Bengaluru: Two tribal women from Jharkhand were kept as bonded labour at a factory near Bengaluru for seven months and one of them was gang-raped twice, allegedly at the orders of her superiors.
When they finally managed to escape from the factory, the man who offered them shelter during the nationwide lockdown in March also tried to sexually exploit them. Unable to get any help as they could not find anyone who spoke their language, they also had to live in a forest for an entire month.
Their plight finally came to light when on May 5, they went to a police station to apply for a train ticket to return home. There they met Nicholas Murmo, another Santhali migrant worker, who was trying to register application for migrants wanting to travel back to their rural homes.
Murmo said he heard the women speaking in Santhali and approached them to offer help with the procedure to go back home. It was then that he learnt about the ordeal they had been through at the Bharat Chemical Products Factory in Bengaluru and helped them file police complaints with the help of an NGO.
Murmo said the two women, looking for work, were allegedly sold by a man named Dumru Mohali to agents in Delhi. From there, these women and their two children were sent to Bengaluru in September last year.
Promised a salary of Rs 9,000 per month, they were made to work in an incense stick factory at Kengeri Hobli, in the outskirts of Bengaluru, where they were harassed, made to work long hours and were also not paid their due wages for months.
"They were promised 9,000 per month but were only given Rs 200 per week and were made to work from morning 6am till 10pm or sometimes till midnight.”
Then in the second week of January, one of the women was allegedly gang-raped by her superiors at the factory, he told News18.
That incident left the two of them scarred and they tried to escape. They attempted to go to the railway station, but were intercepted by factory supervisor Sanjeev and taken back against their wishes and were locked up.
"Two other men in the factory - Sanjay and Kiran - under tacit sanctions from Sanjeev, took turns to rape one of the two women in the days that followed. I believe that the owner (Devendran) was in the know of what was happening but he has gone scot-free," Murmo said.
In the FIR registered for the rape, two persons have been named as accused. Nur Islam Ansari (Sanjay) and Suresh Gour (Kiran) have been charged under IPC section 376D (gang-rape) and also under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The two have been taken into custody.
However, no action has been taken against the factory owner or the supervisor for the sexual assaults or the use of bonded labour. The company has not responded to the allegations.
The women, in their police complaints, said they had finally managed to escape from the factory in mid-February, and started living in a forest between Ramanagara district and Bengaluru with their children.
During the day, they would go around begging for food and money in the villages nearby, and at night they would sleep in the forest. They lived like this for one whole month.
Then in March, just before the lockdown was announced, these women chanced upon a man named Asghar Ali, a building contractor, who offered to help them. He told them that we would give them food and shelter and also offered to employee them.
“He had no intentions of employing them. He provided them food and shelter but wanted sexual favours in return," Murmo said.
"After meeting these women at the police station, a few days later I got a call from them asking me to urgently meet them at Kengeri (near Bengaluru). I went there and I was surprised to see this man openly threaten one of the woman with dire consequences if she didn't meet his sexual needs."
As these women can speak only Santhali, it was difficult for them to register their FIR. The Kengeri police station has filed their complaint and booked Ashghar Ali under IPC section 354-A (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty).
The two women and their children are still hopeful of going back to Dumka in Jharkhand. Since the matter came to light, Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) and Migrant Workers Helpline of Karnataka have offered to help these women, and the social welfare department has also paid them some compensation.
When asked if he'd want to go home and not get entangled in the legal battle that will follow, Murmo said he'd rather fight for tribal rights than stay silent. He also questioned the labour department’s inefficiency in helping migrants like them, who are left at the mercy of owners and contractors.
"The labour department needs to investigate companies/factories properly. They need to look into the conditions we are made to work in. All we want is to come here, earn a living and go back home happily," he said.