In March 2020, when the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed, 21-year-old Haseena Khatun (name changed), from Majgama village of Bihar’s eastern Kishanganj district married Afaque Alam.

A week later, in spite of the lockdown, they moved over 1,600 km northwest to Chandigarh in a private vehicle. “I started doing flesh trade against my consent to protect my life,” said Khatun, in a statement registered at Kishanganj district’s Kochadhaman police station on August 25, 2022. After the wedding, her husband behaved well for a month and then forced her into flesh trade. When she refused, Alam beat her up, and once brandished a knife threatening to kill her if she resisted, she told IndiaSpend.

“Every day, he used to force me to do the flesh trade after intoxicating me [with alcohol]. When we [wife and husband] were having sex, my husband made a video of it. He has sent the video to my family members.”

After three months, she met a man from her village, Saddam (he uses one name), in Chandigarh’s Manimajra, who helped her escape after hearing her story, she said. She has now returned home.

Locals in Kishanganj say the problem of trafficking is endemic and women from poor families are the most frequent targets. A survey in 2008 in 19 districts, including Kishanganj, had found 683 cases of trafficking, of which 585 were girls and women while 98 were boys. “Thirty-three of these boys were below the age of 13,” the survey by non-profit Bhoomika Vihar noted.

“Seemanchal is the hub of women trafficking,” said Shilpi Singh, a social activist and head of Bhoomika Vihar. “This region of Koshi-Mahananda is a hub of early marriage and trafficking. The trafficking increases during floods.”

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, Bihar reported 111 human trafficking cases in 2021, an increase from 75 cases in 2020. This is 5% of all cases (2,189) reported in India in 2021.


Khatun and her family’s ordeal

“He took away my daughter after getting married to her,” said 50-year-old Kalimuddin, Khatun’s father. Alam would abuse him, threaten to take away Khatun’s mother and to kill the family, added Kalimuddin, who is a labourer, and father of seven.

Kalimuddin said he came to know about what his daughter was going through when a video of her engaged in sex went viral. “We and people in our village were deeply troubled after seeing the video.”

After Khatun returned home, Alam telephoned her and asked her to send another woman to take her place. Khatun told him to come to the village and take one with him. When he reached the village on August 24, 2022, villagers caught him, and took him to Kochadhaman police station.

Alam told IndiaSpend that he was part of a group, including two men named Mithun [whose last name is unknown] and Mohammad Kalam, that takes women from Kishanganj district and forces them into the flesh trade. He said he has four “wives” who are all in the flesh trade, and that he had forced 50 women from the district into prostitution in Chandigarh.

He has been booked under the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act. IndiaSpend also spoke to three other women who were trafficked or to their families if they have gone missing.

Suman Kumar, the Station House Officer of Kochadhaman police station, where Khatun’s case is registered, told IndiaSpend that a special investigation team has been formed under the sub-divisional police officer of Kishanganj to investigate the case. The sub-divisional police officer, Anwar Javed Ansari, did not wish to speak to IndiaSpend about the progress of his investigation.

Microcosm of a pan-India problem

Across India, in 2021, the National Crime Records Bureau recorded 2,189 cases of human trafficking, an increase from 1,714 cases in 2020. Across the 2,189 cases in 2021, 6,533 people were trafficked, of which 4,062 were female and 2,471 were male. Telangana (347), Maharashtra (320) and Assam (203) were the states with the most trafficking cases.

According to the Niti Aayog, Kishanganj, whose population has 67% Muslims, is the poorest among Bihar’s 38 districts. About 65% of the district lives below the poverty line. The district falls under the region called “Seemanchal”, bordering West Bengal and Nepal.

Trafficking in people is rampant in the area, said Singh of Bhoomika Vihar, who has been working on women’s issues, including trafficking, for the past two decades. Singh said she has personally rescued around 275 women from trafficking in the Seemanchal region.

On July 28, 2022, Nasik Nadir, a local leader who was recently elected to the Zilla Parishad, wrote to the Superintendent of Police of Kishanganj, Inamul Haque, accusing a man named Mohd Kalam of trafficking in women. He said that trafficking has been an issue in the district, and when he was contesting in the civic elections, several families came to him with complaints about missing women, and that he has been raising the issue repeatedly.

“For the last 20 years, we have been hearing the name of Kalam in connection with disappearing women,” Nadir told IndiaSpend. “We know that those men make sexual relationships with the women and make videos of them. Then, the men force the women to get involved in sex work by blackmailing them through the videos.”

He accused Kalam of trafficking around 500 women to Chandigarh, but says no one raises a voice against him. “No FIR [First Information Report] was lodged at any police station…He is being given political protection,” he said, asking for the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe into the issue.

On political protection, Kochadhaman Member of Legislative Assembly Izhar Asfi said: “Who is giving political protection to him, I don’t know. Nab him if he is really involved in this after a probe. But he should be genuinely involved in this.” On the issue of tracking of women in the constituency, he said that no one had come to him with a complaint but that if there is such an issue, “the administration should probe the matter and take action to stop it.”

When IndiaSpend asked Haque, the police superintendent about the trafficking in women, he said he was unaware of the problem and that no complaint had been filed in this regard. “Women go missing as they elope for love…Later, they are recovered. No such issue of (trafficking) came into our cognisance. If somebody is a well-wisher to those poor families, he should bring the family to the police station.” He dismissed the letter Nadir had written to him saying it was written because of “personal rivalry.”

Meanwhile, Khatun, relieved to have escaped the flesh trade, keeps herself busy with housework. But she is worried about her future, and is looking for a job so that she can sustain herself, she said. “It will be good if I get any government job.”

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.