Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Critical reflections on raid and rescue operations in New Delhi

Accompanying a raid and rescue operation poses difficult questions for those involved, pushing the boundaries between victim and non-victim.

Vibhuti Ramachandran
25 November 2017


Jean-François Chénier/flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Who is trafficked into the sex trade and who isn’t? Who wishes to be rescued and who doesn’t? Raid and rescue operations are swift and chaotic events, fraught with confusion and uncertainty, and these questions, which are not easily answered, shape the decisions that rescuers take in their midst. Yet rarely are they acknowledged in mainstream descriptions of what raid and rescue looks like. And often, those conducting rescues or those writing about them have ignored these questions, with deleterious consequences for those being ‘rescued’.

I observed raid and rescue operations in New Delhi while conducting research on how US-driven anti-trafficking campaigns work within the Indian legal context. They were initiated based on information received by the anti-trafficking NGO I worked with about trafficked women in the brothels of New Delhi’s red light district, G.B Road. Though the cases I observed resulted in the rescues of those who had indeed been trafficked into prostitution, they nevertheless illustrate the complexity at play in matters of identity, consent, agency, and victimhood.

In this article, I want to use what I observed in one of these operations to challenge an assumption that circulates widely in the global North about trafficking in the global South: that it is ‘easy’ to identify trafficked victims. US-based writers such as Siddharth Kara and Nicholas Kristof routinely make this claim, with the implication that all we need are dedicated (usually male) outsiders from the global North to swoop in and save apparent victims of sex trafficking.

Witness to a raid

In the short span of time (an hour at most) in which the operations I observed were conducted, it was not always easy or even possible to ascertain who was a trafficked person, and who was willing to be rescued. In the cases I observed, the NGO workers were sensitive to these questions due to a combination of their personal rescuing ‘styles’ and the NGO’s pragmatic approach to raid-and-rescue. Preparing rescued women to testify against the brothel madams, pimps, etc. was a key strategy that the NGO adopted, in line with the prosecutorial focus of U.S.-driven anti-trafficking efforts. Women who resisted rescue did not later testify against those running the brothel, and rescuing them was therefore deemed a waste of time and resources.

In October 2012, the NGO that I worked with rescued three minors, two adult women, and a sixth woman deemed of ‘borderline’ age from the same brothel. Informers had alerted the NGO that two of the six were victims of trafficking who wanted to escape. Notably, the initial source of this information was a client of Bishakha, one of these women, who had fallen in love with her, and wanted to help her escape so they could be together. Acting upon this information, the NGO liaised with the police and a time was set for the raid.

After the police team had parked the jeep, we walked past the ubiquitous hardware stores occupying the first floor of buildings on G.B Road, and up a dimly lit stairwell to the crowded second-floor brothel. The NGO worker had seen photographs of both Bishakha and Noopur. She even knew the exact cubicle in which to find them, on a makeshift mezzanine level accessed through a ladder off the waiting room.

Neha[i], the capable and intrepid young NGO worker, immediately began searching and emerged within minutes, both women in tow, clad in salwar-kameezes and wearing a mix of fear and relief on their faces. Both were immediately willing to leave the brothel and said that they did not want to do this ‘kaam’ (this work, i.e., prostitution).

After asking whether they knew of others who might also want to leave, Neha began looking for Rozy, a friend they were concerned about. She instructed me to remain in the waiting room with Noopur, Bishakha, and a policeman from the team, to start asking the several women of varying ages gathering around us if any of them would like to leave. In my twin roles as researcher and NGO volunteer, I had decided to keep a low profile and follow Neha while she conducted the rescue. But her expectations of me turned out to be rather different, and I found myself unwittingly and reluctantly playing the role of ‘rescuer’.

The brothel madams and their assistants moved aside reluctantly on Neha’s request. Their presence and palpable animosity impacted the questions I was able to ask in the limited time I had, the way I asked them, and, no doubt, the responses I received. I decided to merely ask the women gathering around me if they wanted to leave, and to leave the rest to Neha. To my relief, asking was all it took. I addressed the women next to me and those peering at me from further away, in Hindi, asking if anyone would like to leave. A woman (Mamta) and a girl (Ayesha), stepped up, said they had been brought to the brothel forcibly, and told me they wanted to leave. Following Neha’s example, I asked whether they knew of anyone else who might want to do the same. They said there were two fellow Bengali women there who had also been forced into prostitution – Asha (a young woman in a white and blue kurta and jeans), and Beauty (a short-statured young woman who wore jeans, a blue tank top, and heavy make-up). I then approached Asha and Beauty and asked if they wanted to leave. Asha was hesitant, saying she wanted to stay. And Beauty shook her head. I decided not to press them further and waited for Neha, who soon emerged with Rozy, the girl she had been searching for.

Neha sat down with Asha and Beauty, adopting the tone of a friend offering counsel, albeit a persuasive and persistent one. She told them that no one would force them to leave if they did not want to, but that this was their opportunity to escape. Asha changed her mind after some hesitation. First, she asked where we would take her. Neha assured her she would be taken back to her parents. We asked Asha again about whether she was brought to G.B. Road against her will, to which she nodded ‘yes’. After some further hesitation, she straightened up, looked at us, and said, ‘I will come with you, too’.

Beauty, however, did not agree to leave. Neha again asked her whether she was there by choice or by force. Instead of answering the question, Beauty replied, in Hindi, ‘main yaheen theek hoon’ (‘I am alright here’). The word ‘yaheen’ combines ‘yahaan’ (‘here’) with ‘hee’ (‘only’). A closer translation would be, ‘This is where I am alright’. Beauty’s choice of words implies a comparative framework – that she was better off here than somewhere else.

The police were in a rush to return to the police station and began hurrying us up. The reasons for their haste included their desire to avoid confrontation with the brothel madams (which had led to harassment allegations before), their fear that the rescued women might change their minds if they stayed in the brothel any longer, and their eagerness to showcase the successful rescue in the media. Given the limited time we had and Beauty’s reluctance to leave, Neha decided not to press Beauty any further. We left without her.


Though relieved that Beauty was not forcibly rescued, I could not help but wonder whether she might have changed her mind, like Asha, had Neha had more time to earn her trust. In the few minutes we had together, there was no way to know whether or not Beauty was trafficked, or why she did not want to leave the brothel. Was her refusal to explain how she got there the result of pressure from those running the brothel, or her own decision?

Her friends, upset that she did not want to leave, insisted that she had been forced into prostitution. Judging by how keen they were to see her rescued, it is possible that they were right. But, pondering Beauty’s decision later, I was reminded of anthropologist Denise Brennan’s observation that ‘ultimately, every individual evaluates exploitation – what can be endured and what goes too far – by different criteria’. This helps to explain the choices that some trafficked persons make not to leave their situations, or to wait it out.

In the end, Beauty’s case, along with the others, highlight the challenges that those involved in raid and rescue, and those studying them, must navigate, first to identify who is ‘really’ trafficked, and second, to identify who is willing to leave. They also bring to the fore the complexity of the choices that women in the sex trade make at the time of rescue. Some may actively pursue their escape (like Bishakha, whose client had helped initiate the rescue), some might quickly choose rescue as the best option for them (like Ayesha and Mamta), others might take their time to weigh their options carefully (like Asha), and yet others (like Beauty) may opt to stay on.

[i] All names have been changed to protect people’s identities.

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