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One-man army in red-light Mumbai

Mumbai, Aug. 17: Anson Thomas clutches his Bible tight as he nears a room painted shocking blue on Grant Road, one of Mumbai’s most notorious cheap sex addresses. A dwarfish girl dressed in a matching blue dress and shiny blouse peeps out as someone inside lowers the volume of a radio playing Babuji zara dheere chalo, a raunchy number from the film Dum.

Anson fails to strike a deal. A burly, lungi-clad man who could be a pimp or a bouncer lunges at him threateningly. “Arre yeh to woh paagal Thomas hai (This is the crazy Thomas),’’ he says, signalling the minor prostitute, to rush inside. By now, someone has switched off the radio and a small crowd of mean-looking men has gathered around him. But Anson is not afraid. “Will you sell your daughter, too'” he asks the crowd. “Where is your love, your humanity'’’ Just then a gravely voice from the crowd asks the man in lungi to back off. Anson prepares to turn back.

This has been Anson’s routine for the past 12 years: locating minor girls in red-light districts, alerting the police and the women’s commission about them and leading a rescue team to pull little girls out of a life of rape and torture. Anson, a preventive officer with the customs department here, has made it his “life’s mission’’ to free girl children from prostitution and to lend the older ones some dignity.

That is why he has dragged cricketers like Shaun Pollock, Niki Boje, Ian Bishop, Joel Garner and Steve Waugh to play gully cricket in Mumbai’s red-light areas with the children of prostitutes. Suniel Shetty and some other Bollywood actors are among his friends and admirers.

On July 2, Anson led a team of the National Commission for Women to the Jamuna Mansion and freed 67 girls from the brothel-keeper. All the girls were between 12 and 17. On June 13, he accompanied another rescue team to help 37 girls stuck in a life of daily beatings and physical abuse. One of them told police later that though she feared the brothel-keeper, she was most afraid of “Thakur madam’’, a lady police constable on the payrolls of the brothel.

“It’s God’s will that drives me,’’ says the national-level hockey player, who still lines up the customs squad.

If a group of 60 goons ransacking the court premises where Anson was to depose in one such case on January 28, 2001 could not deter him from his mission, nothing else can. “Threats have become a way of life for me. I get abused and vilified everyday, but I move on because I feel there has to be somebody who has to look after these kids, and that is me,’’ he says. “No fear or humiliation or embarrassment will stop me.’’

But Anson, 38, is disillusioned with the police. “I don’t mind that they make me look like an accused when I go to them with complaints,’’ he says. “What I hate is the fact that it is they who don’t want the business to end. That is where the money comes from, in huge haftas.’’

In an open letter to the chief minister on December 12 last year, Anson wrote: “Dear Sir, police inspector Yashwant Godse is the pimp of Jamuna Mansion but he poses as a police officer.’’

For the women’s commission, Anson is an indispensable, unpaid one-man unit. For the police, he is both a pest and a “pointer’’. As a senior police officer in Santa Cruz says: “Thomas is a nuisance at times with his unending letters and complaints, but Mumbai needs more men like him.’’

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