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A prostitute at a rally in Kolkata. Photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP
A prostitute at a rally in Kolkata. Photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

The morality in using bodies for a living

India may be the land of Mrichchakatika and Vasantsena, but the prostitute lacks status here

“There are only a few punishments worse than being denied a right to make a living," Muhammad Ali once said. He was speaking in October 1998 to the Nevada Boxing Commission, which was seeking to ban Mike Tyson from fighting. Ali’s intervention ensured Tyson would continue to use his body to make a living—how could anyone have defied such precise eloquence as Ali’s?

There are other ways in which to deny the right to make a living.

Is prostitution illegal in India?

Apparently it is not. No law seems to prohibit Indians from practising prostitution. What is illegal is keeping a brothel, soliciting, pimping and living off a prostitute’s earning.

The state uses these peripheral laws to shut down the prostitute’s work.

In April 2003, The Times of India reported (“Red-lights to go out for sex workers of Muglisara") that “the law enforcement agencies of Surat have chalked out a plan to clear up Muglisara, better known as Chakla Bazar, the city’s well-known red-light area. The drive will be directed against hundreds of brothels, functioning in this historic port town since the 1760s."

The paper added that “the Mirza-Swami Road, which runs through the area, in the past used to echo with movie songs and gaudily decked up women seeking customers. But today this place is somewhat silent. All that’s visible now are a row of collapsible gates and locked doors. The sex workers are gone but they hope to return."

They didn’t return, of course.

The following year, the Gujarat high court (Sahyog Mahila Mandal v. State of Gujarat) agreed with the shutting down of the red-light area. The judgment said: “It is stated that there are various religious places like temples, mosques and dargahs situated near Chakla Bazaar area. There are also educational institutions nearby, like I. P. Mission Girls and Boys High School (1876), Sir J.J. High School (1859), and Anglo-Urdu High School, wherein a large number of students are studying. It is stated that brothels are situated on both the sides of the main road in the Chakla Bazaar area through which persons have to pass by for going to temples, mosques, schools or residences. Such people have to face undue hardships while using the road."

I went to the Sir JJ English School and didn’t face undue hardships while using that road. I admit to being fascinated as a boy with the place and its painted women.

The Mughals had tolerated prostitution much before the 1760s. In 1582, Akbar’s secret historian Badauni wrote: “The prostitutes of the realm had a separate quarter of the town assigned to them, called Shaitanpura. A darogha and a clerk were appointed for it, who registered the names of those who went to the prostitutes or wanted to take some of them home. People were allowed to indulge in this, provided the toll collectors know of it. But without permission no one was allowed."

Badauni writes that if the Mughal officers sought virgins “they should first apply to His Majesty and get his permission". This was because Akbar did not want forcible deflowering of girls. According to Badauni, one of the offenders, it will interest readers to know, was Raja Birbal.

Later emperors were more moral than Akbar, who was illiterate but open-minded. Under Aurangzeb “the tribe of harlots was expelled from Delhi, and the same order was published in all the provinces and all the imperial dominions", according to Aurangzeb’s court historian Saqi Mustad Khan.

Reading our history, there are always images of how the trade was carried out, particularly from the Europeans who visited and then wrote. After the Mughal period, in a time of great instability and war, Frenchman Jean Law de Lauriston writes of entering a camp and seeing “five or six poor gun carriages, on which the women display themselves". What a lovely, abiding image.

We may be the land of Mrichchakatika and Vasantsena, but the prostitute lacks status here unlike, say, in Japan.

My friend Ambarish Mishra of The Times of India, a most knowledgeable man who introduced me to many good things, told me 20 years ago how the Dharwad singers were served tea in the sliced off tops of coconuts, not cups, because of the stigma attached to their work.

This moral view is often disappointingly taken by the Supreme Court.

Arun Shourie in Courts And Their Judgments wrote that “it is society which has driven some women to become prostitutes, the Court declares; they are entitled to a life with dignity as much as anyone else; after an appropriate inter-ministerial conference, the Executive must evolve a scheme for the rehabilitation of these fallen women, and for their children—one that will ensure them education and the wiping away of all stigma."

The background was that the Supreme Court had taken up something, a petition on education, but opened another front, on the morality of prostitution.

This is not true of all judges and in 2009, the Supreme Court wondered whether prostitution should be legalized. “When you say it is the world’s oldest profession and when you are not able to curb it by laws, why don’t you legalize it? You can then monitor the trade, rehabilitate and provide medical aid to those involved," Justices Dalveer Bhandari and A.K. Patnaik told solicitor general Gopal Subramaniam.

The court was reported as saying that legalizing sex trade would be a better option to avoid trafficking of women and pointed out that nowhere in the world was prostitution curbed by punitive measures.

The PTI report added that “Subramaniam said he would look into the suggestion". The prostitutes immediately demanded legalization of their trade.

This newspaper responded in an editorial that said “in India, the initial ‘free will’ when such ‘choices’ are made is, to put it mildly, a malicious lie. Under such circumstances, legalizing prostitution will only encourage violence and force more women into sex work when they don’t want to. Our organized criminals will ensure that.

“Then there are complicated social issues. Social acceptability of prostitutes, something that West European societies have come to terms with, is missing here. In India, for example, the surest way to assassinate a woman’s character is to call her a prostitute."

This is a nuanced view. I am in favour of legalization, of course. I have no right to tell a woman (or man) what to do with their body, and I suspect I know where Muhammad Ali would stand on this.

Media often uses the formulation “sex worker" because the word prostitute is seen as offensive to its practitioners (it shouldn’t be—its root is the perfectly respectable Latin “to offer for sale"). The first editor I worked for once struck down the phrase “sex worker" in the crime copy brought in by a reporter. “What the hell does that mean?" she said. “All of us are sex workers."

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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