Hidden heroes of the republic

  • Apoorva Dutt, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 25, 2015 14:26 IST

Not every Indian is free. A look at individuals who have fought, and won, battles against poverty, circumstance, censure and prejudice.

Despite India's 67 years of freedom, many of its citizens remain trapped - by poverty, circumstance, indebtedness. Often, they suffer in silence, invisible and unheard. For many, there is no chance of a happy ending.

Yet, sometimes, chance encounters offer a way out. And the hidden hero is born - a woman or man who has spent years, often decades, in hopelessness but now sees a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel and begins to fight their way towards it.

A gay man who approached the police when extorted; a woman who walked into a janta darbar to speak against a rapist father and brother; a sex worker who fought to become a beautician and a bonded labourer who finally broke free and now helps others do the same.

On Republic Day, we celebrate individuals who have fight a long and arduous battle to break their shackles, whether these be institutional or societal.

"In India, there is a cultural comfort with inequality," says Harsh Mander, director of the Centre for Equity Studies, founding member of the National Campaign for the People's Right to Information and author of, among other works, Fractured Freedom: Chronicles from India's Margins.

"We think it's inevitable that the accident of your birth will determine the rest of your life, whether it is your education, job, or whether you will get medical treatment when you are unwell."

In a society shaped by the caste system, the colonial class system and modern hierarchy of meritocracy, it's important, Mander says, to remember that one is not free or rich just because of one's hard work; and another is not trapped or poor for want of effort.

Millions in India still fight for basic freedoms - the freedom from debt and slavery, the freedom to earn a living without harassment and abuse, the freedom to love without fear.

"In our country, the mechanisms that are supposed to protect our basic rights are often dysfunctional and insensitive," says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, an NGO that works for the empowerment of women. "Not only do they not work, it is not a priority for them to work for those who need it the most - women, the elderly, Dalits, the poor, and so on."

What is really needed is a big-picture approach that goes beyond the superficial, adds legal scholar and activist Flavia Agnes. "For example, if a child is working at a tea stall, it is not enough to prosecute his employer. We have to understand: why is this child working? We need to undertake structural change before we can make more than a dent in the problem. After 67 years, isn't it time to finally move forward?"


Cry freedom
Lucknow: A rape survivor speaks up in a Janta Darbar
'I want my story to inspire other survivors'
For nine years, Priyanshi* was raped and tortured by her father and brother. When she appealed to her mother for help, Priyanshi was told not to talk about the assaults.

"My mother didn't want me to shame the family. She didn't want anyone to know what was happening in our home," says the 26-year-old.
Last year, determined not to put up with the assaults any longer, Priyanshi took her fate into her own hands and headed to chief minister Akhilesh Yadav's janta darbar or people's court to seek redress. "When I left the house for the janta darbar, I knew it would be my last day there… and that's exactly what happened," she says.

Summoning all her courage, Priyanshi told the chief minister how the rapes
had been going on since she completed Class 10. A case was filed and Priyanshi testified, describing how her father, a fitter at a railway locomotive workshop, had asked a tantrik for advice on how to get out of debt and make a lot of money. "The tantrik visited our home and told my father that his problems would go away if he had sex with his daughter," she says.

"It started with him and then my elder brother began to rape me too."
On December 8, Priyanshi's father, mother and elder brother were sentenced to 10 years in prison.

"My relatives don't speak to me. My younger brother, who lives with my grandparents, blames me for sending our parents to jail. They all feel that I shouldn't have raised my voice," she says. "But I am glad I did it."

Priyanshi now supports herself by working in a beauty parlour, and lives at a NGO-run shelter home.

What has kept her going, and still does, she says, is the thought that her case can offer hope to some of the thousands of girls who suffer silently within their homes just as she did.

"I want to open my own beauty parlour, train other girls like me, and give them jobs and a chance to build their own lives," she says. "In the meanwhile, I want others to hear about my story and realise that they don't need to bear abuse within the family silently."
Richa Srivastava

Bengaluru: A one-time bonded labourer helps others break free
'I lost 22 years. Now I help others reclaim their lives'
P K Gangadharappa still remembers how happy he was when his wife told him she was pregnant with their second child.

He was 28, with a small wood trading business in Potanhalli, a village near Bengaluru. And he was looking forward to expanding his family.

Gangadharappa's wife gave birth at home, and was left with a septic wound. As he took her from hospital to hospital, trying to save her, she kept getting worse and the hospital bills kept mounting.

When she died, he was left with bills of Rs 10,000 that he had no way of paying.

"I was forced to borrow money from a trader," he says. "And when I could not pay him back in time, I had no choice but to become a bonded labourer."
His three-month-old was handed over to a relative. His other son, then two, moved with him to the trader's house, where he eventually began doing chores too.

That was in 1988. For the next 22 years, Gangadharappa worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week, tending to buffaloes, fetching water from borewells, watering fields and making jaggery from sugarcane. He was given three meals a day, an allowance of Rs 4,000 a year, and one week off every few years.

"I would speak to the trader every few months, about whether my debt was paid off," says Gangadharappa. "Every time, he would say no."

