn’t alleviated the day-to-day community challenges that Kalam, Khanna, and other workers face; police and traffickers pay no attention to awards and accolades. Unless Apne Aap’s staff in Bihar establishes firm relationships with the police—or offer them better bribes than the traffickers—they will remain at a disadvantage.

Still, Kalam’s arrest provides reason for optimism. “His arrest shows that we made an impact. It was awful, yes, but at the same time it means we’re doing good work,” said Braddock.  As Kalam’s ongoing case receives more attention, and as Apne Aap grows more successful, the communities dependent on prostitution will become more desperate. And such desperation may put Apne Aap’s work in even greater danger. Each day brings near-invisible progress, and the relationships between police, traffickers, and above all, money, remain frustratingly murky.

The work of small organizations like Apne Aap seems agonizingly slow and ineffective.  But serious change in places like Forbesganj, where a meeting never occurs on time and hundreds of people don’t even own watches, does not take place overnight. It is a gradual matter of changing mindsets, shifting options, and never giving up, no matter how slow or frustrating the situation becomes.

Bears can’t bite back forever—even the toughest grizzly will tire. All that Apne Aap needs is dogged persistence. Visit the office of Apne Aap in Forbesganj and you will see Kalam there, preparing materials for community visits.   He, unlike the traffickers, is not about to walk away. “I console myself and convince myself that justice will be done at the end; the actual traffickers will be punished and I will prove myself.”

TAOTAO HOLMES ’14 is a Global Affairs major in Branford College. Contact her