Bengaluru’s dance bars: Why it’s so hard to bust this organised crime ring

The women are contacted by agents from Bengaluru, who promise them jobs in restaurants and bars as the maître d’ or as bartenders.
Bengaluru’s dance bars: Why it’s so hard to bust this organised crime ring
Bengaluru’s dance bars: Why it’s so hard to bust this organised crime ring
Written by:

Late on Sunday night, the Bengaluru Central Crime Branch sleuths raided a “couples only” bar and restaurant in Majestic’s Gandhinagar area and arrested the 32-year-old manager C Sudesh. Police say Port of Pavilion Bar and Restaurant was using the girls at the dance bar to extract money from male clients by charging them Rs 2,500 per head in order to meet the bar’s “couples only” criteria.

CCB sleuths said that the women were forced to dance with the male clients and also perform lap dances. Police say that the women were from North India and were brought to Bengaluru with the promise of jobs in restaurants. The women were lodged at several paying guest accommodations in the city and were picked up for work by a vehicle owned by the bar.

Every now and then, we wake up to the news of how several women, sometimes minors, were rescued from dance bars after the jurisdictional police conducted surprise raids. Every time, the women are rescued and either the bar manager or the owner is arrested. Police always say that they are in the process of hunting down the trafficking agents.

More often than not, there are no reports on whether the agents were arrested and whether the police managed to arrest the people behind the organised crime racket of sex trafficking.

“Hunting for agents is like looking through a smokescreen. When a lead is followed up, there is a dead end. While bringing down the racket is difficult, it is doubly difficult to track down the customers and book them,” police say. Which brings us to the question – why is it so difficult to prove that the women in these dance bars were trafficked?

Random raids do not help

Sherlin, an activist with Justice and Care, which works with victims of sex trafficking, says that one of reasons sex trafficking rackets are so hard to bust is the random raids conducted by police officers.

“When surprise raids are conducted, the person who is generally arrested is the manager. Most of the time, the owner absconds. Even if they manage to catch the owner, they are nowhere close to knowing who the kingpin is, let alone the true identity of the agents and other middlemen,” she adds.

Speaking to TNM, a senior police official who has worked on numerous sex trafficking cases says that many a time, the rescued women are scared to speak about the trafficking and abuse. “They say that they were there as employees to serve alcohol and were dancing of their own free will. When it is a minor, we have every right to take suo motu cognisance of trafficking. But most times they are all majors in dance bars and we are unable to register an FIR under section 370 (human trafficking) of the IPC and the ITPA (Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act),” the officer says.

Police also say that in such situations, they are forced to let the women go and most of the times, it is the trafficker who comes to the police station to pick them up.

“We know that these women are going back into the same cycle, but there is nothing we can do to stop them because there is no evidence of trafficking. Soon after the raid happens, a lot of things happen parallelly where the agents and those involved in trafficking these women become alert. Even if there is a woman who is willing to open up and talk, by the time we verify the identity of her handlers, they would have all absconded and their names would turn out to be aliases,” the police official adds.

According to Sherlin, one of the reasons investigation is so difficult is that the police do not treat cases of sex trafficking in dance bars as organised crime. In most cases, the surprise raids leave room for the agents to abscond and disappear.

“When the police investigate an organised drug racket or any other organised crime, it takes months of careful investigation, where they obtain all the evidence they need before conducting the raid. In the case of dance bars, the raids are conducted randomly without obtaining material evidence. They act on a tipoff and that is why the true culprits are hard to catch,” she says.

New modus operandi in a digital world

With changing times and the increased use of technology, the traffickers too are moving away from the modus operandi of secret meetings with clients and physical detention of women by keeping them under lock and key, police say.

“I have seen many cases of trafficking in my time. There were cases where women would be kept in large houses or warehouses, locked up in rooms and allowed to go out only when they had to move from point A to point B to meet the customers. Now the traffickers too have figured out loopholes in the legal system and it is much harder to catch them or even identify or suspect them because of this,” an officer with the Anti Human Trafficking Wing of the Bengaluru Police reveals.

According to the officer, women from remote areas of the North East and from tribal areas are contacted by a local agent. This is a person trusted by the parents of the women, who promises them well-paying jobs in big cities.

“The idea is to create the dream of a better livelihood. They bring in an elderly man or woman if necessary, to convince the parents and show them pictures of where the women would be working,” he says.

But most importantly, the agent promises the family that they would be rid of poverty and can eat three square meals a day without having to struggle. The women are asked to produce their original identity documents and marks sheets, under the pretext of attaching the same with the job application.

The women are then brought from their hometowns to a transit spot. “So far we believe the transit spot could be New Delhi since most of the women are from the North East. There are people from neighbouring states too who are trafficked to the city but in relatively smaller numbers. Once they are brought here, they may be raped by the agents or sexually assaulted. They take pictures and videos of the assault and begin to threaten them. The women are told that the pictures and videos would be uploaded online and shown to their family members,” the police say.

The women are then brought to Bengaluru and put up at a paying guest accommodation. The women are informed that if they do not comply with the handler’s commands, their parents would be told that they eloped with another man and that they were now working in dance bars and bringing shame upon their families.

“This fear is drilled into the minds of the women every single day until they believe it and accept it as a reality. They don’t need any huge warehouse space to lock the women up and don’t even fear that they would get caught because after a certain point, the women are too scared to speak up,” says Geeta Menon, an activist with Stree Jagruti Samiti.

Once the women are trafficked, police say that they are given employee ID cards by the dance bars as waiters or bartenders but are made to dance. “Traffickers have become clever. They don’t organise secret meetings anymore where the girls are brought in for the customers to pick. This is because traffickers know that such meetings can easily be busted. Since 2015, they have switched to using WhatsApp and other encrypted chatting platforms, where the pictures of the women are sent to customers and then the women are picked up and dropped off to their paying guest accommodations after the engagement with the client,” the police officer adds.

Another change in MO, police say, is that the dance bars in Bengaluru do not have rooms in the bar where the women are made to engage with the customers. Over a decade ago, the surprise raids were fruitful as the police were able to find the rooms where the crimes took place.

“Now, it’s all on WhatsApp or some forum on the dark web. The women are taken to pre-determined locations. This makes gathering evidence during a raid difficult,” he adds.

So, what can be done?

According to Praveen Sood, the CID officer heading the Anti Human Trafficking Wing in Bengaluru, the primary reason the women are reluctant to speak or come out of the vicious cycle is because they are made to feel that they have no other option at earning a good livelihood.

“Most of these women are trafficked very early in life, when they are just 17 or 18. For them it’s either go back to their village, live in poverty, face the stigma and the fear of being disowned by parents, or make a living in the only way they know,” Praveen Sood says.

Police officers who spoke to TNM say that the handlers have the women convinced that they cannot make a living any other way. “If your parents don’t want you, why will someone else trust you in doing some other job?  What other skills do you have?” – these are the ways the women are conditioned into believing that they have no other option,” the senior police officer says.

According to Geeta Menon, the best solution to the problem is for the state to provide better employment opportunities for these women and rehabilitate them in a way that they do not feel the need to go back into the vicious cycle just to make a living.

“Firstly, most of the victims I have seen believe that what they are doing is wrong. In that case, the government must ensure that they feel safe to come out of the shell and work in jobs that they feel are respectable. We cannot get into questions of morality here because the state government itself has not done much to support them. The least it can do is empower NGOs to offer this support and work with the NGOs to rehabilitate the women by figuring out what they are interested in and training them in those fields,” the senior police officer adds.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute