How 2 Tribal Women Fled Debt Bondage, Rape Amid Lockdown in B’luru

They couldn’t seek help from anyone since they spoke only Santali, a tribal language.

Updated
India
4 min read
Throughout this ordeal, they couldn’t seek help from anyone since they spoke only Santali, a tribal language.
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Two women from Jharkhand escaped from bonded labour in Bengaluru after being locked up for seven months, where one of them was also raped. But, just days after they found their freedom, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown. Unable to get help, they lived in a forest for a few days, and the only person who offered them shelter tried to molest them.

Throughout this ordeal, they couldn’t seek help from anyone since they spoke only Santali, a tribal language.

The two women spent over a month without help before coming across someone who spoke their language, which is when they shared their story of the escape, including how one of them was raped, twice.

Three men who – two who raped her and one who made tried to molest them – are now in police custody. However, the social workers who helped them are still fighting as the police or the labour department have not conducted any raids to rescue the other bonded labourers.

The Chance Meeting

On 5 May, when Nicolas Murmu, a migrant labourer from Jharkhand, met these two women outside the Kumbalgodu police station, he didn’t realise he was going to become the truth-teller for a series of crimes these women had had to endure.

Both women, who were in their late 20s and mothers of two children each, were brought from Dumka district in Jharkhand to Delhi by a man named Dhamaru. Then, they were handed over to unknown people who brought them to Bengaluru in October 2019.

Since then, the two have been working at a chemical factory in Kumbalgodu, on the outskirts of Bengaluru city, producing mosquito repellents.

After being on the road since their escape, they went to the Kumbalgodu police station to apply for a train ticket. It was while asking around for help that they found Murmu, who spoke their language.

The Ordeal During Lockdown

They told Murmu that the contractor promised them a salary of Rs 9,000 per month. But, in the seven months they worked there, they were paid only Rs 1,200. Without getting a paycheck and unable to take the harassment, both women escaped from the factory along with their kids.

Realising that they would not get any help during the lockdown, they went to the forest area in Kumbalgodu. They ate whatever food they could scavenge and survived by begging. It was during one of these days that a man came forward to help them.

In the initial days, the man helping the two women offered them food, but as the days passed, his behaviour changed.
In the initial days, the man helping the two women offered them food, but as the days passed, his behaviour changed.
(Illustration: Erum Gaur/The Quint)

In the FIR, a copy of which is available with The Quint, they identified the person as Asgar Ali, a building contractor. He took them to an under-construction building in the area and gave them shelter.

In the initial days, he offered them food, but as the days passed, his behaviour changed. He began making sexual advances towards them, and they decided to leave. They met Murmu a few days later.

After the meeting the two women, on 5 May, Murmu spoke to some of his acquaintances in Jharkhand for help. Although there was no response initially, after a Jharkhand-based activist tweeted about their story, an NGO, Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), took up the case and rescued the two women.

The Revelation of Rape

The NGO reported the case to the police and an FIR was registered against Ali. During the investigation, they were taken to the factory as well. At the factory, one of the women, a 27-year-old, told police that they had tried to escape earlier as well, but were caught.

In the police complaint, she said that they made their first attempt to leave in January. They went as far as the Bengaluru central railway station, but were tracked down by the henchmen of their supervisor, Sanjeev.

The women were brought back to the factory and locked up inside a room. The 27-year-old said that, after that, Sajeev asked two other men – Sanjay and Kiran – who work at the factory, to rape her. They raped her twice in two days, she said in the complaint.

The Incomplete Investigation

So far, police have arrested Sanjay, Kiran and Ali for their involvement in the case. The supervisor, Sanjeev, is still at large.

According to activists, although these three men have been arrested on charges of sexual assault and under the SC/ST Atrocities (Prevention) Act, no case has been registered against the factory owner for exploiting bonded labour.

Despite clear evidence of bonded labour, the police or labour department has not raided the factory to rescue the other workers.

“There were hundreds of other workers at the factory the day we, and the police, visited their. But, when she revealed the details of rape, the focus shifted to getting the two men arrested. Despite our requests, the authorities haven’t conducted any raids on the establishment,” Mallige Sirimane, an activist who helped rescue the two women, told The Quint.

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