Tuesday, 29 November 2016

In the Land of Abolitionists - Forbesganj (Bihar)

For about ten days now I have been in Forbesganj, a small town on the Indo-Nepal border, in Bihar. It is beautiful and very peaceful. But behind this serenity, lies the history of an important abolitionist movement. This small town is where abolitionist and feminist organiser Ruchira Gupta started her work in 2002 - to end trafficking for sexual exploitation. She founded Apne Aap Women Worldwide with this aim, which began to work with the Nat community in Forbesganj, a community which suffered (and still does) from inter-generational prostitution. Ruchira realised that it was not only poverty but the lack of choices for people in this community which pushed them towards prostitution and families lived off the sexual exploitation of their women as their men brought their own women customers.

A movement can bring results only when there are leaders from the community, is what Ruchira has always emphasized. And in Apne Aap, that is what she has tried to do all these years with the support of her fellow abolitionist Tinku Khanna. In this photoessay, I try to paint a picture of beautiful Forbesganj and its fiery abolitionists.

Ruchira's family home in the Jagdish Mill campus at Forbesganj which has been converted into an Apne Aap centre. 

The beautiful family house of the Guptas

The beautiful family house of the Guptas that has been converted into Apne Aap guest house :)

The Apne Aap office within the campus

Outside the gates

This is Meena. She used to live with her grandmother in Bhutan.When she was a little girl, some men sold her and sent her off to Katihar. She stayed at a brothel there for some time, gave birth to a girl, but managed to escape and flee to Forbesganj. She couldn't bring her infant daughter with her though. It was much later that she rescued her daughter from the brothel, the daughter now a young girl, with the help of Apne Aap activists and the police. Her story has been well documented in a short film by Lucy Lui and The Sibbs (Negan Raney Aarons and Colin Keith Gray). This story has also been captured in The Town of Love by Norwegian writer Anne Ostby. For the last several years now, as an Apne Aap activist, Meena has been mobilising girls from vulnerable communities in Forbesganj to attend school and the Apne Aap community centre at Uttari Rampur. Meena has put around 12 - 13 traffickers from Forbesganj and Katihar behind bars till date with the support of other Apne Aap activists and the police.  

This is Fatima. A human rights defender with Apne Aap. She is from the Nat community, where girls are subjected to inter-generation prostitution as a form of livelihood. "I was married at the age of nine," she tells me, "When I had no idea what marriage is or what a husband is. I saw that my mother-in-law used to buy girls and put them into prostitution. A few of my sisters-in-law were also into prostitution. But I saw how they suffered and lived in fear of my mother-in-law. I didn't like it, and I helped them escape. I have been beaten up harshly every time I helped a girl escape. My mother-in-law and husband were very crude. Once, my mother-in-law bought a girl at Rs 1,00,000 and I helped that girl flee. That was when she told my husband to put me into prostitution. She said, 'Isko dhande mein dalo, issi se paisa nikalo' (put her in the trade and get money out of her). But it was when they put a little girl called Afsana into prostitution, my blood boiled. I was very fond of Afsana and would never part with her. My mother-in-law asked me to go home for a few days. And I was so excited because they never let me go home. When I came back, Afsana clung to me and cried that she has been put into prostitution. That was it. I rebelled against my family!" Fatima has so far played an important role in putting several traffickers in Forbesganj behind the bars, including the most dreaded Gainul. She has been with Apne Aap since 2005. She tells me that today, in the Nat family in Forbesganj, only those who have been in prostitution from before are still in it, no girl from the family is anymore put into prostitution, nor is any girl bought by a Nat family to be prostituted. People like her and Meena and the other Apne Aap activists in Forbesganj have a huge role to play in this.  

This is Kalam. He is an Apne Aap activist and is from the Nat community. "We were a nomadic community," he tells me. "We didn't own land and used to travel from one place to another. Often the eldest daughter of the family was prostituted and the other girls were groomed for marriage. So the daughters who were groomed for marriage were never put into prostitution." Kalam, like Fatima, struggled within his family and the community to end the custom of inter-generation prostitution. Today, he is a role model for the boys of his community. He is a lawyer and encourage community members not to groom boys for pimping their own women. He has also played an important role in putting traffickers behind the bars, and along with Fatima, Meena, Tinku and Ruchira conducted several rescue operations in and around Forbesganj.  

In the middle of our documentation exercise at the Apne Aap Forbesganj office, social activist and livelihood design expert Samhita Barooah interacts with Kalam, as he tells us his story. Kalam told us that today, out of the total 50  households of Nat community in Forbesganj, only 10 are into prostitution.   

I pose with the human rights defenders Fatima and Meena and Apne Aap social worker Sanju:)

Now, Forbesganj is a small town and has this quaint little railway station. The whole set up is like, what my friend Samhita (in the picture) says, Malgudi Days.    

This pretty woman agreed to pose for me :) And if you look at the right hand side of the photograph, you will see Madhubani paintings on the wall of the station, a project that Apne Aap had undertaken in 2012 - 2013. 

This is the market place right next to the railway station. On tho other side of the railway station is the Apne Aap centre at the Jagdish Mill campus.

A pretty shop right where the market ended. Fascinating stuff, and such awesome prices!
We walked past the market and came to this beautiful spot. Sultanpukhor, Forbesganj.

This is right next to Sultanpukhor. The British used this whole geographical area, which is now Forbesganj, for indigo cultivation. Forbes, a British administrator, was sent to this place to oversee the cultivation. What you see in the picture is Forbes's house, where some other family has moved in long long ago. Forbesganj is named after Forbes. And this is where Forbes lived.

Next to Sultanpukhor is this little shop where we rested for a while and chatted up with the owners.

While returning from Sultanpukhor, we came across this church that was established in 1873.

As we walked around, we came across a few old buildings like this one. Should be a contemporary of the Jagdish Mill campus.

This is the beautiful Kothi Hat area by the canal. One can take a long walk here and also cut across the golden paddy fields.

A walk by the canal at Kothi Hat. The canal is on one side and gorgeous golden paddy fields on the other.

We met a few beautiful and friendly women in the paddy fields. They told us that they are daily wage labourers and work in the 'zamindar's land'. They told us that they are paid Rs 50 per day while for the same work the men are paid Rs 200. 

Street food at Forbesganj. But one should also try out Restaurant Jyoti, which is not very far from the railway station, on the side of the Jagdish Mill Campus. They really serve good food. 

A family run shop right in front of Jagdish Mill campus. One can get everything here from milk to pulses to toiletries.

Now that we are in Forbesganj, of course we have to make a trip to Nepal. This gate is at Jogbani, the last point in India, after which there is a tiny patch of no man's land, and then Birat Nagar in Nepal. In Jogabani, one can see houses where parts are both in India and Nepal. So, if the entrance opens in India, the house is in Nepal. And we also saw a few sheep grazing at no man's land. Fascinating place this is with so much hustle and bustle! Birat Nagar in Nepal is just 40 minutes away from Forbesganj.

We are finally at the local market in Birat Nagar, Nepal, which used to be the largest industrial hub of Nepal at one time. It is Nepal's second largest city and mainly a commercial centre.

Souvenirs at Birat Nagar

Note: All these photographs are in natural light. Not photoshopped :) 


  1. Thank you Piky for bringing these stories to us..reading your lines are so close to being there oneself..and much more actually to be able to see beyond the usual..keep doing the great stuff


My short story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018

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