Orange barfi from a sweet shop, a sugar factory in the neighbourhood, a white-and-green school uniform and a woman drowning in a lake nearby — these snatches of memories from a 25-year-old bar dancer’s childhood are the only clues that police have as they attempt to track down her biological parents.
Under orders from the Bombay High Court, the Mumbai Police Crime Branch has already questioned over a thousand people across three states, but are no closer to finding her parents than when they began their investigation in 2016, when the woman approached police alleging she had been kidnapped and forced into prostitution as a five-year-old girl.
Following her complaint, the Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Sanjay Saxena raided a house in Kandivali, in Mumbai’s western suburbs, in June 2016, and arrested four alleged traffickers, Vimal Thakur, Jitendra Thakur, Anju Thakur and Poonam Thakur. Two others, Sushil Thakur and Radheshyam Padamsingh Bhato, got anticipatory bail from the Mumbai sessions court. Three months after their arrest, the four arrested persons also got bail.
Investigations through 2016 and 2017 showed the woman had changed hands for about Rs 20,000 at a fair in Nagla Surajbhan, an Agra village. Those who bought her allegedly changed her name and created a fake birth certificate from Ghaziabad.
The certificate names her father as Sushil Thakur and his wife Rajeshwari as her mother. The couple were subjected to a DNA test in 2016 that confirmed they were not her biological parents. In April 2018, on a writ petition filed by a friend of the woman seeking a CBI investigation, the Bombay High Court directed police to locate her biological parents. A separate writ petition has been filed by the Crime Branch for cancellation of Sushil Thakur and Bhato’s anticipatory bail.
Since then, the Mumbai Crime Branch has questioned over a thousand people across Agra, Nagpur, Ghaziabad and Mumbai, checked the list of missing persons and pored over records on accidental deaths in Maharashtra and Agra from 1992 till 1998.
“I don’t remember the date or place I belong to. But I remember Bhato picked me up, we travelled in a bus and train for a day and a half. We then went to his native village Gola, in Agra, where I stayed for a few days,” the 25-year-old told The Sunday Express. She only remembers her first name and that of her parents as Rekha and Kishor.
During their investigation, Mumbai police say they found evidence of the Thakurs’ alleged involvement in other human trafficking cases. While the girl claims that Bhato kidnapped and sold her to the Thakur family, the Thakurs claim she was sold to them by a tempo driver.
Police sent a team to Agra to locate the fair as well as the tempo driver. They visited Nagla Surajbhan, but discovered no fair takes place there. They found three big melas take place in nearby areas — a three-day fair at Kela Mata temple in Agra, a five-day fair at Karuni Mata temple at Meheranpur in Agra and a week-long fair at Raina Devi temple at Dholpur in Rajasthan. The team visited these places and enquired with several people if they knew of a girl who had gone missing at any of these fairs. But they hit a dead end.
Police, however, fared better when they visited Ghaziabad, from where the Thakur family hails. In the late 1990s, Sushil Thakur was sarpanch of his village. Working back from the woman’s passport that Sushil Thakur had got made for her in Ghaziabad, police discovered that the supporting documents — birth certificate and school leaving certificate — on the basis of which the passport was issued, were also fake. Police discovered that the woman had used the passport to visit Dubai three times after 2009, spending three months each time.
“After bringing me to Mumbai, I stayed with the Thakur family. They initially made me do domestic work. I was taught dancing when I turned six, and when I was 15, they sent me to a dance bar along with other girls. Whenever I refused to follow their orders, they would beat me up and lock me in a dark room for two days,” she alleged, adding that she was eventually pushed into prostitution.
Thakur’s advocate Prabhanjay Dave, however, questioned her move of registering an FIR “after so many years”. “The woman claims she was kidnapped as a child. Why didn’t she approach police after so many years? She claims she was forced to visit Dubai for prostitution, then why didn’t she inform the authorities at either of the two airports? If there was any truth in her claims, why couldn’t the experienced officers of the Mumbai Crime Branch get any clue about her parents?”
In 2009, while working at a dance bar, the woman says she met a man named Mukesh Khirsurya, who, after hearing her story, convinced her to lodge a police complaint.
According to the Crime Branch, the woman remembers that her grandfather worked in a mill, would drop her to school on a bicycle rickshaw and that she wore a green-and-white uniform to school. She also told the police that her grandfather would often buy her orange barfi, a memory that came back to her when she visited a sweet shop recently. “Some days before she was separated from her family, she remembers a woman died by drowning in a nearby lake,” police said.
With Nagpur famous for its orange barfis, a team was sent there to look for reports of between 1992 and 1998 of women drowing. Police teams even visited several villages with lakes.
“We managed to get her childhood photograph from the traffickers and inquired with several bicycle rickshaw drivers. We also checked with sweet-shop owners and visited mills looking for an elderly man whose granddaughter had gone missing,” said an officer..
The investigators even visited schools and several uniform sellers in Nagpur, Ghaziabad and Agra but have made no headway.
But with the case still being heard in the High Court, the Crime Branch says their search is on. “We won’t be able to say till when we will search for her parents, but we will try as much as we can to reunite her with her parents,” said an investigating officer.