‘Glass of beer in hand, he interviewed each girl to be hired for his house’

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Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem

A SERIES ON TRUE EXPERIENCES
TRAFFICKING

Hasina KharbihTHREATENING CALLS are not unusual in my line of work but it got really serious in 2008. In that year, recruitment agencies hiring young women had sprung up overnight all across the Northeast. They offered jobs in private airlines, the hotel industry and as tour operators. Young women who had just completed school were interviewed in closed hotel rooms and promised free education and free jobs abroad. We found that the agencies were looking for all the things that a modelling agency would look for, except that these were not modelling agencies. Parents started telling us about daughters who had gone away for jobs never to return; those who did, said they were put to work in massage parlours and forced into prostitution.

The calls started as I began to dig deeper into what was going on. Threats from a man and a woman — each time from a different phone. Stop investigating the recruitment agencies, especially the one from Goa, or face consequences. “Hello Hasina, you are in a restaurant right now. You are wearing such and such dress. You are sitting with so many people” — they knew my whereabouts. It continued for weeks. I filed an FIR, mentioning the phone numbers and the kind of threats I was getting. That was September 2008.

I went to the police station after a fortnight to know what they had found out. They told me that the holder of the phone number I had given them had come to take anticipatory bail. In Meghalaya, anticipatory bail is given by the district council in tribal versus tribal cases. Not in criminal cases. I also found out that the caller was one of the girls recruited by a private airline and was working in a bungalow in Goa.

The investigating officer was transferred within 15 days. The second investigating officer took medical leave for two months. This continued for a year. The chargesheet was never filed. Later, a young girl from Meghalaya was arrested at Bengaluru airport for drug trafficking. We were contacted by the Bengaluru Police and the media to check if she was a victim of human trafficking. Some girls who had escaped from Goa had given us a list. We found she was on that list along with the woman who got the anticipatory bail and was her friend. The escapees had told us how the final interview takes place in the boss’ bungalow in Mumbai. Glass of beer in hand, he would interview each girl to be hired to work in his house and his airline. The girls organise many parties in his bungalow, take care of the guests and also act as personal escorts.

When I told the media this, I was charged with defamation against the woman caller and an arrest warrant was issued with barely time to get bail.

In May 2009, I was assaulted outside the court in Shillong. Caught in traffic, late for a hearing, I walked to the district court premises. When crossing the busy road to get to the entrance, I was pushed dangerously close to the trucks passing by. One guy, two girls and the woman from Goa, who had been threatening me, followed me inside pushing, abusing. The woman scratched my arm. Realising that I’m unsafe, I got away and called the police. File an FIR, they said. But the police cannot arrest anyone inside the court premises, so that didn’t happen either. Thirty minutes later, a journalist informed me the same woman was now holding a press conference claiming I had tried to strangle her. The next day, the local newspapers ran a headline “Human rights defender Hasina Kharbih assaults girl”. I didn’t know what to do. At one point in the press conference she described herself as a pilot but nobody once thought to ask her what she meant.

The state government said I had a problem with the woman because I was going through a divorce. The special investigation they conducted came to nought.

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