The Stadel, Kolkata.
Against the backdrop of the colossal Salt Lake Stadium on a rainy February morning, we huddle with our cellphones out as we skim through Pranaadhika Sinha Devburman’s Facebook feed. In the particular post we are peering over, she calls out an alleged serial sexual offender from a well-known university, identifies him for the world (a Shontu, she calls him. More on that later), provides evidence of his lecherous misdeeds, and then leaves the fate of his public image to the social media mafia. Ruthless, you might call it. But ask her and you’ll know how effective, and even necessary, her methods are.
Most of her online activity is bold, fiercely to-the-point and has the on-your-face zeal of a person who has been singularly dedicated to a single cause for almost two decades. Google her name and you’ll be hit with at least a dozen articles that describe her with heavy adjectives.
Rebel. Victim. Survivor. Fighter. Iconoclast.
A few minutes later, as she steps out of her car and walks up to us like she means business (camouflaged under a disarmingly genuine smile), all you had to do was take one look at her and know that she had a story to tell.
She was the adjective.
I have been told that my first word on this planet was “NO”. My Parents, as most parents do with their babies, were like, “Say mummy. Say papa,” and I apparently looked at them with a deadpan expression, and said, “NO”. I think that is how they knew that I was probably going to grow up to be a big, stubborn [laughs] pain in the ass.
Pranaadhika Sinha Devburman was born in Calcutta on 3rd May, 1988, and let’s just say that she had an early bird ticket into life’s roller-coaster ride. A member of the Tripura royal family, her father was an IAS officer who made sure that hers was a well-pampered childhood - complete with posh clubs, parties, swimming and dogs. While describing her early days, she calls herself a brat. And a hardcore Taurus. “I was stubborn, always wanted things my way and had obsessive habits,” she laughs. She famously flushed food down the toilet. Her mother’s primary concern was to watch out for her daughter and keep her out of trouble.
However, she was albeit a different kind of brat. She developed opinions about the world around her and a sense of judgement from a very young age. She learnt to read way earlier than normal kids do and would often sit in a corner the entire team during parties with a book in hand.
Her father had been a part of the Naxalite student movement of the 1970’s. He would narrate to the young Pranaadhika stories about his experiences. Some of his rebellious ideologies rubbed off on her, and would play a crucial role in the years to come. He was her best friend.
I always wanted to be like papa. He would take to me Beck Bagaan which was where he bought his cigarettes from. He would take me to all sorts of places and I would sit and speak with everybody. He would take me to his cigarette-walla, who always had a plate of puris ready for us, and I would sit on the pavement with my dad while his guards and driver recoiled in horror. What I like about that aspect of my relationship with my dad is that he normalized me. So today when someone asks me, “Why should I hire you? What is your USP?”, I know my USP is that I can make a connection with every single person in the room. I will make an impact and we will communicate. If I have a story to extract from there, I will extract a story from there. That is because of my father.
The camaraderie with her father came to an abrupt halt when her parents split up while she was five years old. She stayed at her mother’s and began to see less of him. Since she never received an explanation from anyone regarding the sudden turn of events, her five-year-old brain (with a little help from your average insensitive-Indian-relative) concluded that it was somehow her fault.
Through the difficult times, her mother stood by her and did not short change on any aspect of her life. In fact, instead of mollycoddling, she treated her daughter like an adult - helping her develop confidence and an independent outlook. However, emotionally, Pranaadhika was going through a difficult transition.
School was difficult for Pranaadhika. La Martiniere, her alma mater (that she is now extremely proud of), did its best to help her fit in. However, internally she could not connect with anyone. She often shut herself in the loo, which was her sanctum, to just read and be alone. Or stayed in the canteen because she loved the food there.
On certain occasions, she was insulted through either ridicule or unnecessary sympathy for her troubled family background by both naive schoolchildren as well as some ignorant adults. She learnt to remain stoic during such events without betraying the slightest hint that she cried in private. She repeatedly failed at attempts to cope with the situation at home.
Things, however, were about to go further downhill and hit a darkness the little girl never knew existed.
Life sometimes has a strange way of bringing out the best in you.
