Twenty-four year old Rokeya describes how she fought her way to bring justice to the man who trafficked her, after 3.5 years.
On first meeting Rokeya (name changed for confidentiality reasons) you wouldn’t take her for a fighter. She comes across as a shy, soft-spoken person. She is 24 years old now, stays in a village in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal with her husband and her little kid. She is a member of a group called Utthan which fights for rights and access to justice for survivors of trafficking. Her own story of how she brought her trafficker to justice in 3.5 years is inspiring for many.
In early 2015 she was residing in Delhi with her husband, and worked as a domestic help, while her husband worked as a gardener. However, unable to make ends meet, they decided to travel to Mumbai and find work there. In this decision making, Firoz, a person they had been introduced via a neighbor was instrumental. He lived in Mumbai and met them once they arrived there. On the second day, he cleverly separated Rokeya from her husband, made Rokeya buy clothes using his own money so that she can create a good first impression and find some good work, and thus created a situation of debt. He ultimately made Rokeya’s husband go back to their village in West Bengal to get the money to repay the debt, and meanwhile pushed Rokeya into commercial sexual exploitation, keeping her captive at his own house, and taking all the money that clients would pay her.
Rokeya was found by in February 2015 by the police in front of a hotel where Firoz had taken her to meet a client. The police knew about his felonious crimes and arrested him after conducting a sting operation on Rokeya. Her initial statement to the police ensured that an FIR was registered against Firoz on counts of abduction, conspiracy, human trafficking, procuring a person for exploitation, exploiting a trafficked person, and living on the earning from the commercial sexual exploitation of a person. This led to him being kept in police custody for the length of the entire trial, and, presumably, saving many other women from being victimised by him.
After being rescued, Rokeya had to stay in two different shelter homes for 12 months, one in Pune, and one in West Bengal before she came back home and eventually remarried. It was in early 2018, close to 2 years after she had come back home, that she received the summons of going to Pune and deposing as one of the prime witnesses in the case against Firoz. She was then focused on raising a family – yet she wanted to go to Pune. She knew that the battle will be difficult, but she wanted justice. Incidentally, the NGO that was facilitating and following up with her case in Pune got her in touch with a lawyer in Kolkata who then helped her to apply to the Pune court. It essentially meant that she could come to Barasat court – which was four hours away – and give her witness over a video call.
While the technology of video conferencing took care of the travel part, she had to fight the court battle all the same. It took numerous visits to Barasat court, hours of waiting over the next one year – many times due to technical faults which caused adjournments, unavailability of the officials in the court, and each time she had to go back home without any result. When she talks about her experience she says - “There were a total of 4 to 5 hearings, but I had to wait a lot, at times it got very boring – sitting there, waiting, nothing happening. So frustrating. It felt good to tell the judge what had happened – I made sure it was clear and spoke the entire truth in front of everyone!”
The physical distance was a layer of safety – she didn’t have to face Firoz in person again. However, during the second day of deposition, she was to identify the accused – facing him after so long, and some threatening gestures made by him left her deeply unsettled and disturbed from the grueling long session. The lawyer of the accused, Advocate Kalpana Waskar, didn’t make things any easier for her either, “She kept asking me what Firoz made me do, repeatedly kept asking me ‘bad’ question. I kept answering her questions and told her everything.” As she talked about the hearings, her eyes shone with the certain firmness and pride – she had succeeded, not only in the legal battle to punish Firoz but also in battling the inner stigma, the trauma, and shame that Advocate Waskar wanted her to succumb to.
The judgment document lists how much her testimony strengthened the case. All her effort to make her statements clear, not giving up, to keep repeating the same incidents over and over again, being mindful of leaving no gaps and inconsistencies had paid off. The order document pretty much dissected her statements more than that of any other witness, discussing how well it was given, why it couldn’t have been false testimony, why her statement must be relied on.
On December 5, 2018, Justice H.C. Shinde delivered the verdict in the Dindoshi court, – Firoz has been sentenced to 5 years of rigorous imprisonment and has to pay a fine of Rs 3000 to the court. There were three people Rokeya had first identified during the FIR. The two other accused were never arrested, neither charge sheeted, one of them being her ex-husband. She was never even told why no one other than Firoz was arrested.
Talking about the verdict, she seemed uncertain, “I wanted a longer punishment for what he did, I wanted him to go to jail for 10 years, at least. But they only sent him to jail for 5 years.” She pauses, before adding, “But then, he had already stayed in jail for three years of trial, I’m sure he won’t go back to his old ways, and no one else will suffer in his hands.”
She reflects how many people stood by her as she fought her battle – the A.P.P in Dindoshi court, the social worker, the lawyer from Kolkata who supported her in giving her testimony. Her husband, who accompanied her the first time she went to Barasat Court. A friend from Utthan – Moumita, who kept her company during the long hours of waiting and the hearings, bolstering her courage, encouraging her, strengthening her.
So, what’s next? “I had initially thought about appeal – I am still unsure about it, it’ll involve going there, taking some steps. I haven’t taken a decision yet. I’ll speak with my social worker, see what he says. But I want to apply for victim compensation now. To all those who are still fighting such legal battled against their traffickers – keep up your courage. I fully believe that if someone has committed a crime, they will get punished, but you mustn’t lose patience. Patience is key; don’t give up your fight.” She adds, “I’d like to ask all lawyers and judges to never support traffickers – you must challenge such injustice and crime, how can you ever support them? Please support the women, those victimized by these people, believe them – help them get justice.”
Rokeya had started off to change her life, her family’s life. Today, she is an example of courage and strength. Hers is one of the few cases in India, where the trafficker has been convicted based on the deposition of the survivor over video conferencing. This case has set new precedence, and hopefully, changes the way survivors participate in the delivery of justice.
Pompi Banerjee is a trained psychologist and a human rights activist.