In 1997, the NGO Jeevika heard of Gangadharappa through the local panchayat and stepped in. It took years of negotiation until, in 2010, the village's revenue secretary gave Gangadharappa a release letter. He was 56 years old.

"I now work as a state-level president with Jeevika, conducting meetings to help other bonded labourers," says Gangadharappa, who is now re-married and has a third child. "Through this work, I meet people in government positions and NGOs and use those connections to help others. Many times, people working as bonded labourers have no idea that there is an option to escape their circumstances. Now, I can teach them how they can pay off these debts in a better way, through interventions by panchayats as well as through associations like Jeevika."
Apoorva Dutt & Ramesh Palan

Mumbai: A former child labourer graduates
'I was a trapped, unhappy child. Now I have hope'

It's a tale straight out of a Dickens novel. When Krishna Kharatmol was seven, his mother was beaten and set on fire by his alcoholic father, leaving her face horribly disfigured. Seven years later, he died.
Kharatmol soon realised he would have to drop out of school and help support the family. At 14, he started working at a tea stall. Growing up, Kharatmol had dreamed of finishing college and becoming a teacher. Instead, day after day he cleaned plates and delivered snacks.

"I wasn't even paid a salary. I would get a few hundred rupees on festival days, and sometimes a few extra hundred for my mother, but no salary," says the 19-year-old. "The worst part about the tea stall was that I had no hope of getting out. I was just spending all my time doing this tedious, boring work, being shouted at by the owner, on my feet all the time. I was always unhappy."

After 18 months of this, Kharatmol was spotted by a worker with NGO Pratham, which works to enforce universal primary education. Kharatmol was placed in an NGO-run home in Panvel, given free food and education. Pratham also helped his mother find a job.

"It was hard in the beginning, because I had been away from my studies for so long," Kharatmol says. "But I was determined."

Kharatmol has since finished school and junior college and is now studying for his graduate degree in Commerce. He plans to be an accountant.
"Now, when I see other children working in similar circumstances, I understand what has led to their situation," he says. "I don't have any advice for them, because they are doing the best they can. I hope that other people will help them the way I was helped."
Apoorva Dutt

Patna: A gay man braves sec 377 in a quest for justice
'We need to become part of the conversation'

As a gay man in India, Santosh Bhatia*, 33, had very few avenues for meeting other gay men. "Going online is our only option," he says.
In 2013, Bhatia, a chemical engineer, began chatting with a 28-year-old man on an LGBT dating site. The two made plans to meet when Bhatia visited Mumbai in August, 2014.

"He came to my room and we were talking when there was a knock on the door," says Bhatia. "Two men barged in and began hitting us, demanding to know what we were doing, asking if we were gay. They then stole my laptop and money. It was clearly a premeditated event."

At first, Bhatia says, he was terrified to take any action. "None of my family or offline friends know that I am gay. What if they found out? I was also afraid that Section 377 could be misused against me," he says. "But then I realised that if I didn't stop this gang, they would take advantage of others as well."

When Bhatia went to the police, he says they treated him with disdain. "They asked me if I was gay, if I had had sex with the man."

At this point, Bhatia realised that the easy thing to do would be back down.
"But I was tired of all of us, the entire LGBT community, living in retreat," he says. "We need to become part of the conversations. We can't let the straight community fight a war for us by proxy. I never saw myself as an activist, but for this case, I became one."

Realising that he would need help, Bhatia approached gay rights NGO Humsafar Trust and saw the attitude of the police change immediately.
It turned out the gang had a history of setting up and robbing gay men. "A case of extortion was filed and the case is ongoing," says Sonal Giani, advocacy officer at Humsafar Trust.

For Bhatia, the case made him a more active member of the LGBT community. "It had never before occurred to me to step up and help other gay people," he says. "Now, I share my experience as a cautionary tale. The incident has also made me careful about dating online," he says. "You can't stop living your life because some people might try to take advantage of you, but you can take the precautions you need to in order to be safe."
Apoorva Dutt

Kolkata: A sex worker turns into a beautician
'Being able to hold my head up is the best part'

On full moon nights, Karabi Mondal* would gaze out of the window of her room in Kolkata's Sonagachi red-light district and sob. It would remind her of the shining Ichamati river that flows through her hometown of Basirhat.

Mondal migrated to Kolkata eight years ago in search of work. Her husband, a manual labourer, could not support the family.

"I'm almost illiterate, and with no work available in the village, I had no choice but to join the sex trade or my son and aged mother would have starved," she says.

Mondal worked for three years in Sonagachi, earning about Rs 1,000 a day. Always looking for a way out, in 2008 she completed a six-month course offered by NGO Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee and became a certified beautician. Her break came when a client, a middle-aged man with a family, got talking and offered to help her out, with a loan of Rs 60,000.

"I started offering beautician's services by visiting homes," she says. "My earnings now support the entire family. I have two children, to whom I can speak freely of what I do. Being able to hold my head high is one of the biggest benefits."
Bibhas Bhattacharya

* Names changed to protect identities

The big picture
What is really needed is a big-picture approach that goes beyond the superficial, says legal scholar and activist Flavia Agnes. "For example, if a child is working at a tea stall, it is not enough to prosecute his employer. We have to understand: why is this child working?"

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