Two young men loiter in a remote village at night. Villagers, suspecting them to be child-traffickers, catch them and instead of calling the police, beat them to death. A gut-wrenching video of the victims sends shivers down our spine and we rise to condemn the act… without for once realising our own tiny complicity in their bestial lynching.
First, however, a little history.
Over the many millennia of its civilization, India has had a strange relationship with servitude. While the world knows and criticises directly slavery, the most famous being that of Africans in North America, India evolved a more nuanced method.
The oldest form of servitude and often slavery is the caste system. Though everyone was trapped in the prison of their castes, the lower castes – especially those considered out of it, the Dalits - had it worse. Mostly doing the bidding of the upper castes without complaint, their servitude was peppered with regular doses of humiliation and torture.
With time, however, in India we evolved finer forms of enforced servitude like indentured or bonded labourers, child labour, forced marriage, forced begging etc.
The Walk Free Foundation, an organisation that attempts to end modern slavery and human trafficking, noted in a 2016 report that globally 46 million peoples were enslaved in some form or the other, of which 18.3 million or 40% of the total world’s slavery was in India.
Of these, the worst forms of slavery have to do with children, be it those forced to beg on the streets (though Slumdog Millionaire was criticised for ‘poverty porn’, they were right about forced child beggars), or those involving children in homes forced to do housework with little food or money.
Millions of rich and middle class households in India, despite laws against it, continue to deploy child labour without a milligram of guilt. Instead, they are full of pride for “helping the children and their poor families”. Go to any big metropolis and you will find children employed in thousands upon thousands of homes. In smaller towns, it’s equally – if not more – rampant. In Assam where this incident took place, it is widely prevalent.
Little children, sometimes as small as five or six years old, are separated from their parents, surroundings and taken into cities that are not just alien geographically, but also culturally and socially.
Thus a tribal kid from Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh would one fine day find herself in the bustling metropolis of Delhi, in the house of a middle class family, being asked to take care of the memsaheb’s children and help her and the maids in household work.
This child is literally trapped. She has no way of going anywhere or even asking for help since she does not know the local language. Often times, such children, have been raped or sexually molested by the men, and even women – not to mention rampant physical torture and abuse - in the houses they have been kept. Most of these kids are either caught through child trafficking or through agents who cajole the tribal with promises of a bright future for their wards.
Of course there are the saccharine versions of this. Families living in cities bring a child from a poor family in their village into the city. Sometimes, these families treat the kid well, educating him or her along with their own kids while also helping the family back home financially. However, the basic idea remains the same – they are there to help in the household work of the family.
Till a few years ago, child trafficking was mostly done from the tribal areas in the heart of India. The tribal belts of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh are replete with stories of children who have eitherbeen kidnapped and thus lost, or who were cajoled by agents into working in the city so they could feed their poor families back home. And this does not include those children or teens kidnapped and sold into prostitution.
According to National Crime Records Bureau there have been many cases where children just disappear overnight, as many as one every eight minutes.
In the 21st century, with the rise of India’s population, the demand for ‘child labour’, has grown. The supply however, has not risen to fulfil it. This is where the trafficking gangs have made a windfall.
There are well financed, well oiled, well connected gangs of child traffickers and agents with agent distributors in urban centres spread across the country who have grown to fill this demand. Many of these gangs have political connections and almost invariably, the police and administration in the areas they operate in, know about it. But either because of political pressure or protection money paid to them, they turn a blind eye to the menace.
Which brings us to the second point – how the police and administration treat the lower castes, tribals, poor and dispossessed. According to a recent report titled ‘Status of Policing in India 2018’ released by NGO Common Cause and Lokniti Programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), upper-caste Hindus fear the police the least and have the most favourable opinion of them. But as we go down the social, caste and economic hierarchy, the fear multiplies.
Why is it so? In the case of child trafficking from rural and tribal areas, when the families of kidnapped children have approached the police or administration, they have either been shooed away or told that little could be done.
Historically, Tribals, Dalits, the lower castes – especially if they are unlettered - have often been treated like non-citizens without rights by the state and its administrative wings. The poor and the downtrodden that actually need them the most, are often denied these services completely.
The result is the fear of the police and administration. The result is that the poor, often illiterate villager or tribal, feel helpless and angry when something like child trafficking happens to them. This anger leads to a fear of the outsider and rumours fuel it to create a psychosis.
Thus, what upper and middle class hears merely as brutality of the tribal, the uneducated or the uncouth often masks a real fear on the ground which continues to remain unaddressed.
Last year, seven people were lynched by tribals in Jharkhand on similar suspicion after a WhatsApp message spread fear of child traffickers. In the urban metropolis of Chennai, two people were lynched in May and total of five people in Tamil Nadu in April-May based on similar rumours.
In Assam itself, there have been cases this year of similar lynching which did not make national headlines because those lynched were either not from the powerful classes and more importantly, because there was no video recording of the same.
The noise being made all over India over this current lynching in Assam is heartening. But let us also acknowledge our own indirect complicity in it. Let us also be realistic to understand that unless we get to the root of the problem, overhaul not just our administration and policing, but our very mind-sets and behaviours, these lynchings are unlikely to stop and someday, you and I – instead being outraged self-righteous onlookers - might find ourselves in the middle as lynched victims.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a writer based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)