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The Dark side of the City of Light.

By Piers Moore Ede

Ajeet Singh is an unlikely hero. He’s a slightly round, hairy man in his late
thirties, with a shock of jet black hair and a dulcet voice. He favours hand
loomed Kurtas in brown and maroon stripes, that give him the air of a
schoolmaster, albeit one with a jocular approach to life. To hear him speak about
his work, however, is to have one’s preconceptions flipped in a judo hold. His
voice becomes impassioned; his hands begin to dart around the room in series of
emphatic gestures: a clenched fist, a jabbing finger, two open palms signifying
the way of the world. In the name of his cause, he has upset high ranking
politicians, police chiefs and Supreme Court judges all across India. He and his
wife Manju regularly pick up the telephone to hear finely detailed threats of what
will be enacted upon their family if they don’t stop. But they won’t stop. ‘Come
to my house and get me,’ said Manju to the last thug who tried to intimidate her.
‘We are here and we’re not going anywhere.’
Based in Varanasi, known as the City of Light for Hindus, Ajeet Singh has spent
the last fifteen years campaigning against one of the darkest industries of them
all: that of human trafficking. Trafficking is big business in India, with a
significant proportion of the nation’s estimated 15 million prostitutes bought into
the industry against their will, then held in virtual imprisonment by brothel
keepers. ‘She may be coming from college on a bike,’ explains Ajeet over chai in
his Chaukghat office; ‘Then they give some chloroform, then she is taken and
addicted to drugs. After capture there is often a seasoning period of electric
shocks, chilli powder and this kind of thing. It’s very strong system, believe me.
But in the end it works for these people because if you go to the red light area
and ask someone they will never say please save me. They will be far too
Singh started Guria in 1991, inspired by the plight of a dancing girl at his
cousin’s wedding. ‘It is quite common to recruit wedding performers from
brothels,’ he explains. ‘But at the time I was ignorant of all these things. I was
deeply upset by the sight of this woman, being jeered out by all these men. She
had a child I found out, and I lay awake all night thinking about it, and
wondering how I could take her as far from this world as possible.’
Shortly afterwards, he set up Guria, meaning ‘doll’, with the intent of challenging
the problem head on. The basic objectives were to prevent human trafficking and
child prostitution in India, and to uphold the civil rights of the sex workers. ‘But
I quickly realised,’ Singh remembers, ‘that achieving these goals was impossible
without questioning the whole system! Yes we have an Immoral Trafficking
Prevention Act. But what use are laws when there is complete corruption in the
judiciary? What use are police when they themselves are totally involved in the
red light districts, paid huge sums of money for their compliance. We have a
saying in Hindi ‘Ban Hai Purkondi Ban Hai’ which means there’s an intoxicant
inside the entire well. Unfortunately, that is the case with India right now. You
can’t say this publicly because it’s ‘contempt of court’ but all the courts and
judges are totally had. So how can we get things done? We simply keep
pestering, pestering. Now they are getting a little scared of us you know when
they see our name on the paper.’
Most visitors to Varanasi, India’s Jerusalem, see nothing of all this. It is said to
be the oldest living city in the world, and there’s a palpable air of sanctity and
reverence along the three miles of shrines, ashrams and temples that run along
the banks of the Ganges. Here sixty thousand Hindus come each day to bathe,
descending long flights of stone steps called Ghats into the water. During the
heat of day, Brahmin priests sit cooling themselves under palm leaf umbrellas,
the air rings with chanting, and at the cremation Ghats, corpses smoulder away to
dust before the ashes are sprinkled in the current. According to Hindu
mythology it is said that die to in Varanasi is to attain moksha, or liberation from
the cycle of rebirth, and it is for this reason that thousands of elderly people come
here each year, concerned only to end their days beside the river.
Half an hour from the water’s edge, however, one arrives at a scene that is very
far from what most tourists see in Varanasi. Shivdas Puri, at the north-western
perimeter of the town, is the city’s red light area, where Singh has focussed much
of his efforts. It seems a quiet, almost bucolic place when one first arrives. There
are tea shops and paan stalls, and children spinning tops in the dirt. Looking
closer, however, one sees women loitering outside their one storey houses,
dressed in brightly coloured saris, waiting to receive the customer. ‘There are no
minors here now,’ Ajeet’s wife Manju told me, as we walked up to the small
school Guria have founded. ‘But that is a rarity in India’s red light districts; in
fact it may be unique. When we first started working here there were many
minors in the racket here, bought in from all over the country. There’s a police
station at the end of this street, you know, and yet this was condoned.’
The full scale of human trafficking in India has only become clear recently. A
report by the National Commission for Women concluded that at least half of the
612 districts in the country are affected by trafficking of women and children for
commercial sexual exploitation. Delhi alone is said to have more than 2000
brothels, while Mumbai has the largest sex industry in Asia, with more than
100,000 working prostitutes. Most disturbing of all, however, is the manner in
which some of these women are recruited to the industry. Kidnapping, torture,
and forced addiction to alcohol or hard drugs are just some of the techniques
used by a highly organised criminal underworld to maintain the steady flow of
new flesh. In other cases, parents themselves sell their children for as little as 400
rupees (£5), anxious to be rid of a female child as quickly as possible.
Trafficking from Nepal into India is a particular problem, with the low level of
literacy and social awareness making the rural places an easy target for the
traffickers. Some reports suggest as many as 10,000 Nepali girls are smuggled
into India each year.

On a bright November morning, Singh introduces me to a woman I’ll call Sita,

one of the many helped by his NGO over the years. All is quiet on the leafy side
street of the Guria office, and on the rooftop next door, a small boy flies a tiny
paper kite with obvious delight. ‘I had to think very hard about the right person
to introduce you to,’ Singh tells me. ‘Most of them will never tell the truth about
their lives, not even to me. This is one of the things which make this job so
difficult. If you free one girl, she may say ‘oh, one of the brothel keepers is my
auntie, I want to stay with her.’ So the police don’t understand this, and they call
me a bloody fool, but after maybe one month’s counselling she might begin to
tell the truth. Even the slaves speak the mind of the masters, you see, because
they’ve been conditioned to do so.’

Sita, it turns out, has particular reason to be thankful to Guria. Three years ago
she called Manju from a stretcher, her white blood cell count so low that the
doctors have given up on her. Arriving at the government hospital, Manju
remembers a doctor informing her that with such a low count, in an already HIV
positive patient, he could only recommend Sita return home and prepare to die.
‘He asked me why I was bothering with someone who was just a prostitute,’
recalls Manju. ‘I think even now that doctor will remember the scolding I gave
him! I told him he better be ready to see his name in the newspaper unless her
started treating her immediately. She is a human being also, I said. And in one
day I had five tests done, and the tests returned. Five tests! Let me tell you, any
visitor to a public hospital will tell you that this is quite impossible. Her white
count slowly started to go up.’

Sitting in Ajeet and Manju’s living room, with their daughter Barsha playing on
the floor, I spend a few hours hearing the details of Sita’s life. She’s Nepali, an
attractive woman of about thirty five. She wears a patterned green sari that
reaches the ground, under which I see silver painted toe nails. From time to time
she covers her face with a shawl, blinking back the tears.

‘I was from a very poor family’, Sita begins, ‘from a country place in Nepal. One
day a truck driver came through our village, and he told me that if I came with
him to India he could get me a very good job. In my family, I had many brothers
and sisters, and I thought that if I got this job then perhaps I could send some
money home. So I went with him in his truck, but as we were driving down
through India, he said that actually he wanted to be my husband. I asked him why
had he told me he could get me a job, if actually he wanted to marry me. When
he saw that I would not consent, he raped me forcibly. Then he took me in the
train down to Bombay, where he sold me to a brothel keeper. During the journey,
he made me lie absolutely still on the bunk, and he told me that if I said anything
or spoke to anyone, I would be arrested since I was a Nepali. He did not give me
any food and only a small amount of water for three days. Once in Bombay, I
found myself in this brothel, where immediately they began to send people to my
room for business. If you try to leave this place, they said, criminals will kill you.
During that time I was raped many times.’

Sita’s story is horrific, but unfortunately quite commonplace in India. When she
arrived she spoke no Hindi, nor had any experience of big cities. She was still a
minor under Indian law. Once inside the closed world of the sex trade, she had no
one to turn to, and no real idea of where she might go if she could escape. ‘I
knew that I could not return to my village,’ she told me, ‘because of the great
shame of my situation. But at the same time I knew that I could not stay in that
place in Bombay. The brothel keeper in that place was a woman, and she used to
beat me constantly with a stick. No matter what I did, she used to thrash me. So
finally another girl and I agreed that we would try to escape. We persuaded her to
let me go to the doctor and then used the tips we had made to get the train station.
But when we arrived in the station, she was there waiting for us with some
goondars (thugs). It was our very good fortune at that time that there was a
female police officer there who saw us shouting and came over to see what was
going on. She sent that brothel keeper away, and kept us in her office until the
time that our train was leaving. She even helped us to buy the tickets since we
did not know how to ask for them ourselves.’

