Six months after the dramatic rescue of Nepali girls from an Indian circus in Lucknow, more minors have been rescued from another Indian circus-this time in Nepal.
However, activists who took part in the rescue last week in Bara discovered to their dismay that it is as difficult to free the girls in their own home country as it is India. In Lucknow, in June, the activists managed to rescue a dozen girls used as sex slaves by the circus owner who threatened to kill the rescuers. ('Take us home', #202)
The Nepal Child Welfare Society, which took part in the Lucknow rescue, came to know that the Calcutta based Western Circus had minor Nepali girls working for it. They decided to carry out the rescue while the circus was at the five-year Gadimai Festival in Bara last week thinking it would be easier if the circus was in Nepal. Little did they know that the circus owners had powerful protectors here, too.
On 26 December, Khetraj Mainali of the society made his move on the circus with the help of local police, women volunteers and human rights activists and rescued a dozen young girls. But after that things did not go exactly as planned.
Some of the girls were too frightened. They refused to reveal their identities to the rescuers since the circus owner and his henchmen were standing around. Mona Lamichhane and Renu Bharati of the Rural Development Centre persuaded the girls that they were being taken back home to their families and didn't have to work for the circus anymore.
After almost four hours, 15 girls agreed to go with the rescue party to Kalaiya. They were given shelter at Debaki Lama Dharmashala but were forced to return to the circus at around 5.30 PM when goons allegedly hired by the circus employer, Akbar Hussain, threatened to break into the shelter.
The rescue plan was botched from the start. Information about the raid had leaked out and the circus managed to hide around 18 other girls. The District Police Office in Bara and human rights activists were threatened and persuaded to back out.
"But we refused to be intimidated," says Mainali who recalls that a large group of student union leaders and hoodlums on the payroll of the circus owner threatened to shoot them. "The circus must have paid them a lot of money to come after us," says Debendra Giri, president of the Rural Development Centre.
After the activists defied the strongmen and went ahead with the rescue, the circus management spread rumours that the rescuers were animal rights activists trying to stop the mass sacrifices at the mela. This rattled even the CDO, Madhab Prasad Regmi, who started having second thoughts about supporting the rescue.
In the end, the team decided to allow the girls to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to be rescued. "We were owed a lot of money by the circus, so we decided to go back," Rita Biswakarma, one of the girls told us. She and two other teenage girls decided to go back.
Others were minors and slowly opened up to the rescuers, complaining of exploitation, being overworked and underpaid, and having to wait many years before being allowed to visit their families in Nepal.
The Indian circus owner, Akbar Hussain, had his own tale of woe. He claimed to have a five-year agreement with the parents at the end of which he had to return the girls to their parents. But one of the parents, Gobinda Karki Chettri, complained that the circus hired goons to chase him away every time he approached them for his daughter's salary.
Ten of the girls are now under protection of the Nepal Child Welfare Organisation in Hetauda where they will be rehabilitated and returned to their families.