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The 'Problem Population' of Colonial Bombay

Codes of Misconduct: Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay by Ashwini Tambe (University of Minnesota Press), 2009; pp XXVII + 179, price not stated.

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-who have deployed Foucault’s “apparatus

The ‘Problem Population’

of sexuality” as a model to “understand” colonial sexuality in India. While consent

of Colonial Bombay

ing to the notion that prohibition enhanced

the reach of state surveillance, her idea is that instead of analysing the influence of Swati Ghosh Victorian sexual morality on criminalisation

C
odes of Misconduct is about law and prostitution in colonial Bombay. The book focuses on the colonial imperatives that informed legislation on prostitution and addresses the relationship between the State and prostitution from 1860 onwards. The attempt to look beyond the “rhetoricity of official sources” in the study has opened up new space for exploring the objectives of colonial lawmaking and the contradictions in enforcing regulations to contain the “problem population” – the prostitutes. This is not a linear analysis of legal intent conveyed through the texts of law or description of the effects of legislation upon the subjects of law, rather it points out the disjuncture between lawmaking and law enforcement with regard to prostitution of the colonial period. Ashwini Tambe is more interested in exploring the micro-practices of regulations that brings out the heterogeneity and limitations of colonial rule, different from the ethos of liberal individuality of lawmaking in the empire.

The long period of regulation is divided into three distinct phases: the phase of the Contagious Disease Acts (CDAS) from around 1860s to 1890s, the anti-trafficking phase of early 20th century to 1920s and the abolitionist phase from around 1917 to 1947. This classification has set the discourse on prostitution in colonial India, perhaps for the first time, within a single strand of deliberation bringing several diversified issues together such as, the intent of lawmaking in India, consistent with the social and political events in the empire yet with a different mode of implementation followed in the colony, the reluctance often extending to opposition

Codes of Misconduct: Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay by Ashwini Tambe

(University of Minnesota Press), 2009; pp XXVII + 179, price not stated.

of the administrative functionaries in enforcing British state’s international commitment to anti-trafficking laws, the nego tiations of the nationalist elites with respect to their moral position regarding prostitution, and emergence of an abject and criminalised status of the prostitute.

The CDA of 1868 and its repeal in 1888 is no doubt a very significant moment in history of lawmaking in colonial India and has informed several studies on prostitution for different cities but this book points out the significance of other moments as no less coercive towards the process of consistent criminalisation of the prostitutes in colonial Bombay. The growth of the Kamathipura red light district in Bombay, which has turned out to be the “epicentre of AIDS pandemic in India” today, has been traced through a depiction of spatial reorganisation of the city which keenly maintained racial demarcations throughout the period of regulations. The role of the then city functionaries in enforcing legal action on the thriving sex trade, particularly during the anti-trafficking period of the early 20th century, and the opinion of the educated Indian elite against prostitution arising from a moralistic nationalist fervour provide an interesting read beyond mere description of historical facts.

Colonial Governmentality

Tambe, at the very outset, pronounces her differences with the south Asian scholars (Guha 1997; Nair 1996; John and Nair 1998)

november 12, 2011

of prostitutes, it is worthwhile to explore the strategy of racial stratification followed by the colonial government that institutionalised the process of criminalisation. Following Ann Stoler’s (1995) line of argument, the author focuses on the “management of whiteness” as the core anxiety of the British ruler that influenced the model of regulation. The techniques of colonial governmentality regarding prostitution was shaped by the “fear of racial disorder” and the three phases of regulation bear witness to this anxiety of the British in their attempt to control and criminalise prostitutes in India.

The author estimates that the enforcement of the CDA from 1860s to 1890s was an experiment that failed in context of the brothels of Bombay. The law aimed to clean the city of sexually transmitted diseases (STD) by regulating the prostitutes but enforcement was “sporadic and selective”. The laws caused a rift between the police and the medical establishments with the European and Indian prostitutes as two separate constituencies of the oppressive order. The differential approach of the state-led reforms towards the Indian and European prostitutes was a form of coercion under protection that continued till the antitrafficking phase of the 1920s. The limitations of enforcing the CDA impelled further legislations to create the illusion of action being taken by the government to bring prostitutes under universal surveillance.

Women in prostitution invented various ways to evade the law and the general public demanded spatial segregation of prostitutes away from residential areas. The personal zeal of police officers in selected areas was effective in getting the prostitutes registered but the incidence of STD did not decline among the sailors or soldiers – the male,

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white, non-Indian target population who received protection under the Act. The arrest of unregistered prostitutes implicated in the act became a motivation for the police, which according to the author, was a provocation in pornographic imaginations for the admini strative authority. The engagement of the police in the face of the resistance by the prostitutes gave countenance to Foucault’s productive logic of prohibition. Prohibitions regularised the profession.

As a result of institutionalisation, brothels turned out to be the preferred form of commercial sex with brothel-keeping a state protected activity. In the author’s view this theoretical concept was a specific historical instance taking place in the colonial context as it might have occurred, with little variation in other non-colonial situations, connecting the colony and the empire on a common theoretical plane. She does not cite history as a case in point to prove theory, which historians have often demonstrated with respect to south Asian context (Guha 1997; Nair 1996).

The chapter on surveillance of the European prostitutes in Bombay illustrates author’s point on institutionalisation of the trade by weaving effects of lawmaking and the social mapping of the lanes and bye lanes of Kamathipura, evolving into a dense red light district between the 1880s and 1920s.

European prostitutes were “aggre ssively herded together” by the Bombay police and strictly controlled with the cooperation of the brothel-keepers, which according to the author was, a regime of coercive protection by the State. To avoid inter-racial sex with Indian women, the colonial administrators preserved separate clusters of prostitutes of Indian origin. The racial stratification of the white, non-British prostitutes and the Japanese, Jews and East Europeans in separate enclaves within Kamathipura, classified according to income and social position and the tracking of the newcomers and the deported speaks for the selective mandate of colonial governmentality pursued by the State.

The spatial allocation of the European prostitutes in Kamathipura in the area previously occupied by low caste sweepers and artisans converged into a site where people of lower moral and economic status were concentrated. The Jews and the East Europeans – associating their origin from

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Polish, Russian or German surnames, such as Polsky, Puritz, Prevenziano, Greenberg, Feldman, Stern, Erlich, etc – although identified as enemy subjects were yet to be preserved as a “necessary evil” for British men. The Grant Road and Cursetji Suklaji street area developed into brothels of the European prostitutes commonly known as the safed galli (the white lane) where selective and rigorous surveillance was managed exclusively by British police officers in liaison with the brothel mistresses. The worldwide anti-trafficking measures of the early 20th century adopted to stop the white slavery of European women, was counterproductive in the context of Bombay because the interpretation of trafficking was constricted to enable European prostitution to survive the international legal measures. However, procuring and abduction of Indian prostitutes did not receive the attention that it deserved from the enforcing authority.

Small Voices

The Indian brothel workers in contrast to the European prostitutes were “classic subaltern figures” in oppositional relation to the colonial and elite nationalist groups. In colonial official records they were represented in relation to criminal activities and in nationalist version they were identified for degrading the virtuous image of Indian women. The voice of the prostitutes was unheard and remained undocumented because of their marginal social position as criminals. This study brings out the ordered presence of the prostitutes in the 1920s and shows the structural limitations of their under-representation by taking up the case of a murder victim and offering a rereading of the testimonies.

The infamous Duncan Road murder case to which the author devotes a chapter and more, opened a pandora’s box for brothel-based prostitution in Bombay under the colonial regime. Although Indian prostitutes were rarely represented in official records, the statements of prostitutes who were witnesses in this case, contains details of how long they worked, how much they earned and the power within the brothels where they lived.

The everyday acts of violence against the women in brothels show their life of bondage and reflects the control of the brothel-keepers, moneylenders and pimps.

