Indian Circuses: A Nightmare for Nepali Minors

Flanked by BBA activists and parents, Nepali girls who worked in the Great Roman Circus in Gonda, India, emerge from the Lucknow High Court on July 8, 2004. (Photo: Tilak Pokharel)

“Seeing Raza (Mohammad Khan) handcuffed and jailed gives me eternal satisfaction.” This is exactly what 14-year-old Manju Lama (name changed) told, sobbing and moaning, in front of her mother who had come to help free her from the clutches of Indian gangsters. Trafficked to the Great Roman Circus in Gonda, India -- one of many districts where only local gangsters have their say -- from her Maoist rebel-infested home in the Makwanpur district of Nepal, Manju had been sold there last year for $432 by a Nepali broker and neighbor. The police, the administration and the locals in Karnailgunj (an area of Gonda), are at the mercy of local dada (gangsters) like Raza, the circus owner. Hence, Raza had “eternal freedom” inside the circus to do whatever he liked with the circus girls – 90 percent of them are minors from Nepal.

Thanks to the concerted efforts of human rights activists and journalists of India and Nepal, they were able to accomplish what police and administrators in the area could not. Acting on complaints from parents of eleven missing Nepali minors, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), meaning “protect the childhood movement,” led a team of human rights activists, journalists and parents to raid the circus and rescue the children on June 15th.

The local police accompanied them although they were reluctant. When things went awry, and as the weapon-wielding circus operators attacked them, the police who should have been helping them, were mute spectators. BBA chief Kailash Satyarthi, who has been active in child labor issues in the past, sustained serious head injuries and several parents of the trafficked children were hospitalized. The group managed to take only Manju out of the “hell” that fateful afternoon.

The parents of the other ten children were in despair and began losing hope of ever getting their daughters back. “When I took hold of my daughter’s hand, Raza’s henchmen attacked me with sharp weapons from behind and took her away,” said heartbroken Bishumaya Moktan through tears.

Armed with only the strength of recent global solidarity on their side, several in the group went back to the circus the next day. The remaining ten girls were gone and Raza’s men told the team that they were “never there.”

But the previous day’s video footage was enough proof for the BBA to file a complaint at a local police station on behalf of Manju on June 16th.

Raza and his accomplice Shafi Khan were arrested and booked on rape charges. While Shafi has been released on bail, Raza is still being tried in a local court.

After a 24-hour ultimatum to the Indian President A.P.J. Kalam, Prime Minister Manamohan Singh and chief of the Uttar Pradesh government Mulayam Singh Yadav demanding the immediate release of the “trapped” children in the circus and action against the police personnel and district authorities, nothing was done.

Satyarthi, in an act of desperation to save the young girls, staged a fast-unto-death on June 18th.

Bishumaya and Janak Lama – two mothers of the kidnapped girls joined Satyarthi in fasting. “It’s high time Nepal look into the issue,” Satyarthi told me on June 20th. “The girls in the circus have been perpetually raped. It’s a blatant violation of basic human rights of minors. It’s an irony that the authorities are doing nothing.”

On June 21, Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba told a delegation of the rights activists that “he didn’t have any idea” about the incident. Local activist Gauri Pradhan said PM Deuba knew about the incident from the press reports and yet nothing had been done on a diplomatic level. Indian Ambassador to Nepal, Shyam Saran told the same delegation that India was ready to hand over the girls to their parents. On the same day, there were several protests in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, and other major Indian cities.

Renowned Indian actress Nandita Das joined a rally in New Delhi. In the meantime, fasting Satyarthi received constant phone calls from Raza’s men threatening to take his and other activists’ life “for attempting to free the children”.

On June 22nd, as fasting Satyarthi’s health worsened, police “forcefully” took him to a hospital. That night, his fellow activists traced two cars of Raza’s men “who came to the hospital to abduct Satyarthi.” Citing security reasons, Satyarthi left Lucknow (the Uttar Pradesh capital) for Delhi on June 23rd. “It’s not safe at all to stay here. They [Raza’s henchmen] have been issuing threats to us,” bed-ridden Satyarthi told me in a hotel in Lucknow before venturing out. “From now on, we will launch a campaign to free all Nepali girls exploited in all Indian circuses.” He said it was the bullying nature of the Indian authorities against the poor Nepalis to turn deaf ears toward the overall movement to rescue the minors.

According to Govind Khanal, a Nepali activist working with BBA, there are about 50 circuses harboring Nepali girls in India. In April, they rescued about three-dozen Nepali minor girls from a circus in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Khanal said about 2,000 Nepali girls are still living hellish lives in the circuses.

Positive Outcome of the Movement
Heeding the pleas pouring in from activists from all corners of the globe, Nepal sent an envoy to Gonda on June 24th. The Gonda district authorities handed over twelve Nepali girls to him, and subsequently they were repatriated to Nepal on June 26th.

