Dramatic scandals routinely fill India’s media headlines about some poor victim from a remote area being exploited by upper strata Delhi elites. Yet there is no investigative journalism to uncover the inconvenient facts about certain NGOs that operate what amounts to a human trafficking industry. One reason for this conspiracy of silence is that the traffickers are linked with some politically connected NGOs that make noises in the metros ostensibly on behalf of the victims. In reality the noise made serves to cover up the sinister role of NGOs in this industry that brings Christianity to the remote villages in exchange for maids to Delhi.
The elaborate scheme works as follows. Christian missionaries in adivasi (indigenous, “tribal”) areas offer poor families an inducement that is hard to resist: If the family converts to Christianity, one of its young daughters will be sent as a domestic servant to Delhi or another metro.
The affiliated “agencies” in the metros collect placement fees up to Rs 50,000 per maid from the household that hires them. In between the point of “recruitment” and the point of placement there are intermediaries that “sell”, transfer and move the young, vulnerable person through the supply chain. Money is exchanged at each stage.
The agencies keep relocating the same girl from one employer to another every few months in order to collect their placement fee repeatedly. This disruption adds to the trauma of the young girl. The agency becomes, by default, her only hope of security, and in the process she becomes even more vulnerable to the agency’s exploitation. Delhi alone is estimated to have several thousands of such girls being brought every year.
The cultural gap between India’s adivasis and its metro elites is larger in many ways than the gap between people living in Delhi and New York. The victim often gets duped into thinking that she is headed for the good life of an Indian metro, and her parents are often hand in glove in selling her into such a scheme. The money given to the parents is a “down payment” to convert them, their daughter’s placement as maid being part of the transaction. Many churches also provide safe transfer of the girl’s monthly salary back to her parents, with a certain “donation” charged by the church for its services. All this is a package deal for “being saved”.
This end-to-end system functions like the old slave trade from Africa to America and other continents — in which the church had also played a major role. Today’s racket hides behind the mask of helping the downtrodden by finding them employment in a faraway place. By no means do I wish to imply that all abuses of maids from villages are the result of this system, but that fact that such a system exists outside the bounds of investigative scrutiny is noteworthy.
In the most recent episode of this tragedy, a woman executive working for a French multinational in Delhi has been arrested on charges of committing atrocities against a girl from the Santhal tribe of Jharkhand state. The maid comes from Sahibgunj, one of India’s poorest districts. The media is having a field day sensationalising this as child labour, even after the police confirmed that documents in her village show her to be over the age of 18. The girl had worked for this executive for only 3 months, prior to which she had worked in numerous other households in Delhi since age 15. So the child labour stage of her exploitation was done under several previous employers. But there is no investigation of the previous employers. Why?
The reason for authorities not pursuing the earlier employers is that the girl is a Christian convert from a very poor family; and uncovering the entire chain of events and parties involved would expose the nexus of the Jharkhand church, the political parties that use these poor folks as their vote bank, and various NGOs involved in so-called “human rights” programs. The placement agency in Delhi is run by a Christian woman with likely links to the Jharkhand Church. The media sensationalises the matter as an isolated, localised episode when in fact it deserves to be investigated as a system of mafia-like underground network.
Brinda Karat, the rabid voice of the Communist Party of India, swung into rapid action targeting the maid’s employer, but not wanting a broader inquiry into the supply network that originates in the remote villages where her party seeks support from the church and NGOs.
Many other political leaders also saw opportunity in this scandal to show support for dalit communities whose votes can swing elections. These remote villages are also infested with Maoists seeking to topple the Indian state. The political stakes are high and NGOs compete to prove their worth by claiming to champion the plight of the poor. The same NGOs also raise funds under various “noble” pretexts.
The media ought to act more responsibly than selling us Bollywood-style action drama. To expose the large criminal networks and attack the roots of the problem, they should emphasize some systemic changes. First and foremost, it should be declared illegal to offer employment or other material inducements for religious conversion of poor and vulnerable persons. In particular, the church, parents and agencies that are involved in peddling the labor of a person under age 18 should be prosecuted. This is the nexus where the focus of prosecution should be targeted when incidents of abuse are discovered.
At the same time, one should recognise the legitimate need for domestic servants in Indian metros. To serve this demand, agencies should have to be certified periodically that they are in compliance with all laws. This must include transparency of disclosure of the full details concerning every employee and employer served. There must be a mechanism by which the legal age of a potential maid can be formally ascertained and the agency must bear this burden prior to offering her as a candidate. All commissions and salary payments must be legalised.
The media must start educating the metro employers about the laws concerning minimum wages and others aspects. Right now most Delhi households lack such awareness, as the media has focused on sensationalism without its shouldering social responsibility or due diligence.
There are also many instances of exploitation in the reverse direction that should be noted: Elderly persons in Delhi are too often being criminally attacked by their domestic servants who threaten legal action with the help of NGOs, and thereby prevent the crime from being reported. I know of cases where a youth gang has repeatedly burglarised the house of an elderly woman living alone. The police have been reluctant to file charges because of the threat by NGOs that these youth criminals are protected as “minors”. This means tougher juvenile crime laws need to be enacted and enforced.
I have anticipated such NGO-backed crimes within India since the 1990s when I first became aware of foreign nexuses intervening in India’s so-called tribal areas. It was a Harvard Roundtable Conference on Indology sponsored by Infinity foundation where I found that Western scholars had become very interested in Indian communities belonging to the “Munda” family of languages. The thesis formulated was that the Munda people were the only indigenous peoples of India. They were first invaded by the “foreign Dravidians” coming from the Middle East, and later on both the Munda and the Dravidians got invaded by the “foreign Aryans”. Thus, Indians were classified into layers with the intention of empowering one group against the others. In my earlier book, Breaking India, I mention some important US based interventions through this type of anthropology and linguistics work.
The Santhal community where the maid in the latest scandal comes from is one of the largest communities in what is called India’s “tribal belt”. Most anthropological studies on them were done by Christian missionaries since British times. The colonial-evangelical lens used was the same as for other non-Christian peoples that were encountered outside Europe, and many of its prejudices have become accepted by modern Indians. The “tribals” are considered “pagans” because they believe in “animism”, meaning that they consider all of nature as inhabited with divine spirit. (Ironically, the latest trend among Western thinkers is to appropriate these very ideas into Judeo-Christianity, using fancy new terms like “panentheism” and “immanence” after studying Hindu philosophy on which such ideas are based.) These villages have been a hotbed for missionary activities for the past few centuries, and this intensified in 1914 when the first complete translation of the Bible into the Santali language was finished by a Norwegian missionary.
Clearly, the battle for fragmenting Indians has entered a new phase. “Tribal” Indians will be increasingly exploited in various ways in the guise of bringing them human rights. The media’s framing of such episodes as “secular” crimes of an isolated kind is a shallow and inadequate treatment of what is much deeper and multilayered. This issue has far reaching implications.
Published: October 15, 2013