On human trafficking in India: Journalist Neha Dixit in ‘First Hand’

Indie publisher Yoda Press has just released First Hand, a collection of graphic non-fiction narratives, conceptualised and edited by Vidyun Sabhaney and renowned graphic artist Orijit Sen.

Sen in fact worked with independent journalist Neha Dixit on the piece entitled ‘The Girl Not From Madras’, a hard-hitting story that stemmed out of Dixit’s own reportage into human trafficking, focusing on the story of a young girl called Sakina (who ends up having being sold by her aunt), and her brother’s attempts to rescue her. He hits a wall, until he teams up with Bachpan Bachao Andolan, which forces the police to take action, citing the new rules post the December 16, 2012 gang rape and attendant protests. Apathy, prejudice, bigotry and sexism, it’s all on display here.

We spoke to Neha Dixit for more.

1) ‘The Girl Not From Madras’ is such a powerful story, covering so many aspects of trafficking, through the story of Sakina, and her brother’s struggle to free her and bring her home. Did this story grow from your own reportage? And what are some of the key memories you have of telling this very difficult report?

This story emanates from a report that was first published by Yahoo Originals in 2013, soon after the amendments in rape laws following the December 16, 2012 protests.

The visit to a police station just 50 km from the capital was an eye opener. The cops — lack of awareness of the new amendments, their inability to distinguish between Assam and Madras, the utter misogyny and ruthlessness — revealed that changes in laws mean nothing if the implementer acts in this manner.

Secondly, it was shocking to observe the regressive attitude of the cops who did not acknowledge ‘bride trafficking’ as a crime and instead treated it as ‘marriage’, too sacrosanct in a patriarchal set up, to be questioned. Any act of crime against women does not come as a single act of rape. Trafficking, communal conflict, class positions-all come with the package.  


Courtesy: https://www.bitgiving.com/firsthand

Courtesy: FirstHand

2) You’ve also included the sexist (and silly) jokes and banter in the news room as well as the racist and sexist comments the cops make, not to mention the attitudes of the pradhan and the village — clearly misogyny is all-prevalent. Can you take us through some of your experiences reporting on this, and what led you to include these scenes?

When I entered the police stations, the cops were engaged in a conversation on how after theDecember 16 protests, all women want to register complaints. When I asked them for the reason behind it, one of them replied, “When women do not want to cook vegetables of their husband’s choice, they come to the police station to register a complain.”

Similarly, when Sakina was finally rescued, another cop told me, “Ma’am, I stay away from women. I have told my wife too that women are the root cause of all problems.” I have included both of these incidents in the story.

As far as the sexist jokes in the newsroom are concerned, they come in loads. Senior editors, colleagues don’t take a minute on self reflection before saying ‘We can’t send a little girl to a conflict zone,’ or just unnecessary introducing to others by calling you ‘here is a beautiful, young reporter’. It just never ends. Never.

3) Tell us a little bit about the character of Laadli?

Laadli was Orijit Sen’s idea. When I saw the first draft that Orijit sent me, with Laadli, I was a little unsure. But soon enough, I saw the point. Crime against women is a complex issue. There is an intersectionality of class, caste, gender and other forms of mariginalisation. Sectarian violence and conflict leads to displacement of only certain classes which results in trafficking and finally sexual violence, like in Sakina’s case. Laadli, as the sutradhar/storyteller, does a perfect job to elucidate these nuances in a lucid yet interesting manner.

4) There is such a gritty realistic feel that comes across thanks to the illustrations also — and the ending as well. It resists the urge to end on a completely “happy note” too. Can you describe some of this experience and also what drew you to the graphic non fiction means of representation? What is it like working with an illustrator and what kind of back and forth does there need to be?

The fact that it does not end on a happy note also pins down the point that the battle for justice for a survivor of sexual violence is a long one. For the lack of thought on rehabilitative measures for survivors, they continue to suffer.
Frankly, I was mostly unfamiliar with the form till Vidyun Sabhaney, one of the co-editors of the anthology approached me to contribute. I asked her for some book recommendations to learn more about the form. The idea of graphic non-fiction as opposed to graphic fiction that most people are familiar with especially interested me. In this day and age when less and less people are reading long reportage as opposed to quick ‘takes’ and opinion pieces on news, this seemed like a very potent way to tell the stories from the ground and make people interested in them.

It was a treat to work with Orijit whose work I have admired for years. He brought absolutely new perspectives to the report. We had a few meetings and also made a trip to Palwal and Pingod village for him to get a feel of the place and people. As a reporter, one always wants to stick to facts and so it took me some time to grapple with the creative liberties Orijit took in the beginning. But what turned out in the end was mind-blowing, overwhelming. If I try this format again in the future, all credit will go to the way he illustrated this story.

5) What are you working on next? As a reporter and writer? 

I am working on a ground report on tribal women and children from Assam. I have also just started to work on a non-fiction narrative book on working class women in India.


Neha Dixit First Hand


Neha Dixit is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported for Al Jazeera, The New York Times, as well as Outlook, Scroll.in, Headlines Today, and many other publications. You’ll find more on her work here.


Yoda Press has launched a crowdfunding campaign for First Hand, which is on sale here.