On an unassuming weekend visit to her father’s place in 1996, an 8-year-old Pranaadhika wanted to play a game of badminton late in the evening. Upon failing to convince her tired, workaholic father to go with her, her cousin, who was also staying over at the time, offered her company for a game. However, as they reached downstairs, it turned out that the 12-year-old cousin had pulled off an elaborate scheme to meet her “boyfriend” and she ran off, leaving Pranaadhika alone. It was at this point that the caretaker of the building approached her and asked if she wanted to play badminton with him.
One thing that I realized that night is that sexual predators are very smart. He had me figured out. He knew that I was a brat and that I got to see very little of my father. So he took advantage of an existing void.
During the course of the game, the caretaker befriended her and in typical let-me-show-you-a-secret-place fashion, offered Pranaadhika a tour around the circuit house and promised to take her to “the place where there were ghosts”. A child's curiosity overtook her and she fell for the bait. He led the way to the building’s basement auditorium which was deserted and completely isolated from the complex’s main view. There, he molested her.
He promised me that "the ghosts would come out in the dark". So he hoisted me up on his knee so I could play with some suspended wires. And suddenly, he just started touching me from underneath. There was no warning or a sign from God - it just began. And I froze. Completely. While he molested me. In fact, it took me a while to figure out what was going on since this was not the way sexual violation is depicted in Bollywood flicks. I initially thought it was some weird game (like "Doctor Doctor". Kids should really be stopped from playing such stupid games because it normalizes them to inappropriate physical contact). My survival instincts eventually kicked in and I excused myself with enforced calmness saying that I needed to use the washroom. Once inside, I smashed every mirror I could find.When she was back upstairs, with the instinctive impulse to reach out to an elder of the same sex, she tried talking to her aunt (who was also staying over) about the incident. Shockingly, instead of concern or action against the perpetrator, Pranaadhika received a response she will never forget - “What did you do to encourage him”?
Unbeknownst to her aunt, a childhood was buried at that very moment.
Thrown into a vicious cycle of confusion, anger and self-pity, Pranaadhika began indulging in self-harm. She thought that she had somehow created the cause for the assailant to violate her and therefore deserved what had happened. Her muddled conscience pronounced her guilty and executed her internally. The verdict - an eating disorder and frequent cutting of wrists. She still bears scars on her hands which she hides with strategic accessorizing (as she grew up, she would replace the self-harm with a more positive substitute - tattoos).
Pranaadhika began to drastically change on the outside as well. Since she thought that being cute and friendly (as people often said of her) made her susceptible to molestation, she started making herself look as unattractive as possible through a process she called ugly-fication - to avoid the “encouragement of abuse”.
I have been often called a tomboy. But what people fail to realize is that I was not a tomboy by default. I became one through conscious construction.
She calls herself a tomboy-in-denial now.
She did not speak to her mother about the incident because she did not want to add to her already existing distress. Pranaadhika is fiercely protective of her and, in fact, still does not let her watch many of her disturbing media interviews.
Since this was the pre-Facebook / pre-internet proliferation era, there was lack of awareness, response training and a network. She could not find a support structure outside of her family and school, both of which failed to understand and empathize with her.
That is why she would eventually build one.
The Secret Keeper
3rd grade in 1998 was a memorable year for Pranaadhika. Perhaps the most memorable year. She has a tattoo of three stars on her hand that pays homage to the same. Still coping with the events in her life so far, she could generally be found sitting in the last desk of her class, doodling and scribbling on her notebooks with little or no social interaction with her peers. She often wrote cryptic poems and pieces with themes revolving around her trauma and left them in her desk.
One quaint day, a classmate approached her in the canteen. She had accidentally discovered Pranaadhika’s writings due to their class’ policy of desk rotation and had easily connected the dots to decipher the meaning hidden between the lines. This she could do, as Pranaaadhika learnt from her, because she was being molested at home by an uncle and a servant.
When she told me that she was going throught the same ordeal, honest to God, I did the bhangra in my head. I always had a gut feeling but for the first time in my life I knew. I knew that I wasn't the only one.
