Sucharita Sengupta, Calcutta Research Group. The narrative she sent to Refugee Watch Online is based on interviews conducted at various prisons in West Bengal as part of her work on the Bengal-Bangladesh Borderland, especially on Bangladeshi women who have been incarcerated in various prisons of West Bengal, India. [She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com]
Her name is Saukina Begum and she hails from Gopalganj district of Bangladesh. I met her in Alipore Correctional Home for Women, in Kolkata. Dressed shabbily and looking extremely nervous she asked “Are you a lawyer? Can you please help me in my case so that I get released? I did not know I would land up in prison after coming to India”. It took me some time to calm her and explain that the purpose of my visit was to give an ear to her and others who have similarly crossed the Bengal-Bangladesh Border to migrate from Bangladesh to India and have eventually got incarcerated in charge of crossing the border illegally, without having valid documents. With tears in her eyes and a trembling voice Saukina narrated her journey from home to India.
Belonging to a family of four brothers and two sisters with her father being the only earning member of the family, Saukina was used to hardships from a very tender age. Her father Siraj Mollah was a poor farmer in Gopalganj. She was regularly beaten up and tortured by her stepmother till she fled one day. “A kind owner of a garments factory saved me and gave me shelter in his home in Dhaka, where I started working as a domestic aid. Gradually I learnt stitching and work of embroidery and soon got a job in the shop of her owner. There I met Sabuj Miyan, who used to regularly visit the shop. He was very nice to me and soon we became good friends. He also was a frequent visitor to India and told me about his flourishing business of garments there. He used to sell clothes made in Bangladesh in India. One day he took me to his home and asked me whether I would marry him and settle with him in Mumbai, India. He also told me that in India I would be paid double for the work that I was doing here. It was a very tempting offer for me. We got married; I left my work in Dhaka and started with him for India having no clue about the formalities needed to cross the border. I thought Sabuj would know everything since he was a regular there and thus made the gravest mistake of my life. We crossed the Benapole border through Bongaon. Once in India, we boarded a train towards Mumbai…” (she can‘t recall from which station) and it was there when for the first time she became suspicious of the place where she was being taken to. I asked her the reason – “…I can’t explain but I just guessed that something was not quite right. It was 12 at night and we were joined by some more girls and two Indian men in the train. From their conversations I realized that we were being taken to a brothel in Mumbai. I was shocked and terrified. I also came to know that Sabuj had lied to me all along. He never had any business of garments and he already has a wife and two children in Mumbai. I do not know what his real business is but from their conversations understood that he regularly brings girls from Bangladesh to India and sell them to brothels. I started yelling and crying but could not find a way to escape. Help arrived in the form of police when the whole group was caught and arrested in one of the stations. I told them everything but still have been booked under the 14(a) Foreigners act. Sabuj through his influences got himself released after shelling out Rs 50,000 as bail fee but my case still remains pending. I do not know when I would be released from here. However, I do feel it was a blessing that I was caught by the police before I was sold off to a brothel. Here I still have hopes of freedom but I do not know what I would do even if I get released. Sabuj and his friends are very angry on me because I have exposed them to the police and have talked about them in Court. I have also told in Court that Sabuj is my husband and he has brought me here. Now they have threatened me of dire consequences…” her voice trails off.
Saukina was caught on 13 April 2013 and her case was tried in Basirhat Police Station. During the time of this interview she had already spent a year and almost seven months in jail but till now her charge sheet was due because her case partners were not making their appearances in the court. Case partners are the persons with whom Saukina was caught by the police. The norm is all persons caught together should be produced together in court for trial and even if one person from the group does not appear on the day when they have been summoned for trial, the case loses its merit and gets deferred. What happens often in cases like Saukina‘s is that the middle men or traffickers easily get themselves released either by paying hefty amounts or through connections, and once they are out of the police custody they generally return back to Bangladesh or go under cover deliberately, making themselves untraceable. Cases therefore remain pending causing many women like Saukina to languish relentlessly in prisons. ‘Freedom’ for them remains just as a word- as a notion and forever elusive- devoid of any meaning.