How a Nagpur Police Raid to 'Rescue Underage Sex Workers' Criminalised an Entire Neighbourhood

One of the 81 women arrested during a police raid on Nagpur’s red-light district suffered a miscarriage while in custody, and says officials took 24 hours to take her to a medical centre.

Nagpur (Maharashtra): On December 10, 2020 afternoon, at around 2 pm, 60-year-old Gopi* was sitting at a tea stall when the Nagpur police descended on the city’s Ganga Jamuna area. He, and close to 130 others (both men and women), were rounded up, put in police vehicles and taken to the Lakadganj police station.

“I live in Odisha,” Gopi told The Wire. “But I’ve been suffering from filariasis – I came here to stay with my daughter for a while and undergo treatment. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before, so how could I have expected this?”

When Gopi was arrested, so was his daughter, who lives and works in Ganga Jamuna. Like a number of other women in the neighbourhood, his daughter is a sex worker. “The police claim they were looking for minors who were being forced into sex work,” Gopi, who spent 18 days in custody, said. “Then why did they arrest old men, schoolgoing children, whoever they could see?”

An ‘absurd’ case

According to the Nagpur police, the December 10 mass raid was a success – eight 17-year-old girls were reportedly rescued during this time. An FIR was filed under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act and sections of the Indian Penal Code on soliciting and trafficking minors for prostitution. All of the women named in the case have been charged under POCSO.

The Wire tried to contact the two police officials who led the raid – DCP crime Gajanan Rajmane and zonal DCP Lohit Matani. While calls to Matani’s offices went unanswered, Rajmane was reportedly busy at a Raj Bhavan event and unable to take queries. However, soon after the raid, Matani had told the Times of India that the action was aimed at “breaking a trafficking network from here apart from other illegal renting and sub-letting”. Rescuing minor girls was the most important part of the action, he continued. The purported minors the police found are currently being kept in a shelter home run by the state government.

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Nagpur-based advocate Nihalsing Rathod, who is representing 19 of the women who were arrested and are named in the FIR, said the police has filed arbitrary charges that are not made out against most of those named. “You can’t say a child was found here, so everyone in the area is guilty under POCSO,” he told The Wire. “This is really an absurd case.”

An activist working in the area, who supports the Ganika Mahila Shakti Sangathan (a collective of sex workers in Ganga Jamuna), told The Wire that the FIR had little to do with what was actually found. “So many people have been named, even though they have no links to the houses where the purported minors were found. The police have also used the pet names – rather than official names – for some of them.”

Women from the area who were arrested also tell a very different story from the police. “It didn’t matter what we were doing – sitting outside, sleeping in our rooms, whatever – they randomly picked up whoever they could see,” Uma*, one of the 81 women from the area who were arrested, told The Wire. “They broke the lock on my door and came into my room, and took me away in my nightie, even though I was asleep, alone, when the raid occurred.”

A lane in Ganga Jamuna, Nagpur.

Some women said the police also used lathis against them, and hurled insults at the women for being sex workers. “While at the police station, they kept saying ‘Yeh randi khana nahi hai [This is not a brothel]’ and referring to us as ‘randi’,” one of them said.

Part of the raid, the women allege, involved breaking locks and taking away anything of value from their homes. Some say their smartphones were picked up; others say gold jewellery in their house has gone missing. After the raid, those rounded up say they were not allowed to close their houses – leaving them susceptible to further theft.

“They’re saying they were looking for minors, that they had heard some minors were being made to work as sex workers,” added Rita*. “Then why didn’t they only arrest people in whose houses they claim to have found the minors? Why did they arrest elderly men and women who were alone at home? It doesn’t make any sense. What have the rest of us got to do with the minors they claim to have rescued?”

Some also raised doubts on the eight young women the police say were 17. “They raided the entire colony, and then needed an excuse. If they were really looking for minors, wouldn’t the action have been more directed?”

‘The children of Ganga Jamuna don’t count as children’

It’s not just the elderly who were targeted unfairly, the women feel, or whose arrest proves that the police was acting arbitrarily. Meena*, a sex worker, said her visiting daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren were also taken to the Lakadganj police station. “They had all come to visit me, and had a train ticket for the next day to go back home. My grandson is nine years old and granddaughter is six – how could they possibly be involved in any of this? Finally, after much explaining and begging, they allowed all four of them to leave the thana at around 11 pm [on December 10],” Meena told The Wire.