Pranaadhika spoke to her and promised that it was their “secret”. News spread and eventually, other girls also started sharing their secrets with her. This laid the foundation of what would eventually become her first NGO - Elaan.
One day after school, all of us just trudged upstairs to the terrace at my father's place and just screamed. It started out with everyone sharing their stories but the mixed emotions of bottled frustration and relief-through-disclosure led people to vent through screaming. It was intense. And that was our first meeting.
By then she was already tagging these secrets as cases and tried confronting the perpetrators on several occasions. However, she was either laughed off or threatened. Undeterred, she kept researching on the subject and refining her methods. Headquartered in her home’s terrace, Pranaadhika, all of 10 years old, founded an official support group which snowballed into an underground, anonymous movement.
The “grownups” in the house never the wiser.
The Devil Is In The Detail
Pranaadhika started documenting all her cases and gave operational structure to the campaign. Her mission statement was a surprisingly clear one - reach out to other survivors and open communication channels to draw them into the support structure. Using her own experience, she developed a modus operandi to help survivors open up about their tauma which she passed on to her fellow supporters as a strict directive:
- Keep quiet and listen.
- Do not make any physical contact (such as an attempt to hug or hold hands).
She also began to spread awareness about how to identify predatory behaviour and take evasive action in the event of an attack, keeping in mind the fact that they were only kids. Yet to be taken seriously by “adults”.
From a research-based perspective and in context of actual cases that I've handled, it is generally the person who is the "nice guy", the good looking one, the popular one, you know? The guy who is the "dude" with all the boys. That is the guy who is capable of building a relationship with a child which is not healthy. Though I don't want to antagonize all the cool dudes out there. I'm just saying that the "cool dudes" have more access. If a child is sad, if the child is missing something, if the child is curious about something, they're more likely to go to the person they get along with the most instead of some sullen creep.
It was only when she began reaching out to other students of her age group did she realize how big a problem Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) was in her immediate community. During the interview, she quotes a report by the Ministry of Women and Child Development called Study on Child Abuse, India 2007 which states that “53.22% of 12,447 children tested were victims. Much of this sexual abuse is inflicted by family members or other people residing in or visiting the child’s family home - people normally trusted by children and often responsible for their care.” She informs us that her findings at the time corroborated the statistics mentioned in the report.
It didn’t take long to dawn on her that perhaps she finally had a purpose in life. A problem that needed solving, one much bigger than the sum of all her issues. And that if she wanted to get into this pool of filth and help clean it up, she would have to do more than just roll up her sleeves.
On 1st October, 2004, Pranaadhika received a call from The Telegraph. They had somehow heard about her movement and wanted to interview her. She agreed, but tells us that she would later go on to realize that it was a “bad move”.
Nonetheless, her father woke up one morning soon after to find a half-page interview about his daughter published in the newspaper. At that moment, he realized the truth behind what he thought were “parties” in Pranaadhika’s room. Filled with immense pride, he bought 50 copies of the The Telegraph and began distributing them in the locality and calling up his friends to share the news. What was even more commendable to him was that she had worked with the police but had managed to evade his attention by staying low, since he knew all the senior officers. Also, as it turned out, her father empathized with the issue better than expectated because he too had skeletons in his closet.
My parents knew that I had some sort of experience with CSA, because i was working in the field, but didn't know exactly what it was. So I showed them my hand (full of scars from the self-harm) and asked them, "What if I told you that I have been through this myself?" My mother was upset, hurt, at a loss of words but my father, shockingly, confessed that he too had been a CSA victim whilst young. I always had a feeling, I don't know why. It's probably a well-honed instinct.
Soon, other media houses too picked up the story and jumped on the bandwagon to interview her. Pranaadhika was working on an unfathomable 30-40 cases per week at the time.
After finishing school and in light of all the newfound media attention, she was advised to get her project registered as an NGO. Acting on the same, she registered Elaan in July, 2007 and it became more formal in its operations. “It was the biggest mistake of my life, apart from a couple of boyfriends”, she laughs honestly as she recalls. Pranaadhika admits that the team was too inexperienced and lacked the foresight to run a full-scale organisation.