For some reason the two girls had opted to travel to Kanpur, an important
industrial centre in Uttar Pradesh. When they arrived they’d eaten nothing for
three days, and were almost mad with hunger. ‘At this stage we saw only one
option,’ Sita recalls sadly, ‘which was to go to the red light district and beg for
work. On the train we had asked people for even one rupee so we could buy
some gram (chickpea flour) but no one would help. So in Kanpur we asked a
rickshaw driver to take us to the red light district. There we found a Nepali
brothel keeper who gave us some food. After that she put us to work. Within a
few days she decided to transfer us to Varanasi, which is how I came to this
place. I was sixteen years old then, and I had no idea of the life ahead of me.’
Transplanted from a south Indian brothel to a north Indian one, Sita found the
conditions much the same. Custom dictates that new girls have to be ‘registered’
by the brothel keeper before they can work, a system which immediately puts
them up to 100 thousand rupees in debt to their captors. Until the debt is paid,
they get no money whatsoever for their work, unless the customer wishes to
leave them a tip. Starvation seems to be a common tactic for keeping the women
placid, with only one meal of dal and rice provided per day. For the next several
years Sita remembers a constant hunger. ‘Sometimes I would save all my tips for
weeks just so I could buy some food. I wanted to eat anything that was not dal
and rice, because I was so sick of those things.’

Twenty years later Sita finds herself still working, though certain conditions in
her life have changed. Amongst her customers there was a man who fell in love
with her, and who became so persistent in his entreaties that she agreed to marry
him. ‘This fellow is the one piece of good luck I have had in my life,’ she says.
‘When we met he was in the army, the Ghurkha regiment, and for a time I lived
with him at the army base. But the other officers knew that I was a prostitute, and
eventually forced him to resign his commission. Even the chief officer thought
this was the proper thing for him to do. Finally, we came back to Shivdas Puri
where at least there is the possibility that I can work. Over fifteen years we saved
enough to buy a small house, and I managed to get myself out of the brothel to
work for myself only.’

Her own boss at last, and with a young son, Sita might have achieved a small
measure of security after so many years. She and her husband, however, are now
both suffering from HIV, and find themselves battling a variety of symptoms.
‘Guria have explained to me how to drink only boiled water,’ she tells me, ‘and
we eat as much vegetables as we can afford. But my husband has diabetes and
kidney stones in addition, which makes his health extremely poor.’

I ask Sita what she wishes for her son in the future and a rare smile flits across
her lips. ‘He says he wants to be a famous cricketer, you know, and if this is what
happens then he has my blessings. My real wish is that he should be a doctor,
because I think that is a very fine profession. But ultimately I want him to have a
happy life, and not have to face such things as I have.’

