A trafficking racket that fed on desperation across borders
In 2013, when she was 17, both her parents -- daily wage labourers in a village in Khulna, Bangladesh -- died of an illness. With no other source of income, she turned to begging on the streets, trying to battle for survival. One day, two people who were known in the locality, arrived at her door with a proposition. Come with us, they said, and we will give you a better life across the border in India.
Eight years later, the 25-year-old lives in a government shelter home in Indore, after years of substance and sexual abuse at the hands of an organised trafficking ring that crosses international boundaries, and state boundaries within India.
Their names were Bakhtiyar and Shabana, she remembers. There was nothing left for her in Bangladesh, so she willingly left with them.They took her to Jessore, and then later to Rajshahi in Bangladesh. In the dark of the night, they crossed a porous river boundary, across the Padma, into Murshidabad in West Bengal. “We walked for an entire night and reached the home of an agent. I don’t remember his name but he took me on a bus to Kolkata the next day,” she said.
In Kolkata, the 17-year-old found herself in a room with 10 other girls, with nobody allowed to leave the apartment. “A man used to come to teach us etiquette, table manners, and English. They made us practice wearing fashionable clothes and high heels. At this point, we thought we were being trained for formal work,” she said.
In a matter of weeks, she was moved to Mumbai, along with the others. “Two men and a woman received us at a railway station. They took us to a flat where they wanted to train us in prostitution. I refused. But two agents began forcing us to consume MDMA and ecstasy on a daily basis. There were no options before us,” she said.
In the years that followed, she found herself in a massage parlour in Surat, reporting to the king pin of the operation, named Munirul, and then in a lodge at Mahalakshmi Nagar in Indore, where she and 21 others were housed, constantly “being supplied” to parties as prostitutes and drug mules.
Until September 2020, when the Indore Police broke through the front door and rescued the women, and began the unraveling of an international trafficking, prostitution and drug ring, that is emblematic of the dark underbelly of India’s cities, and the impunity with which these networks operate across borders.
The police investigation that began last year has now seen the rescue of 21 women, the arrest of at least 30 people, and finally on October 2, the arrest of Munirul, the 28-year-old man at the centre of the trafficking ring.
Cases have been registered, and arrests are being made under section 370 (trafficking) of Indian Penal Code and the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act at Vijay Nagar and MIG police stations.
Indore (east) superintendent of police Ashutosh Bagri said, “Surat has emerged as a big centre for supplying Bangladeshi women across India. We have unraveled the trafficking network and are now looking to discovering the networks of customers for the ring.”
National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows a total of 6,242 cases filed under section 370 (human trafficking) between 2018 and 2020. Of the 1,714 cases of human trafficking registered in 2020, the latest NCRB Crime in India report says that there were 1,912 men and 2,797 women affected. Of the 48 cases of international human trafficking, 24 people were from Bangladesh, the highest, followed by 20 from Nepal.
Madhya Pradesh based woman rights activists Rolly Shivhare said, “Trafficking is a serious problem that needs to be addressed socially and by implementing the law stringently. In MP, though people know that women from Bangladesh and Nepal are being brought, but police raids are intermittent. Similarly, women from Odisha and tribal areas have been trafficked for years to Bundelkhand and Chambal on the pretext of marriage as the sex ratio is very low at these places. The government must develop a stronger information network to tackle the crisis.”
How the racket was busted
On September 21, 2020, two women, who said they were from Mumbai, walked into the Vijay Nagar police station in Indore, and registered a complaint. They said that they were brought to the city on the pretext of a modelling event, but were being forced into prostitution, and kept hostage in a flat.
Vijay Nagar station incharge Tehzeeb Qazi said, “These women somehow managed to flee the flat. We raided the flat the same day and rescued 15 women. The police arrested five people, who were working as local agents, and they informed us that six more women had also been kept hostage in a guest house in Lasudiya. Out of these, 12 were from Bangladesh while the others were from West Bengal and Bihar. The locals have been handed over to their family members.”
The then deputy inspector general (DIG) of police, Indore, HN Mishra, formed a special investigation team (SIT) of four police officers led by additional superintendent of police Rajesh Raghuvanshi to probe the matter. But there was one major roadblock -- afraid of the ramifications of being implicated in the case, none of the 15 victims were amenable to speaking.
The break came when, a few days later, a 29-year-old woman came to the police station, and said she was ready to tell all.
“She was also a resident of Khulna, and was raped by a villager. Instead of complaining to the police, her family abandoned her. Like the others, she was brought to India by Bakhtiyar and Shabana. She went through the same training process in Kolkata, and was sold to an agent in Mumbai, where she began working with Munirul. She was sent to Indore, where she shared her ordeal with a man who decided to marry her. Despite her leaving the network, Munirul and another accused, Indore-based Sagar Jain, continued to blackmail her. She told us she was often raped by the two men. When the raids took place, and she found out, she came forward to file a separate FIR,” said Qazi.
Based on the information they gathered, the SIT arrested Aruz Syed, 32, and Titu Gazi Bengali, 34, from Surat on October 10,2020. It was Aruz and Titu who held training sessions in Mumbai, coaching the trafficked girls on how to “behave with customers” and dodge the police. In the same month, more arrests were made. Deepak Vaishnav and Govardhan Purohit were arrested from Indore, for allegedly developing fake Aadhar cards for the women. “There were 20 other agents that were nabbed as well, for supplying women,” police officers said.
Then, two months later, the SIT made another significant arrest in December, of Sagar Jain, a crucial link in the chain. He served two purposes for the gang in Indore. One was the supply of drugs, and sending the girls into parties essentially as drug peddlers. The second was working to fix deals with agents to set up encounters with customers for the women, who often were sent to different places for prostitution for several days.
Jain, the police discovered, was arrested once before in 2017, on the charge of “supplying Russian women” to different parties in Indore, but was released on bail in 2019. Soon after his release, he turned his attention to woman from Bangladeshi women since the police was on the lookout for Russian women.
How the operation worked
From identifying girls from underprivileged families in Bangladesh to imparting training and providing fake documents in India, every person in the operation had a defined role, police officials said. Rajesh Raghuvanshi, assistant superintendent of police and head of the SIT, said, “Bakhtiyar and Shabana, from Khulna and Jessore, would identify the victims, all from poor or marginalised families saying they would give them a good life in India, perhaps marry them off in a rich family, or find good work.”
Initially, when their networks weren’t fully established, Munirul would marry the women crossing the border, to cement their identities as Indians by using false documentation. “Munirul has told us that he married at least 25 women between 2012 and 2019. He used to present the agents as family members before the Qazi for Nikaah. These marriages took place in West Bengal, Surat and Mumbai,” Raghuvanshi said.
Back in their homes in Bangladesh, Bakhtiyar and Shabana would pay the guardians or the girls’ families about ₹30,000 a month for a few months. The money flow would soon stop, but by that time, the girls were trapped, either addicted to the drugs, or worried that their illegal entries into the country would be exposed.
Munirul would the “supply of the women.” Agents would “select” women through video calls. The repetitive rejection of a woman would lead to her use only to supply drugs, police officers said. Most were made to interact with prospective customers through video calls on WhatsApp. “The agents also used to send a short video of them. The prospective clients were members of WhatsApp groups in cities like Mumbai, Indore, and Surat. Later, Munirul used to charge up to ₹5 lakh from local agents for sending the woman for a week or fortnight to any city. To make up the money, local agents like Sagar Jain used to fix up to five customers for a woman in a day,” said Raghuvanshi.
Interrogations have revealed that Munirul supplied over 200 women over the past five years. “He has high-profile contacts but is not revealing them at this time. We are investigating his call detail records,” said Jyoti Sharma, incharge of women’s police station in Indore.
The king pin
Much like the origin story of the victims themselves, Munirul, alias Gazi, came to India at the age of seven, crossing the border illegally sitting atop a steamer in an attempt to escape domestic abuse, police said. While the details of his life are still sketchy, in the next decade he found himself in Surat, working at a clothes and jewellery market. “It was here, at the age of 19, that he told someone, who is yet to be identified or arrested, about his roots in Bangladesh. He was told that it was getting difficult to bring Russian and Thai girls into India. So he began exploring the idea, and his contacts back home,” a police officer said.
Over the past eight years, Munirul accumulated wealth, buying a lavish home in Gulmohar in Surat. When the police raided his house, it had multiple security guards, and more than a dozen servants. On the walls were photographs of Munirul with some of the women he was trafficking.
In the year since the investigation began though, Munirul was changing locations and sim cards every month, even evading a police raid in Surat once. In late September, the police were informed that he was hiding in a slum near Zorba Pati, from where he was eventually arrested. He was sent to Indore Central Jail on Sunday, after being produced before court.
Yet, even as Munirul is now in jail, the investigation has been stymied by a security breach in the government shelter home the 12 Bangladeshi victims were lodged in. Between March and July 2021, 10 of them went missing, and thus far, the police have been able to recover only one woman, who was one of those married to Munirul.
Qazi, the police station incharge, said that the police wrote to the district administration for the serious lapses in security -- but no action has been taken so far.