At the time, Pranaadhika was talking openly to the national media about her abuse. She believes that talking openly about a problem actually helps in moving the state machinery in the right direction to draft necessary policies and take action. An example she gives us is the IPC Section 377 issue, although she notes that “377 is a Rights issue while Child Sexual Abuse is a social problem.”
However, being only kids, some of the people she was working with wanted to use the public attention to leverage their career. Also, there was the problem of the media scandalizing her entire campaign.
Sex sells. Even if it's about child sexual abuse, it sells. The media loves its scandals.
The hurdles of politics and scandal notwithstanding, Pranaadhika managed to get a lot of good work done through her NGO. Officially termed as Elaan - Combat Child Sexual Abuse the organization had the following agenda:
- Bring forth survivor stories.
- Create awareness material for the masses.
- Counsel survivors.
Pranaadhika stressed that everyone should use the term Survivor instead of Victim because that is what these people really were.
The team organized 4 weekly meetings a month along with countless awareness workshops and counselling sessions. Her home, as always, was her office (and still is. She calls it the Batcave). The organization was non-profit and distanced itself from any commercial contracts.
Also, an important thing to note here is that this was way before the POSCO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act of 2012 was passed.
During the course of its tenure, Elaan relentlessly approached public and private spaces and requested them for the opportunity to develop some collaborative programs on CSA awareness and similar issues. Unsurprisingly, they were mostly denied permission. Especially by school authorities. That didn't stop her from working with student groups, though. Many of whom requested her to conduct workshops outside school.
Additionally, Elaan also supported the Rainbow Pride Movement, spread HIV awareness and conducted workshops in villages and rural districts.
However, internal strife among the core team members began to eat the organization from within. The media added fuel to the flames - they only covered celebrity cases and misquoted Pranaadhika on a few occasions. Even as the campaign went downhill and members began to leave, she refused to compromise on her principles, the organization’s values and its operational ethics.
She continued the movement by herself until burnout.
The Dichotomy Of Fame
Pranaadhika spent the period from 2008 to 2012 engaged in several social entrepreneurship projects and scholarships. She was also no stranger to the national media. Things, however, were about to escalate to a whole new level.
Out of the blue on a day like any other, Pranaadhika received a peculiar message on Facebook from a lady named Michelle requesting for a Skype meeting. Michelle introduced herself as an associate of Drawing Hope International which was known to frequently work with international celebrities. Pranaadhika was informed that she was chosen as an international recipient of the Point Of Faith Award for her humanitarian endeavours. So in March, 2012, the brat who famously flushed food down her toilet and sat on the pavements of Beck Bagan with her father, flew to Hollywood, California to accept her first international honour.
However, like a strange game of extreme irony, Pranaadhika returned home from the US to the news that her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Her father, being the rebel that he was, was defiant in the face of death till the very end. “He kept flirting with the nurses till the day he died,” she tell us with a proud smile, making us realize that it was where she got her nature of being an unyielding fighter from.
An hour after her father passed away, Pranaadhika went back to work. She was overclocked into survival mode and kept working non-stop for the next 6 months without stopping to process the event that had transpired so swiftly. She had an inevitable burnout during the period from July to December, 2012 which to her is still a little blurry.
In the following year of 2013, she returned to the field with a vengeance. She received maximum media coverage during this period and participated in several public domain causes and discussions.
As a member of a global panel on the debate on capital punishment awarded to the Nirbhaya rape case convicts, she was interviewed on a radio program called The World, co-produced by BBC World and broadcast by Public Radio International (PRI). She also appeared in several interviews and talk shows on prominent media channels such as NewsX, Times Now, CNN IBN, Aaj Tak, India TV and NDTV.
By the end of the year, Pranaadhika had officially become a public figure on matters of child and adult sexual abuse and a fierce advocate in the fight for their prevention.
Back in 2012, sitting by her father’s hospital bed at Tata Memorial Hospital, Kolkata and in the wake of the collapse of Elaan, Pranaadhika came up with the plan to start a new organization. She named it One Million Against Abuse and started campaigning under it right away. However, keeping her past mistakes in mind, she stalled operations and decided to undergo some training and re-evaluation first.
