Nepalese Get Trapped in Indian Circuses

The Washington Times

By Shaikh Azizur Rahman

NEW DELHI — Children's rights campaigners trying to rescue enslaved Nepalese children from a circus in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh were attacked last week by circus employees with guns, machetes and iron rods inside the tent of the Great Roman Circus.

The Indian activists, accompanied by Nepalese activists and the parents of some of the enslaved children, were chased away by circus managers and hired thugs who warned them not to return to the circus again.

As police and government officials accompanying the activists to the circus in Gonda district looked on, one circus manager pointed a gun at the leader of the rescue mission, Kailash Satyarthi, and threatened to shoot him if he and those with him tried to take the children away.

Activists estimated there were about 30 children, mostly girls, performing in the circus. The would-be rescuers had an affidavit from the parents of 11 child performers. Parents of four Nepalese girls who had been sent to the circus over the past four years ago were also present.

Only one of the children named in the affidavit — Neeta Lama, a 13-year-old girl — was rescued. Circus officials said they didn't know the whereabouts of the 10 others, ages 8 to 10. Mr. Satyarthi, chairman of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), which translates as Save Childhood Movement, told local television news that he and his colleagues were shocked to have been attacked by circus workers in the presence of policemen and government officials.

"Local authorities were present when the circus manager and his men turned violent against us. It is clear the government officials connived with the circus," he said. Mr. Satyarthi bled from the head and suffered a leg fracture after being hit with iron rods.

Reporters who witnessed the attack were surprised at the inaction of policemen who accompanied the activists, apparently to help them. A correspondent who witnessed the entire incident wrote in the Indian Express newspaper: "I was aghast at the reaction of the magistrate [leading the police], who instead of checking the violence said [to the activists], 'If you have taken up this cause [to free the children from bondage] get ready for a bashing also.' "

An activist against child labor who did not want to be named said from Lucknow: "The circus owners keep the administration happy with good bribes. So the local authorities will never take action against the circuses, although they know the facts that the children are employed there on bondage illegally."

Shadaab Khan, a journalist from Lucknow, said: "Unless the circus operators pay a big bribe to the administration, they will never get permission to pitch their tents. Then hundreds of free passes are given out to the high officials, policemen, powerful local politicians and even goons, for their families."

Some sources said that circus girls are also offered for the sexual entertainment of powerful local people and officials.

Child-rights campaigners say circuses are places children dream to escape to for fun and freedom, but for hundreds of Nepalese children trapped in bondage as performers in Indian circuses, they are places of torture, exploitation and sexual abuse.

Neeta was rescued from the Great Roman Circus because her mother spotted her inside the circus during the operation. The girl later said most of the 30 or so young girls inside the circus suffered horrible abuses

The 13-year-old girl who had been with the circus for about two years told police: "I cannot remember how many times I was raped by two men in the past year. After our performances in three shows were over, around the middle of night some of us used to be called to the tents of the owners and managers where we were raped.

"In the beginning we cried and were too frightened to protest. Also we had no way to escape and so gradually we got used to it. We were given pills to avert pregnancy."

Neeta's father, Hari Bahadur, was approached in 2002 by an agent who offered the equivalent of $2 per day — double what most families earn in their village at Makawanpur, Nepal — if their daughter went to work in the circus. "We were given 5,000 rupees — equivalent to $110 — in advance in 2002, and promised that after one year, they would send 3,000 rupees a month, but this never reached us.

"I tried to bring my daughter back from the circus, but could not find it because the circus was traveling from place to place," Mr. Bahadur said.

The London-based charity Esther Benjamins Trust, which has been supporting the efforts of the BBA and Nepal Child Welfare Foundation (NCWF) to rescue children from Indian circuses, hopes to free all Nepalese children from Indian circuses by 2007. Since March, missions sponsored by the trust have rescued 42 Nepalese child performers in India. Other Nepalese activists have saved 17 other Nepalese children from another Indian circus in Nepal. All these children have either been reunited with their parents or gone to rehabilitation centers in Nepal sponsored by the trust.

Although last week activists were attacked while trying to rescue the Nepalese children in Uttar Pradesh, in southern India's Kerala state another operation managed to take 29 Nepalese children to safety. In Kerala, the local administration supported the rescue mission.

According to Capt. Khem Thapa, a former British Gurkha officer who is chairman of the Nepal Child Welfare Foundation, the children rescued in Kerala — mostly girls between 7 and 15 — had been performing risky jobs and were being held against their wishes.

"After months of planning we conducted the raid on the Kerala circus. The children were shocked and confused to see the police and activists landing in the circus. It took some time for the children to figure out that we were there to free them," he said.

Indra Dahal, an activist with the group, said that with the help of some local volunteers they surveyed the circus secretly for two days, noted all exits and other potential hiding places before returning with 20 local policemen.

"Most children felt relieved when they saw some of their parents with us and [since] we spoke in Nepalese. The circus operators tried their best to stop the children from leaving the circus and told them we were human traffickers. They said, don't go with them, they will sell you to the brothels in Mumbai [Bombay]," said Mr. Dahal. "We got excellent support from the local Indian officials and within a few hours we negotiated the release of 29 of the Nepalese children aged under 16."

Circus recruiters often succeed in enticing parents with promises of money and a good future when they take young children — usually aged between 6 and 10 — out of Nepal.

"We are in possession of many illegal 'agreement sheets' made between the circus and the parents or agents, in which the children are bought in bondage for seven to 10 years and circuses promise to pay a monthly 'stipend' of 50 rupees [about $1] to the child from the second year of his or her entry into the circus. But in reality they are paid five to 20 rupees per month and sometimes nothing at all," said Capt Thapa.

According to Capt. Thapa, there are three reasons why Nepalese parents sell their children to circuses: "One is poverty, another is gullibility — because these people are illiterate — and the third is pure and simple greed."

Bishnu Maya, a mother who accompanied the child-rescue team to Kerala, said she did not know the conditions set in the agreement prepared by the circus operator, and simply believed what the agent said. "Had I known of those conditions, I would not have sent my daughters to the circus. I even did not know that giving a child in bondage was illegal. It took some years for me to understand that I had made a blunder. Now I am very happy to get my children back," Mrs. Maya said.

Her daughter Rani, 15, who spent six years in the Great Indian Circus until her release last month, explained how all of them were compelled to work from 5 a.m. until midnight, seven days a week. She and the other children, mostly girls, would be beaten for making mistakes at rehearsals or during the three daily performances.

"We were always hungry because we were not given enough food to eat. Then too the food was grim — a kind of meal that was given to the horses. The vegetables were rotten and the rice was full of stones. None of us was ever paid more than 20 rupees [44 cents] a month," said Rani who is now living at a NCWF rehabilitation center in Hetauda, Nepal.

Rina, 13, said the girls would be beaten if they smiled "too much" or if they did not smile "enough" during performances.

Maya, an 11-year-old girl saved from the same Kerala circus, said: "One day I was crying while thinking of my mother and home, the owner shouted at me to stop. But I couldn't stop and he started to beat me with a cane until I stopped."

Hari, 17, a boy rescued from the Great Indian Circus, said, "I and another boy escaped from the circus because of constant beating, but we didn't get very far before we were captured. We were then stripped naked and put in a pit and beaten with canes. To drown the sound of our cries, they sometimes revved the motorbikes just above where we were being beaten."

Girls from the Great Indian Circus told of sexual abuses inside the tent. "Rama my tent-mate, [who was 14], was called to the owner's tent one night and I was frightened. Then I heard her screams as she was pleading to be released. Half an hour later she returned to our tent crying. She told me how the owner did 'dirty things' with her," said Seema, a 13-year-old rescued girl.

Nepalese children are highly sought after by Indian circuses because of their lighter skin and exotic appearance and because their parents are far away and unlikely to interfere. "Younger children are particularly in high demand for their supple bodies, suitable in contortion acts with titles such as 'boneless,' " Capt. Thapa said.

"We have been receiving many appeals from poor parents striving to get their children back from the circuses. By 2007 we hope to make all of these circuses free from Nepalese children," said London-based Lt. Col. Philip Holmes who left the British Army and founded the Esther Benjamins Trust in 1999 in memory of his wife, who committed suicide because she was childless.

"It is only the beginning. There are hundreds of children to be rescued from the circuses and finally to be reintegrated back to their society in Nepal. The rehabilitation is the most difficult part of this program," he said. The trust sends the younger children with little or no education to schools; the older ones, who are mostly girls, are being trained in vocational courses to qualify for regular jobs.

"About 1,000 Nepalese girls work in 30 or 40 Indian circuses. But twice that number have been trafficked into Indian circuses in 20 years. When girls go missing, the circus companies wash their hands of them. They change the name of the circus to avoid legal responsibilities," said an activist of Maiti Nepal, a Nepalese nongovernmental organization campaigning against trafficking in Nepalese girls.

Philip Homes of the Esther Benjamins Trust said: "The whole Indian circus industry and its ruthless exploitation of children is the key issue. "The circuses are not allowed to use wild animals in their performances, and everyone should now do what they can to support our campaign for the same ruling to be extended to children."