Another Class 11 student, the daughter of a sex worker in the area, was also picked up by the police. “I can’t tell you how much we begged the police to leave her alone,” her aunt Purnima* told The Wire. “Fine, you think we are doing something illegal, take us. But she had her books, her school ID, everything – they keep telling us to educate our children; then why do they treat them in this way?” Purnima’s niece was also finally let go at 11 pm that night, after spending most of the day at the police station.

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Purnima is still incensed by what happened. “What if her [Purnima’s niece’s] photograph shows up somewhere, as being part of those who were arrested? Her future will be ruined. We tried so hard to protect her, but the police didn’t care at all. The children of Ganga Jamuna don’t count as children,” she said angrily.

The activist working in the area said her team had to rush medication to the four HIV+ women who were arrested. “At first, the police told us that the women would be let go immediately. We don’t know why they changed their minds; there is no logic to what happened.”

A miscarriage in custody

The day after being arrested, 81 women from Ganga Jamuna were taken to the Panchpouli COVID-19 quarantine centre. “They tested us for COVID-19, and said that three among us had tested positive. They were kept separately, but at meal times we were all brought together,” Jaya*, one of the arrested women, told The Wire.

Maine dhanda chod diya hai, tab bhi mujhe le gaye [I no longer engage in sex work, yet they took me anyway],” Jaya, who is visibly pregnant, told The Wire. “They found me alone at home when the raid took place, and didn’t care that I was pregnant.”

Jaya wasn’t the only pregnant woman the police arrested. Beena* was two months pregnant when the raid took place – which the police knew, because they conducted HIV/AIDS and pregnancy tests on all those taken into custody. While at the COVID-19 quarantine centre, she began to feel some pain and discomfort in her abdomen, which she told the officials present about, but was ignored. Soon, she began to bleed.

“There was a CCTV camera in the room where 40 of us were being kept together, and we started waving and shouting at the camera, asking for someone to come and help her,” said another woman who was present in the room. When their call was finally answered, though, all the officials did was give Beena sanitary pads for the bleeding.

“Only the next day, nearly 24 hours later, did three policewomen come and take me to the medical centre,” Beena, still traumatised by the memory, told The Wire. “They did a sonography there and said I had lost the child. It was a Saturday, so the main doctor wasn’t present. They didn’t give me any other medical care, I was taken back to the quarantine centre. The policewomen said I would be taken for another check up when the main doctor was present, but that never happened.”

Despite her miscarriage, Beena was kept along with all the other women in the quarantine centre for a few more days, and then moved to the Nagpur Central Jail for another 11 days until the arrested women were granted bail. For the rest of her time in custody, she told The Wire, she received no medical attention.

Suspicions of a larger scheme

Sex workers who live in Nagpur’s Ganga Jamuna come from across India – in addition to other parts of Maharashtra, there are women here from Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Here too, like in ‘red light districts’ in other regions of the country, a number of sex workers come from marginalised sections of society – the ‘lowest’ castes and oppressed tribes.

Women in Ganga Jamuna see this raid as part of a larger scheme to try and demolish the ‘red light district’ entirely. “People don’t think we should be allowed to exist here,” one of them told The Wire, while waiting for clients outside her one-room house. “Already, what you’re seeing is a much smaller version, parts of what used to be the red-light district have been taken over for other commercial purposes.” There are also demolished buildings – apparently due to a police crackdown on illegal construction in the area.

The idea that this may be part of a larger scheme is triggered by the fact that there is a citizens’ group in Nagpur actively working to have the area removed. The ‘Ban Ganga Jamuna Campaign’ has found coverage in the local media, with articles dedicated to their approval of police action. The group also said it conducted a ‘survey’ in October 2020 (without details of how sampling was conducted) in which it was revealed that 90% of Gandhibagh residents want Ganga Jamuna removed.

Campaigns of this sort, the women believe, have led to the perception that sex workers can be treated as criminals without the rights of other citizens, and given police officers the confidence to take sweeping action.

The recent police raid has left palpable fear in Ganga Jamuna. Whenever a new person is seen, several women rush into their rooms, not wanting to be spotted or spoken to by anyone they don’t recognise. Because the raid was conducted by police wearing civil clothes, it’s hard to for them to know who they can trust. But being visible is also very much part of the job – without that, there are no clients and no livelihood, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has already reduced wages. Now, their hope is that the courts will see reason, and the stringent charges against them will be dropped.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.