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The witness statements reveal that the crime was a result of a regular act of violence on a prostitute named Akootai who had been beaten and murdered mercilessly by the brothel-keepers. Her body was accidentally discovered by the police in Kamathipura and surprisingly the murderers were brought to task.

The author believes that the testimonies of the prostitutes in a court trial held in 1917 provided more information about the circumstances in an Indian brothel than about the trial, although it became a standard referent for future legal reforms. Apart from testimonies of several of the brothel workers, the author has also used observations and tables prepared from the census data produced by the Prostitution Committee formed in the wake of the 1917 trial to prove her point that the victim’s life was not an anomaly. Her methodology invokes the possibilities of recovering a subaltern context with respect to the circumstances of prostitutes living in the brothels of Bombay in the early decades of the 20th century.

Abolitionist Phase

The chapter on the abolitionist phase which covers a period of 30 years, from 1917 to 1947, is perhaps the most difficult and hurriedly explored part of the book. It brings to the fore the possible contexts such as moral, political and demographic, that contributed to laws favouring abolition of prostitution but falls short of expectations that the study raises in its histori ographical analysis earlier. The effect of antipathy generated from the court case of the Duncan Road murder trial and the public opinion against prostitution as immoral has been captured through several references to letters and editorials published in the local dailies of the time. It shows that reformers, missionaries and public opinion were all against conceding residential space of the city for prostitution, and that women’s organisations blamed prostitutes for their sexually impure life and pitied them for their victimhood.

The nationalist fervour in preserving women’s honour is represented in the mention of the agitation against the devadasi system and through a mere collation of several contradictory quotations revealing Gandhi’s views on prostitution. The critique

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of the nationalist position offered in the book is a mere deliberation of historians like Forbes (1996), Kumar (1993), Patel (1988) and others who have questioned the ideological construct of Indian women. The author’s view in this regard is a mere addition in a similar vein to theirs and does not raise any fundamental questions. As for the demographic shifts, the urban crowding in Bombay around the Kamathipura business district is briefly cited which if related to migration and occupational data of the “urban underclasses” would have provided immense material for explaining the anxieties of the time regarding the moral regulation of the public space.

The later part of the chapter focuses on the Bombay Prevention of Prostitution Act (BPPA) of 1923 that took shape as a result of social turbulence and was directed more towards removing the brothels from public view than prohibiting prostitution. It exemplifies the contradictions of the abolition laws by focusing particularly on the process of criminalisation of the prostitute. In the author’s view, preservation of moral hygiene was an eyewash that several legislations and their amendments purportedly aimed to achieve during the decade since the Akootai murder case. In reality prostitution flourished. Although the Bombay Police Act pronounced brothel keeping and soliciting to be illegal, while prostitutes were arrested for soliciting the brothel-keepers were beyond the reach of the police. The organised trade continued with the same degree of violence against the prostitutes and in spite of occasional intervention by the police, the number of brothels did not reduce.

Another of the author’s observation that substantiates the fact that the state power seized solely on the prostitutes is that immediately after the enforcement of a legal policy the presence of prostitutes in official documents, such as the census reports and prison records, showed a substantial decrease in numbers. These numbers got enhanced when enforcement became less stringent in the course of time. This was a clear evidence of criminalisation induced by the State. The official documents identified prostitutes as professionals in disreputable/unproductive category associated with crime, but the prostitutes were less willing to disclose their profession when state power was active to bring them under the legal purview.

Postcolonial Reading

Finally, the study relates to current regulations on prostitution in India and discusses the implications that it might hold for the contemporary situation. Evidently the imperatives of the postcolonial nation are much wider in their mandate than the colonial state’s and are reflected in upholding the rights and welfare of all its citizens.

Bearing this in mind, the author brings in the context of a “new set of orthodoxies” such as the discourse of public health, trafficking and neo-liberalism that would re-inscribe the relation of state and prostitution. The role of the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) in proposing licensing for prostitutes in a desperate attempt to control the spread HIV or that of the local

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