Codes of

Regulating Prostitution in
Late Colonial Bombay

Ashwini Tambe
(University of Minnesota)
Codes of Misconduct is a study of prostitution in Bombay a hundred years ago. But it is also the story of a writer's awakening to the life (and death) of women forced to "service" men in this particular working district of Bombay on Duncan Road. On top of that, there is the never-ending question of a state's role in ostensibly protecting a nation's morals. Who gains, who loses?

The focus of this book is a court trial held in Bombay in 1917. A prostitute named Akootai had been beaten and murdered. Her body was discovered (by accident) by the police in the Kamathipura district.

To be a prostitute in Bombay was what the author calls "a classic subaltern figure ... in oppositional relationship to both colonial and elite nationalist groups; they symbolized the ills of urbanization and even the subjugation of India."

    Indian legislators viewed prostitutes as the nation's shame, associating female purity with the nation's honor.

The trial in what came to be known as "The Duncan Road Murder Trial" was rare at the time. But what was a footnote in the history of the raj in India furnishes Tambe with countless documents, not so much about the trial itself, but the life of common prostitutes in Bombay. "The voluminous statements, with details about how long they worked in the day, how much they earned, and what their relationships were to each other, make it clear that the prosecutors and presiding magistrate were deeply interested in exploring the milieu of brothel life."

    I came across the witness depositions when paging through the indices of annual police records and was unexpectedly moved to tears --- within the hushed confines of the archives --- by the poignancy of the murder victim's story.

§     §     §

Prostitution ... and the state. What a fraught business. It is classically ruinous to all involved, not unlike the regulation of drugs. Pleasure and pity have to be held hostage to the workings of the moralistic. As the author suggests in her excellent introduction, laws that appear periodically over the decades --- and they do appear and reappear --- "seemed to remind the public of the state's commitment to a 'cleaner' red-light district, rather than to usher in changes in the sex trade."

    The target of these proposals, in other words, was not prostitution as much as public opinion.

It is, she reveals, a matter of "the process of law-making" responding to "public panics:"

    I assume that prohibitions do not end practices so much as rearrange the relative power of interested actors.

§     §     §

Thus those who suffer most from the "criminalization of prostitution" are not the men coming in through the front door, or those who own the brothel ... but the "workers" who have to live and work in places like Duncan Road. "What is sharply needed," writes Tambe, "is the reminder that the state is an interested entity, a rhetorical actor performing for audiences, both domestic and international."

"Clean up the red-light district" say the legislators. What they are really saying is: "I'm for purity." It reminds us of Gregory Bateson's famous mot: when the cat meows in front of the refrigerator door, she is not saying "milk;" no, she is proclaiming "dependency."

You won't find Codes of Misconduct easy reading, but the message is so powerful it bears repetition: codes and legislation and the police are merely the visible, respectable form of The Autocracy of Morality.

§     §     §

The portion of this book that will least appeal to righteous liberals will be Chapter Five, on "Moral Hygiene." It concerns Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. In 1921, "350 prostitutes volunteered to become members of the Congress party, on the heels of Gandhi's attempt to broaden membership of the party to anyone who could pay a fee or fourteen annas."

    He met with representatives of the prostitutes, told them that "no-one could officiate at the altar of Swaraj [self-rule] who did not approach it with pure hands and a pure heart. He advised the women to give up their profession and take up spinning instead."

Take up spinning.

Over the next few years, he noted in his diary that these women were "more dangerous than thieves, because they steal virtue." He wrote that they were not unlike "unrepentant professional murderers." In the Indian Social Reformer he reported that he believed "money, land, and woman" were the "source of all evil." Tambe notes,

    The impulse to save women from falling into evil rested uneasily alongside the preconception that such women were themselves evil.

--- Indi Higham
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