“Kailash Satyarthi, the president of the Global March Against Child Labour and Bachpan Bachao Aandolan, who risked his life to rescue these girls, is a true hero,” The Kathmandu Post [Nepal’s national daily] wrote in its June 28th editorial. The article went on to say, “Though some state agencies were hand-in-glove with the circus owners, he staged a hunger strike making the release of the girls possible. All Nepalis should be grateful to him…This tragic incident has once again proved that time-tested people-to-people relationship between the citizens of the two countries is much more vibrant and dependable than the state-to-state relationship. It took so long for the Indian government to act on it.”

The resolutions of Alok Vajpeyi (an assistant of Satyarthi) and Kailash Satyarthi have heralded a new era in this region, wrote Professor Abhi Subedi, a prominent educator, in the Kathmandu Post on July 1st. He said, “The suffering of the circus minors is only a tip of the iceberg of the Nepali people’s suffering, the major part of which is submerged under the sea. This wave of protests against the abuse of the Nepali circus minors that swept across India did amazingly unleash a new power.”

India’s National Human Rights Commission sent a probe team to Gonda on June 21st to make an on-the-spot report and give recommendations on the matter. Rights activists are optimistic about the Commission’s report. “We hope the commission will deliver justice to Nepali minors and recommend legal action against the perpetrators,” said Khanal.

However, the fate of the ten missing girls was still unknown. The Lucknow High Court asked the State’s police chief to present the missing girls to the court on July 7th. The girls were medically examined and produced in court on July 23rd. Their parents are hoping the girls will be released to them after a hearing scheduled for July 27th.

Underground Tunnel, Iron Rods and Proselytizing
One of the girls who was repatriated to Nepal on June 26 revealed that Raza used an underground tunnel to molest and rape the circus girls. Khem Thapa, Director of the Nepal Child Welfare Foundation where the girl is now being kept said, “She said at least four girls were constantly raped inside the tunnel by Raza during their stay in the circus.” The girl told counselors that Raza used to post guards at the ends of the tunnel.

“He [Raza] even promised to marry me,” Thapa quoted the girl. “Only now I have realized how harrowing he was.” Another girl revealed that he once used iron rods and steel buckets when she refused to have sex with him.

Yet another victim who has been brought back to Nepal said the Nepali girls -- all Hindus -- were forced to change their religion. “We were forced to participate in Muslim religious functions.” Before the June 15 raid, the circus operators had warned the girls not to speak out against the circus and its owners in or outside of the court. “They threatened to kill us if we didn’t abide by their decree,” said one of them. “They even said their men would follow us to our villages in Nepal.”

Ire Against Traffickers
Living in the stronghold of the Maoist rebels in Nepal, who have waged violent insurgencies since 1996 to uproot monarchy, poor and illiterate farmers, who can barely manage two meals a day, were lured by the promise of money. The promise that their children would be educated in English-medium schools, as well as the family receiving up to 6,400 rupees ($86.45) per month, was too much for them to resist. However, with the girls’ lives ruined, and the families receiving no money, the parents are now involved in a tough battle to get their daughters back. The anger of the parents is targeted against the traffickers who made false promises and caused the minors to live a hellish life.

“Though I have slender arms, I am strong enough to knock Ram Bahadur Tithung [a trafficker] down,” said Gopal B.K. of Simpani, Makwanpur from Nepal, who was at the Lucknow High Court on July 7, to claim custody of his daughter.

“Who wouldn’t send their daughters to anywhere in the world when parents are convinced that the girls’ future would be bright?” laments Purna Bahadur Thapa, a resident of Janakpur whose attractive daughter is one among the many Nepali girls trafficked to the Great Roman Circus and exploited there. “He [trafficker Lal Bahadur Praja] used to come every day asking for my daughter who was then studying in Grade 6.”

Ram Bahadur and Lal Bahadur, along with Krishna Bahadur Moktan alias Kittha and Babulal – all from Makwanpur district – are allegedly involved in trafficking Nepali girls, including their own daughters – to Indian circuses.

When Gopal, a tractor driver, found out that his daughter and other minors were being exploited in India, he, with the help of Janak Bahadur Lama, whose daughter was in the same circus, tried to trap and assault Ram Bahadur. “But he managed to escape that time,” says Gopal, adding that they would “make it a success” this time.

Janak rants and raves: "Because of Ram Bahadur, I am in India for one month. I was never assaulted by anyone before, but I was admitted to the hospital after Raza’s henchmen attacked me with sharp weapons when I was there to get my daughter back. I won’t spare him." The parents of the poor girls said the brokers have built new houses with the money they acquired by trafficking girls to India.

The parents’ ire is mainly due to the government’s lethargic response to the problem. A full month after the despicable incident occurred in India, the Nepal government has not arrested the traffickers yet, fueling more dissatisfaction among the victims and their parents. Nepal’s governmental role will be crucial in rehabilitating the Nepali girls, and joining hands with the BBA who has declared that their focus for the next year will be to rescue and rehabilitate Nepali girls exploited and abused in Indian circuses.

(The names of the circus girls and their families have been changed for their privacy and protection)