IN MID DECEMBER of 2011, Agnes Kharshiing received information that a 16-year-old girl had run away from Radhamadhab Road—a red-light area in Assam’s Silchar town—and returned to her home in Shillong. Kharshiing, who had been working for women’s rights for about six years, decided to seek the girl out. She found her in a Shillong slum, where the survivor was living with one of her siblings. She told Kharshiing about the horrific three years she had spent in Silchar—she had been sexually exploited, and put through physical and mental torture by clients, brothel owners and police officers. She also told Kharshiing of how common the trafficking of minors was in Radhamadhab Road.
Soon after, Kharshiing resolved to organise a rescue mission to Radhamadhab Road, and asked the girl if she would accompany her. The survivor agreed. The red-light area—the biggest in the Northeast by most accounts—is run from a narrow lane inside a quieter part of Silchar’s main market, in the heart of the town. The buildings and shanties on each side of the lane, along with a few smaller houses along connected alleys, are mostly brothels. There are roughly 70 such places, each of which can have up to 20 girls. Every house has an owner known as a “madam,” or “malkin,” who procures girls from traffickers and pays off the local police. The houses are guarded by well-built women. Outside, girls sit on stools waiting for customers.
Kharshiing contacted Anil Kumar Jha, who was then an additional director general of police in Assam, to help organise the mission. Jha was reluctant at first. “He said, ‘Why do you want to go there? It’s a dangerous area,’” Kharshiing told me over the phone last August. “‘They will attack us with daus’”—large Assamese knives. But the activist was adamant and managed to persuade the officer to offer help. (When I called Jha last December, he recalled providing assistance for the rescue, but did not comment on Kharshiing’s recollection of his initial reaction.)
On 20 January 2012, after a month of planning, Kharshiing and the girl who had escaped Silchar accompanied about ten personnel of the Assam and Meghalaya police to Radhamadhab Road. During the raid, which lasted about two hours, they searched about three or four brothels, including the one from which the survivor had escaped. The girl even showed Kharshiing the room she once lived in. “It was dingy,” Kharshiing recalled. “There was a picture of Jesus there.” Most of the lane lay dark and deserted, and the raid was prolonged due to the fact that nobody could be found. One girl, who had been trafficked from Shillong as a minor and knew Kharshiing, ran out of one of the brothels to the rescuers as she heard the survivor’s voice. She had spent years in the same brothel that the survivor had escaped from. The girl later told Kharshiing that the brothel owner had instructed the girls to hide prior to the raid, but she had decided against it.
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Sarita Santoshini is an independent journalist based in Assam, reporting on human rights, development and gender issues.