The first appearance of police personnel in a presumably traditionalist rural household can set in motion a chain of events that are standard judicial procedure, but a nightmarish ordeal for the survivor who has been called to depose. The moment she receives the summons, the difficult memory work she has performed in a desperate attempt to delete the violence she has suffered disintegrates. Her old trauma resurfaces, because she knows that the sense of disgrace associated in public perception with sex work will threaten her marriage if she is exposed. She becomes frantic with worry. While she is awake, memories of assault and violation attack her again; she might experience returning symptoms of clinical depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. “My in-laws and the people at their village have no idea that I was trafficked to Pune,” Fatema says. “I am afraid. If they find out, that’s the end of my marriage.”
Fatema fights sleep every night to avoid the off chance that she might talk in her sleep and risk her husband listening and knowing. She can reach out to her social worker to discuss her new, unexpected vulnerability, but even this must be done cautiously so she cannot be overheard, or by making some excuse to meet the social worker in person, doubling the deception already weighing on her conscience. For Sarika (name changed), who is not married, receiving this same summons is calamitous for slightly different reasons. The police team queried villagers for directions to Sarika’s home, and word spread like wildfire that she was wanted for deposition in Pune because she was involved in “dirty work” there. “Every time I leave the house, I can see people laughing and pointing at me. I know they talk about me. They have said horrible things to my parents, and I feel guilty about disgracing them,” she says. Sarika’s parents are trying to arrange her marriage quickly so she can be sent away from this space of turmoil, but she knows that with marriage, her dreams of being educated will have to be sacrificed. She also knows that given what happened to her, she has very little bargaining power to postpone or stave off marriage. With the visits from the police team, Sarika has lost liberty and opportunity in yet another instance of the continuing re-victimisation of a trafficking survivor.
After the summons is given, the social worker must counsel the survivor and prepare her for court proceedings. Now, there is a new problem to contend with. In an overwhelming majority of incidents, the trafficking case is lodged at the destination with the victim as the main witness for the prosecution. Since repatriation is done as quickly as possible, most victims return to their home states before their cases come to trial. They return with no certified copies of their case documents - FIR, judicial statement, chargesheet, and evidence-related papers. Their contact with their legal representative at the destination dwindles or completely shuts down, and many survivors show very little interest in keeping up with the progress of their cases, asserting that they want to move on. It is reasonable to assume that in those instances the survivor imagines, if mistakenly, that her past will not come back to disturb the new life she has built. Therefore, she is psychologically disconnected from the events that make up her case. She loses her grasp of small but crucial factual details; she feels unprepared to depose with confidence. Moreover, even when case documents are acquired after painstaking coordination processes, they are nearly always in the regional language of the destination area, and this again interferes with easily accessing information that would let her give robust evidence to convict the trafficker; a translator’s help becomes necessary. These factors combine to create conditions where the survivor is revictimised by the judicial system, which must shield her, but at this point intensifies her vulnerabilities and insecurity.
At least 25 survivors from West Bengal are presently in this situation. More than half of these cases are at least two years old. A majority are waiting for their victim compensation applications to be filed. These women have been connected with a Pune lawyer who is working to retrieve certified copies of case documents so the survivors can be trained to depose confidently. This process is time consuming and judicial red tape imposes unexpected delays that cannot be planned for. A number of cases could not be traced at all as the survivor could not supply the names of the accused or police station information; in these cases, an FIR is usually filed at the source so the survivor can at least claim victim compensation. Also, since a single advocate is handling all 25 cases, managing time and priorities becomes a separate problem to contend with. Advocate Abhijit Patil, who is representing these survivors, asserts the importance of deposition if traffickers and brothel managers are to be convicted. “At one level, silence shows consent or at any rate complicity with the criminal dealings, even if you acknowledge that the trafficked person is a victim,” Patil says. “With a majority of repatriated sex trafficking survivors failing to show up in court to depose, traffickers are not identified and no evidence is given against them in the presence of a magistrate, therefore we have an abysmally low conviction rate - less than 1%.”