Sexual abuse is not something you can write down on a board and expect people to understand instantly.
She laid down a framework called Dealing With Diclosure (DWD) which was a set of rules to follow when someone opens up on their experience with abuse. She was selected for the Campaign Academy Bootcamp in Bangalore which taught campaigners how to campaign.
She also started teaching self-defence programs in 2013. Her courses focused on practical methods to disarm an attacker using objects avaible in the environment (she picks up a pen to demonstrate one such technique. And if you are reading this, we are glad to be alive).
You can be as brave as you want sitting here but if someone puts a gun to your balls, all that bravery will go out the window. You are never prepared for an attack. You need to rely on your wits.
Using her new-found arsenal of knowledge and experience, she restarted One Million Against Abuse on 1st June, 2015.
As opposed to Elaan, which was focused on support and counselling of child abuse survivors, One Million Against Abuse aimed to cover both child as well as adult abuse and be a more practical and solution-oriented endeavour with a wider reach. Under its banner, she undertook an extensive school workshop project through which she promoted discussions on the identification and prevalence of CSA, its preventive measures, sources to approach for help (“Back then it was only us,” she informs) and ran signature campaigns for tighter laws.All of her projects were non-profit - funded by family and run by volunteers. She later opened a tattoo studio to cover some of the expenses.
The Future Is Old-school
At the time of this interview, Pranaadhika runs 4 different projects simultaneously:
She is extremely active on social media and models the public perception of her image consciously through a calculated method to attract people’s attention and channel it to her campaigns. As an example to measure her impact, one of her online petitions, titled Teach Kids & Teachers How To Fight Sexual Abuse: Make it part of the syllabus, received a response from Maneka Gandhi, Union Cabinet Minister for Women and Child Development, in record time.
However, she believes in the fact that real work happens off-the-internet and strongly cautions against keyboard activism.
She also works to spread awareness in a lot of remote, conflict areas and is an ambassador for NASSCOM’s SHEroes program for female entrepreneurs. Pranaadhika is also working on a bootstrapped side-project to juxtapose tribal culture and fashion with their urban counterparts and create a bridge using her social media influence.
The problem with social entrepreneurship projects is the supply-demand ratio. Technology-based products in this domain struggle to find market penetration. How many people are actually going to be tech savvy enough to adopt such solutions? I personally want to develop such products myself - like location trackers in the jewellery I currently design.
Speaking about the recent series of knee-jerk reactions by the general public on crimes against women, Pranaadhika explains that most importantly, “Women need to understand women safety. In a manner that is practical and not uber-intellectual because at the end of the day, it boils down to just that.”
"Women's safety" in India is a farce. If urban women like us can feel not-too-safe then one can only imagine what those in villages and lesser developed societies go through. And it's not just about about women's safety, it's about men's safety also because the men who stand up for equality are very often targeted as well. To raise awareness and bring about a mentality shift, I think we need to go old-school. We need to go "backwards" and start having actual conversations off the internet. Within families and at dinner tables.
All of her energy at the moment is spent collating her entire experience, training and trauma into the 4 campaigns. With so much going on, Pranaadhika tells us that she wants to retire once her principal campaign reaches the targeted one million people. She is currently at 1,00,022 and aims to fulfill this goal by June, 2018.
It is her way of sending a respectful nod through time to the little girl who just wanted to play some badminton on that night 22 years ago.
As we pack up after the four-hour interview, we cannot help but notice a tattoo of the Batman’s symbol on her finger. It makes one think about the fact that she uses the word Bat a lot - she calls herself “the bat”, her mother “the batmother” and her office “the batcave”. Then there is also The Bat Santa Giveaway project.
A strange realization dawns. An analogy, actually. Perhaps this was more than just a totem to her. The similarities fit together like pieces in a jigsaw - born into luxury, childhood trauma, trains hard to help those in need, uses her social power and influence for good, likes working alone, and refuses to take credit or be a page-three person.
We watch her for a while as she waves at us and heads off to another meeting.
No cape. No cowl. No butler. Some superheroes just call a cab.
Photographs by ProjectOne and the Devburman family.
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