Madhya Pradesh Police crack down on exploitative 'Bhanjgarha' network exploiting minor elopements

Ratlam Police at war against nexus of middlemen, illegal tribal/caste panchayats and money lenders indulging in monetary settlement on abduction of minor tribal girls, writes Anuraag Singh
Madhya Pradesh Police crack down on exploitative 'Bhanjgarha' network exploiting minor elopements

MADHYA PRADESH : In May 2013, the Supreme Court directed governments and police forces nationwide to register FIRs for missing minors as trafficking and abduction cases.

Over a decade later, a disturbing trend has emerged. Exploiting this very directive, unholy alliances of illegal caste panchayats, middlemen, and powerful moneylenders are profiting through financial settlements in such cases. This is particularly concerning when elopement by minor tribal girls is misconstrued as abduction (Section 363 IPC), leading to extortion.

Recognizing the gravity of this issue – a practice known as Bhanjgarha (compromise for money between victim and accused) – in the Bhil-dominated Ratlam district of western Madhya Pradesh, the police are fighting back.

Since January 2024, Ratlam district police have registered 31 extortion cases (Section 386 IPC). Fourteen of these involve families of minor girls who eloped with their lovers. These families pressured the lovers’ families into hefty payments (lakhs of rupees) to settle the fabricated abduction cases.

The exploitation goes beyond initial extortion. In some instances, after the girls return home and money is collected, their own families traffic them to others for even more money. Money lenders, middlemen, and illegal panchayats all benefit from these unholy deals.

Here’s a recent example: A teenage girl eloped with her lover to neighbouring Gujarat. Her family, following the 2013 Supreme Court directive, reported it to the local police who registered an abduction case against the lover. This triggered the Bhanjgarha network, forcing the lover’s family to pay Rs 5 lakh to settle the matter. Once the girl returned home, her kin sold/trafficked her to a physically challenged man in Rajasthan for Rs 3 lakh, essentially forcing her into sexual slavery. The local police not only rescued the girl but also arrested everyone involved: those who extorted money and those who participated in the trafficking.

In another case, a man allegedly committed suicide after his teenage daughter disappeared with her lover. The Bhanjgarha network blamed the police for failing to find her, leading to the suspension of the concerned police outpost in-charge. However, the investigation revealed the girl’s father, a heavy drinker burdened by a Rs 3-3.5 lakh loan, struck a deal to sell his daughter for Rs 8-10 lakh to a wealthy man. Knowing this, the 17-year-old girl fled with her lover.

When her father learned of this, he extorted Rs 75,000 from the lover’s family through Bhanjgarha. Facing pressure to find his daughter and fulfill the trafficking deal, the man allegedly took his own life. Once the truth came to light, the suspended police officer was reinstated, and all those involved were arrested.

“Bhanjgarha has plagued tribal societies in Ratlam, Jhabua, Alirajpur, and other western Madhya Pradesh districts for generations,” says Jhabua district journalist Chandrabhan Singh Bhadauria. “These out-of-court settlements for heinous crimes like murder, abduction, rape, and molestation not only damage the reputation of hard-working police officers but also lead to hostile victims in court, ultimately affecting conviction rates.” Ratlam district police superintendent Rahul Kumar Lodha elaborates, “Since arriving in Ratlam in August 2023, I’ve seen a flood of abduction cases involving minor girls (actually elopement cases registered as abduction due to the SC directive). Analysis revealed 90% were settled through Bhanjgarha by a network of illegal caste/tribal panchayats, money lenders, middlemen, and the girls’ families themselves.”

Sailana sub-division, comprising Sailana, Sarvan, Bajna, and Ravti police stations, was identified as the worst affected area. Villages in Sheogarh and Piploda police station areas are also notorious for this practice.

“We’ve launched a multi-pronged attack against this network, using both punitive and reformative actions,” says Lodha. “From January to May 2024, we’ve booked the accused in 14 extortion and human trafficking cases and arrested most of them. On the reformative side, we’ve partnered with village sarpanchs, tribal groups like Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti (JAYS), and even political parties (BJP and Congress) to educate villagers about the dangers of Bhanjgarha. We’ve seen significant results, but with elections over, we’ll now run this campaign in mission mode with local NGOs.”

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