On the following week I meet Ajeet and Manju at Darbhangir Ghat along the
waterfront. There are dhobi-wallahs washing their laundry in the brackish river, a
venerable sadhu carrying an iron trident, several goats, three cows, and a constant
flow of pilgrims. Two tourists with enormous camera lenses snap photographs of
child with a monkey on its shoulder. The workers of Guria have no time for such
scenery, however, for this is the first day of their annual musical performance
and there’s a lot to accomplish. Banners are being strung up along the ancient
stonework, and freestanding billboards outlining the campaign to raise awareness
of human trafficking.
‘From the beginning we decided to adopt a holistic approach to this business,’
says Ajeet, watching intently as the small boat that will shortly act as a
performance stage is manoeuvred into place off the ghats. ‘Smashing the
criminal nexus behind this trade is important. Fighting corruption is important.
Advocating for effective legislative changes is important. But we know that we
can never wipe out this trade while these women are economically marginalised.
In many cases, there is simply nothing else that they can do to earn money. We
have to find ways to give them alternatives.’
What Singh is referring to is the reason for the evening’s performance and a
subject upon which he waxes with particular lyricism. ‘One word still used to
describe these women is tawa’if,’ he tells me, ‘which was the same term used to
describe courtesans in the Mughal Period. For most of India’s history these
women held a unique position in society. They were the custodians of a number
of art forms, and moved amongst the elite. After British independence, all that
changed, however. There was a huge campaign against them on grounds of moral
degeneration and tawa’ifs were basically eliminated. What filled the place of this
tradition is the mechanized sex trade that we see today. Formerly self
empowered, affluent women are now treated like objects.’
Over the years, Singh has discovered, nevertheless, that a number of the women
do retain strong musical talents. Even after the demise of traditional
courtesanship, he says, there was a demand for their skills at weddings and local
functions, and they were respected for their artistic ability. ‘One thing we are
doing at Guria is trying to revive this tradition,’ he continues. ‘We organise
concerts in different locations around the country, and invite these women to
come and perform for a fair wage. This has been so successful that now we invite
other marginalised communities to come and perform too. The history of India is
in these art forms, you know. If we lose these folk traditions we lose our national
That evening I join a crowd of several hundred for the performance. The small
tug boat has been transformed into a colourful stage, and the smooth stone Ghats
provide a perfect set of seats. Behind the stage, the crescent shaped Ganges flows
silently past, lit up by floating candles upon which Hindus cast their prayers into
the stream. It’s as grand a setting as any musician could wish for, but I can’t help
feel the irony of what’s being sung about here, or the discrepancies it points to in
the fabric of Indian life. Earlier, Singh had alluded to the huge battle he’d fought
with the city authorities for the performance to be given a green light. ‘They
didn’t like the idea of these kinds of people on the Ghats,’ he said. ‘There’s a
huge taboo against this industry here. People think India is changing, but at our
heart we are still a very conservative race, deeply governed by caste. This basic
racism runs right through us.’
The musicians come to the stage and I watch dancers from Madhya Pradesh
performing the ancient ‘lehengi’ and the ‘rai’, drawing thunderous applause from
the crowd. Then the Kalbelia community from Jaipur perform a fire dance, three
women moving effortlessly with flaming pots of oil on their crowns. Finally, a
group of tawa’if from the red light district of Muzaffarpur (in Bihar) come to
perform a ghazal. Ghazals are traditional songs of love and loss, originating in 6th
century Islamic verse, sung as rhyming couplets. Tonight the musician Mina
Tabassum, wearing a salwar kameez flecked with gold, sings one that could very
well speak of her own situation. What is the potency of glass before a stone?
None of our efforts work before the hand of fate.
After ten days of concerts, Singh has dark circles under his eyes and confesses to
merely an hour’s sleep the night before. On the subject of his work, however, all
tiredness is banished and he begins to pace up and down the office, cutting the air
with his hands. ‘To be honest the word NGO has become tainted in India,’ he
laments. ‘So much corruption is there, so many people taking money and doing
nothing. Guria, in fact, will never take money from the government because then
our hands are tied. How we can fight the system with one hand if we’re accepting
money with the other?’
In Shivdas Puri, Guria work in practical terms, such as their school, and the night
shelter they’re building for the sex workers. In the long term, they plan to expand
this to include a care home for the older women, where they’ll encourage
alternative forms of income such as crafts and the study of music. ‘Those things
are important, Singh acknowledges, ‘but that’s coming at the problem from one
end. At the other end, we’re fighting in the courts, where we’ve got 78 cases
currently pending against 244 traffickers and brothel keepers. This is the area
where we can really make a difference. Just recently we received a landmark
judgement from the Supreme Court, who ruled that bail had been given unfairly
to a number of brothel keepers. This may seem like a small thing, but let me tell
you this decision was huge for us. Judges in the lower courts will not be so hasty
to give in to bribes in the future.’
‘Basically, we have gone into direct confrontation mode with this industry, which
no one has done before. We’re taking the fight to their door. Last year I spent 9
months working as a spy in the red light district of Allahabad, where we’d heard
that there were many minors working. I went there and posed as a seller of
powders and lipsticks, wearing a hidden camera under my clothes. Our aim was
to collect enough evidence to force the police to act: otherwise they try to pretend
it’s not happening. We found seventy minors there. But this was very dangerous
work. I would definitely have been killed had they found me out. Finally, with
this evidence we forced the local magistrate to order a police raid. The police
were incensed with me that night. One of them told me if I did not stop meddling
they would make sure I died in a police encounter.’
In 2005, Singh attempted the first of these major rescue operations, when he used
similar tactics to free the minors from Shivdas Puri. ‘We planned this like a
military operation,’ he remembers, ‘and I recruited 4000 volunteers from
Varanasi! The police were supposed to accompany us but, needless to say, by the
evening they still hadn’t turned up. So we just marched in there like an army,
smashing down the doors and looking for the children. It was a like a warzone I
tell you. Goondars (thugs) were coming out from everywhere with sticks and
knives, and many of our people got wounded. Finally, seeing what was
happening, the police did arrive and then they started attacking us too! In the
scuffle, several of the minors escaped, although we still managed to rescue 31.’
In the wake of this episode, the traffickers launched their own counteroffensive,
levelling charges at Singh himself such as: extortion, molestation, and stealing
the women’s possessions during the raid. ‘I’m sure it was the police who
suggested they do this,’ says Ajeet wryly. ‘By now, you see, we had begun to
make a serious dent in their business. The traffickers and the brothel keepers
were out of pocket, and so were the police. Don’t be deceived by the poor
appearance of places like Shivdas Puri, there are crores (millions) of money
changing hands in that place. You should have seen the lawyer who came to
defend their people in court – he would not even get out of bed for less than 10
lakhs! We never see the people really running these trafficking operations, but
their lawyers tell us something about highly place they are.’
Several months after the Shivdas Puri incident, seven hours were seized by the
police belonging to a man named Rahmet, whom Guria had identified as the
area’s kingpin. ‘We had known about Rahmet for a long time,’ says Ajeet, and
believed him not only to be a trafficker but an important figure in the north
Indian drug trade. After the houses were confiscated, we knew we had really
wounded them. One trafficker rang me up and said they would literally donate
me half these houses if I kept quiet and withdrew my complaint. You can build a
park he said, whatever you want, we won’t trouble you. They were desperate.
Finally, it seems the police took care of the problem from another angle: Rahmet
was killed in a police encounter shortly afterwards.’
Singh tells this story with the cautionary tone of a man well aware of the forces
he’s coming up against. Is he not afraid from his life? I ask him. Since it’s clear
that high level mafia organisations are running the flesh trade in India, may there
not come a point when they simply decide that the head of Guria has become a
thorn in their side it’s necessary to remove. At this Singh’s face goes still, and he
shoots me a wan smile. ‘I have long known that this job may not be completed in
my life time,’ he says quietly. ‘And it may come to that. They have already
threatened me, then they tried to bribe me, but that has not been working. Now I
fear that they have no hope left. And when there is no hope one becomes violent.
So now is the time when I am most at risk. That is why I am mainly living
underground now. I follow no schedule. You do not see me out on the streets.
Unfortunately, I can very rarely go to Shivdas Puri now, because it is too
dangerous. If I do go, however, I act like that fellow from Arthur Miller’s All my
Sons. He had supplied faulty warheads to the air force during WWII so he was
seen as a traitor. And every day when he was returning to his house, he would go
down the main street looking right into the eyes of the people. So for the first two
days they reviled him and on the third day they accepted him. So I adopt that
stance quite a lot. I don’t have guns in my hand but I look into their eyes and dare
them to prevent me from doing my work.’
After several weeks watching Guria at work, I find myself slightly awed by this
humble NGO, taking on the might of India’s judiciary, unafraid to storm through
red light districts taking the law into their own hands. Ajeet and Manju are that
rarest of couples united by a sense of purpose, and for whom private and
professional lives have no separation. Ultimately, as Ajeet is quick to point out,
the scope of their work goes far beyond human trafficking to the subject of
corruption itself, running through India’s heart like a dark stain. ‘Until we have a
basic rule of law in this country, India will never be great,’ Ajeet explains. ‘Take
a rickshaw through the heart of town and you will see the driver giving five or
ten rupees to the policeman merely to be allowed to pass a particular junction.
This basic mechanism continues right the way up through society. High level
politicians, Supreme Court judges, and the entire police department are operating
through a complex web of bribes and pay-offs, ultimately accountable to no one.
It is joke really. Often when we rescue seven or eight minors, next day we find
out that the police have booked three as the victims, and the other four as the
accused. This helps the police out very nicely, because they don’t have to go
anywhere to find the so-called ‘perpetrators’ and can consider the case closed.
How can we work in such conditions?’
Leaving Ajeet’s office one day, I watch him bolting the heavy iron gate behind
me, smiling out through the bars as he prepares to return once again to a
mountain of paperwork, and the unceasing ringing of his mobile phone. ‘You
should have been here a few months ago,’ he laughs, pocketing the keys. ‘I had a
lady from the Asian Human Rights Network here and just as she was leaving
there was a policeman at the door. When I asked him what he wanted he said he
was here to follow up a complaint I’d made, against threats to my personal
safety. It turns out that the complaint had been filed in 2007, and now more than
two years later he was coming to take a statement. Even the policeman had to
laugh about that.’
See for more information.
Piers Moore Ede

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