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How One Brave Man & A WhatsApp Group Rescued 1500 Victims of Human Trafficking

Raju Nepali is something of a hero in the Dooars region of West Bengal. Through his NGO 'Duars Express Mail' he has helped thousands of families by rescuing victims of human trafficking and providing counselling support. Here’s how he does it!

How One Brave Man & A WhatsApp Group Rescued 1500 Victims of Human Trafficking

Bijoy (name changed) from Sikkim, was elated when his parents finally agreed to let him go on a trip with his friends to Siliguri. In October 2023, the group of 16-year-olds made their way to the West Bengal town with plans for a great weekend.

Little did Bijoy or his parents anticipate the nightmare that was to follow.

When the group of boys returned to Sikkim, they were one short. Bijoy was missing. Frantic, his father called the only man he knew could help — Raju Nepali. Something of a hero in the Dooars region of West Bengal, Raju is the first dialled number of any parent who is unable to trace their ward.

He was quick to calm a dishevelled parent down as he outlined the next best course of action. “We need to file a complaint with the Sikkim Police Department,” he said.

While assuring Bijoy’s father that he would help find Bijoy, Raju was already drafting a WhatsApp message with the boy’s picture. A few seconds later, 230 people were notified about the missing boy. This included journalists, police, social workers, and lawyers across India who sprung into action.

The next few weeks were a busy time for the members of the group. As they discovered, the boy was lured by a drug peddler and taken to Bhagalpur, Bihar, where he was beaten. “The parents were flooded with messages for a ransom of Rs 1 lakh if they wanted to see their child again,” recalls Raju. Efficient tracking using mobile networks led the police to the location, from where the boy was finally rescued.

Sharing the idea of the WhatsApp group ‘Stop If You Can’, Raju emphasises that it is a modern solution to curb human trafficking — a speedy one in contrast to the more antiquated solutions which otherwise cause confounding delays in finding the missing child.

Every child reunited with their parents is a milestone for Raju, now in his late fifties, who was once clueless about his future when he failed Class 7. But today, he is a shining success.

Raju Nepali trains the youth across West Bengal about the evils of human trafficking
Raju Nepali trains the youth across West Bengal about the evils of human trafficking, Picture source: Raju

A missionary in Nepal

The WhatsApp group that was successful in tracing Bijoy is part of the NGO Duars Express Mail set up by Raju in 2007. Through its networks, the NGO has successfully rescued over 1,500 children so far.

“But we have protected over a lakh children,” adds Raju. Successful at the level of policy and practice, Duars Express Mail is a joint collaboration between Raju and anti-trafficking activists, Rangu Souriya and Nirnay John.

As Raju spends his day working out plans of action to tackle the trafficking cases that come their way, he says three decades ago his life looked very different. As a missionary, Raju’s work involved travelling to the remotest parts of India, especially to areas that were facing peace conflicts. It was on one of these trips to Nepal in 1992, that Raju and a young girl became friends. The two struck a strong friendship and she looked up to him as an elder brother, inviting him to her engagement when it was fixed.

While Raju attended the engagement, he gave the wedding a miss as he had returned to his home in West Bengal. “I was happy for her. But it never struck me to find out more about the boy she was going to marry or his background,” he recalls, adding that on a visit to the girl’s home later he realised his mistake. “Her parents had lost touch with her. They told me she had not had any communication with them since the wedding and neither way was the boy reachable.”

Raju Nepali, the founder of Duars Express Mail goes door-to-door in West Bengal educating families about human trafficking and telling them to safeguard their girls
Raju Nepali, the founder of Duars Express Mail goes door-to-door in West Bengal educating families about human trafficking and telling them to safeguard their girls, Picture source: Raju

The family was distraught. While Raju helped them file a police complaint, there were no leads to go further, until eight years later when he was in Pune!

Once again on missionary work, Raju recalls how that day changed the course of his life forever. “I was at one of the dhabas in Pune and felt a tap on my shoulder. When I turned to see who it was, I did not recognise the woman,” he shares.

But when she reminded him about their conversations and her engagement, Raju remembered. She was the same girl who was missing. As the girl narrated her story of how she was duped by the man she married and brought to Pune where she was forced to work in a red light area, Raju was shocked. “It was the first time I had heard about human trafficking,” he shares.

A vicious circle

Duars Express Mail is a joint initiative between Raju Nepali and other anti-human trafficking NGOs in West Bengal
Duars Express Mail is a joint initiative between Raju Nepali and other anti-human trafficking NGOs in West Bengal, Picture source: Raju

Over the next few weeks, Raju looked for help for the girl and told her family, thinking they would be happy he found her. But in the process, he came to realise that the evils of human trafficking extend beyond the obvious purview. “When I told this girl’s parents the story she had told me, they were reluctant to take her back as she had been working in a red light area. This made me realise the importance of counselling in such cases, both for the victim and the family,” he says.

Unfortunately, the girl succumbed to the HIV she had contracted within a few weeks of Raju finding her. “My friend had lost her life. I wanted to ensure no one else was a victim of this fate,” he notes.

With this as the foundation for Duars Express Mail, Raju began networking with anyone in West Bengal who could help him understand more about the channels of human trafficking. As he soon learnt, according to an NCRB Report, between 2019 to 2021, the number of missing children in West Bengal increased by 22 percent.

Through the efforts of Duars Express Mail over 1500 children have been rescued
Through the efforts of Duars Express Mail, over 1,500 children have been rescued, Picture source: Raju

The situation is grim. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data ranks West Bengal 10th in human trafficking. “Something needed to be done,” thought Raju.

Today, the work of Duars Express Mail is extended but not limited to the protection and rescue of victims of human trafficking.

Elaborating on the process followed, he says, “Whenever the parents of a missing child come to us, I first advise them to go to the police station and file a ‘missing’ complaint or a ‘kidnapping’ complaint in case of a minor. Then along with the police and social workers, we draw up a suspect sheet as to who the child was last seen with and where they were headed. We also try tracing the location through mobile.”

The WhatsApp group 'Stop If You Can' started by Raju Nepali has a network of over 250 journalists, police, lawyers and activists who are a part of it
The WhatsApp group ‘Stop If You Can’ started by Raju Nepali has a network of over 250 journalists, police, lawyers and activists who are a part of it, Picture source: Raju

Once the location has been ascertained, the team traces the nearest railway station in the state and gives the nearest police station the lead. The WhatsApp group expedites the process. With people from pan India and even Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, the group is a holistic network, and with so many minds working, locating the child becomes easier.

Raju adds that when a child is rescued, the District Magistrate decides whether the child needs counselling and can go home or should be placed in a shelter. It is this moment that he waits for. Every case solved is a win for Raju, and he is glad he can step in.

“Children who are trafficked lose hope of ever returning home, but seeing their smiles after their ordeal is the happiest moment for me,” he remarks.

Edited by Pranita Bhat

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