Gaighata (North 24-Parganas), Nov. 6: Parbati Das has two children and is pushing 40. Pratima Mandal is not yet 16. The wide gulf in age, however, has not helped them avoid a similar fate. Of being taken away at gun-point, beaten up, stripped, photographed (and raped, in the the case of the younger girl) and then becoming the victim of a blackmail racket that took advantage of their one big handicap: being illegal immigrants in a foreign land whose law would not protect them.
The lid has been blown off a sex-sleaze-and-blackmail racket, targeting mainly families of Bangladeshi immigrants (all their names have been changed) and operating in villages along the Indo-Bangladeshi border, with the administration now sitting up and taking cognisance of 35-odd allegations in which women — and, sometimes, men — have lodged similar complaints.
The villages in a 2-km radius — with Sutia Bazar being the centre — have been suffering the torment silently for the past two years, say officials. The ordeal, however, seems to have come to an end with a state women’s commission team and senior police officials visiting the victims last week.
“The victims were mostly migrants from Bangladesh who didn’t seek police help as they themselves were apprehensive of action because of their status,” a senior police official said, explaining the victims’ silence for so long.
“Now, however, 30 of the accused are behind bars and charged with non-bailable offences,” North 24-Parganas superintendent of police M.H. Verma said.
There were allegations of a nexus between the criminals, politicians and policemen, he admitted, adding that the whole force deputed to the Sutia Bazar police outpost had been removed and was facing inquiry. “That explains the flood of complaints,” Verma said.
For the victims, however, the administrative action hasn’t come too soon. The sex-and-blackmail racket has led to whole families being ripped apart and one lost — no one knows where a mother-daughter duo is — though most of perpetrators (Prabhas Dhali, Sushanta Chaudhuri, Bidhan Sarkar, Ripon and Ramesh) and the photographer they employed are behind bars. Only one of the principal accused (Bireshwar Dhali) is absconding.
A case in point is the Adhikari family which lived near Boldeghata Math. The 14-year-old daughter was drugged and then raped repeatedly for over a week.
The family had just come from Bangladesh — the father was still across the border — and the mother, after being refused any help by her frightened neighbours, finally moved out.
“We don’t know where she went,” admitted Hitlal Bain of Pratibadi Mancha, the association that was the first to mobilise villagers against the terror. “They could have gone back to Bangladesh,” he added.
Parbati Das is one woman whose husband left her because of the “social stigma”. She and her husband were forced off the van-rickshaw, by Chaudhuri and his men, while they were coming to her parents’ place (near Sutia) from their Maslandapur residence.
“It was quite dark and we were taken to Sukhsadhur Bhita (a place now in ruins) where I was stripped and photographed,” she told The Telegraph. “I was tortured for over five hours in the presence of my husband,” she added.
She paid Rs 10,000 — by borrowing the amount at inordinately high rates — to get back the negatives which she destroyed, she said. Her husband has, however, refused to take her back and she is now staying with her parents and her sons.
Kaberi Biswas was another victim stripped, filmed and tortured in front of her husband and son at the same place by Chaudhuri and his men. Her torture left her in a condition that required several visits to a Gobardanga clinic to repair it. This family, too, had to pay Rs 10,000 to escape more pain and embarrassment.
Men, too, have not escaped. Balai Chakraborty was forced to part with Rs 10,000 after being stripped and filmed in a compromising position with one of his neighbours. The female neighbour has now fled to Gobardanga, say their neighbours. Madhai Ray and Niranjan Biswas of Gazna had their private parts maimed when they protested.
Officials say there have been three “specific complaints of rape” and all the women have recorded their statements. The modus operandi remained the same everywhere; a family of landless peasants and uprooted from Bangladesh would be picked on and then given the treatment that left them with no option but to pay the “settlement money”.
Officials are now confident of wrapping up the case though mancha members allege relatives and henchmen of the accused are turning up the heat again. “But, this time, we’ll fight to the end,” Bain said, adding that the high-profile official visit had given them the courage.