The Caravan

Minding Their Business

{ONE}

THERE WERE BREATHTAKING SIGNS in that heady era, when India was celebrating 50 years of independence and a new millennium shone ahead, that a revolution was underway for the country’s sex workers. In November 1997, some five thousand women, hijras and men who sold sex reached Kolkata from far-flung parts for a national conference, the first of its kind, organised by the city’s pathbreaking sex-workers’ collective—the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, or “indomitable women’s collaborative committee.”

These thousands crowded into Salt Lake Stadium. This venue itself—an iconic football ground—spoke of the headway their cause had already made. It said that West Bengal’s Left Front government had, even if reluctantly, accepted the sex workers’ demands for rights and respect. Astonishingly, the union home minister, Indrajit Gupta, a legendary freedom fighter and Communist Party of India leader, was the chief guest.

“The women I was with almost couldn’t believe it,” Shyamala Nataraj, a Chennai-based journalist, recalled. Nearly a decade earlier, when India was gripped by panic as AIDS first began to spread, Nataraj had helped free hundreds of HIV-positive sex workers imprisoned by the Tamil Nadu government. “And when Gupta appeared on the dais, we were blown away,” she continued, “because he was this distinguished, grandfatherly figure who exuded a huge moral authority.”

Speaking in Bengali, Gupta told the cheering audience that no one should be allowed to abuse or persecute them, and—here he gestured towards his armed bodyguards—definitely not the police. He said he supported sex workers’ claim to the full array of workers’ and human rights.

This agenda was described in a manifesto authored by the Durbar Mahila and launched at the conference. It was grounded in an understanding that the voluntary selling of sex by adults was legitimate work. Sex work “is probably one of the oldest professions in the world because it meets an important social demand,” the document said. But “we are refused enfranchisement as legitimate citizens or workers … The justification given is that sex work is not real work—it is morally sinful.”

The manifesto pressed for the decriminalisation of sex work, so that those who sold sex could fight to improve their circumstances without fear of the law. “If other workers in similarly exploitative occupations can work within the structures of their profession to improve their working conditions,” the document asked, “why cannot sex workers remain in the sex industry and demand a better deal in their life and work?”

Gupta assured the sex workers that he would take their fight to parliament. With an estimated two million to three million women sex workers in India at the time—most with children and parents to provide for—and smaller numbers of hijra and male sex workers too, ensuring just conditions for them would mean a better future for many millions.

The home minister’s support was testament to how far India’s democracy had matured. By contrast, in the 1920s, when hundreds of sex workers volunteered to join Mohandas Gandhi in the anti-colonial struggle, he furiously refused. As the feminist scholar Ashwini Tambe recounts, Gandhi said that “no one could officiate at the altar of Swaraj who did not approach it with pure hands and a pure heart.” To him, sex workers were “unrepentant professional murderers” and “more dangerous than thieves, because they steal virtue.” Such sanctimonious disgust pervaded the Indian state and public’s treatment of sex workers through all the intervening years.

Gupta did not get the chance to deliver on his promise, as the fragile ruling coalition he was part of fell apart just a few months later. The government that followed, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party—a party with unvarying hostility to the rights of sexual as much as religious minorities—would abort Gupta’s commitments, as well as a complementary set of reforms urged by the National Commission for Women. But even these seemed like trifling setbacks at the time, such was the momentum of sex workers’ march forward.

To my regret, I missed the 1997 conference. But I made sure to be at the Millennium Milan Mela four years later, also organised by the Durbar Mahila, which drew an estimated twenty-five thousand sex workers from across India and the world. Outside Salt Lake Stadium, the atmosphere was carnival-like, with music blaring from loudspeakers and huge crowds queuing up for tickets. Inside, the crowd consisted overwhelmingly of everyday couples and families with children of all ages. They relished food stalls and folk dances, and listened intently to panel discussions on the realities of sex work and the need for decriminalisation. Nobody seemed surprised, let alone offended, that those running the stalls, performing the dances and speaking in the discussions were women sex workers and their children, with hijra and kothi sex workers alongside them. I saw no leering, no rudeness. They were treated as ordinary, unremarkable people.

Wandering through the stadium grounds that afternoon, I felt immensely proud to be a child of India, with its long history of emancipatory grassroots movements. Even a decade earlier, it would have seemed fanciful to imagine such progress and hope for sex workers—always reviled and dis-empowered, and the prime targets of the persecution driven by the AIDS panic. On that afternoon, it would have seemed just as fanciful to imagine a reversal—with the United States government, celebrity feminists, and Christian and Hindutva obscurantists joining hands to blight the movement, and to imprison countless sex workers in the name of rescuing them. Yet that, tragically, is what soon came to be.

{TWO}

THE FIRST CASES of the indigenous transmission of HIV in India were detected in 1986, among women sex workers. Ever since, AIDS had been thought of here as a disease spread by this group, much as the AIDS epidemic in the West was blamed on gay men. Prostitutes—that slur was yet to be replaced by the term “sex workers”—were demonised, portrayed as irresponsible women seducing and infecting hapless men who then spread the disease to their innocent wives and babies.

The persecution of women sex workers intensified to a horrific degree. In Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, the first two states feared to be on the brink of HIV crises, thousands of them were arrested, forcibly tested for the virus, and, if found to be infected, summarily imprisoned.

The first indigenous cases were discovered among six sex workers in Chennai, who made national headlines. They were held at the Madras Vigilance Home, a women-only reformatory, in a squalid room away from the main building, cut off even from other inmates. Food was pushed in through a small window. Selvi, one of the six, would later recall that it was like a cell for the condemned. Of their affliction, these women knew only that it was so horrifying that no one would come near them or treat them with any kindness. Year after year, they remained imprisoned, though there were no legal grounds for keeping them so.

In early 1990, following a sensationalist newspaper report claiming that two of every three sex workers in Mumbai were infected with HIV, the Bombay High Court directed the police to take action. Thousands of women were targeted in mass raids, and tested for HIV on the court’s orders. Whether HIV-positive or not, they were crowded into reformatories that were already in terrible condition, along with hundreds of their children.

Like the sex workers in Tamil Nadu, these women were imprisoned without charge, denied court hearings and legal aid. The court rejected a plea by human-rights groups that the overwhelming majority of the imprisoned were adults, who, not having been convicted of any crime, had an inalienable right to liberty. The judge hearing the case accused the petitioners of allying with the city’s pimps and brothel-keepers. Colin Gonsalves, a lawyer and activist who fought to have the women released, told a reporter, “You cannot find any worse succession of violations of basic rights.”

As criticism of the inhuman conditions at the reformatories mounted, the Maharashtra government decided to deport the women to their home states—or home countries, if they were from Bangladesh or Nepal. That summer, nearly nine hundred women from Tamil Nadu and other southern states, and dozens of their children, were transported to Chennai by chartered train. The organisers of the train—a wealthy businessman and former treasurer of the BJP in Maharashtra, and the Tamil Nadu police—dubbed it the Mukthi Express, the “Liberation Express.” This was classic Orwellian doublespeak—the women and children had been stripped of all freedom the moment the raids began.

By the time the Mukthi Express reached Chennai, the Tamil Nadu government had ordered that any woman found to be HIV-positive be confined until “a cure was found for AIDS”—in effect, indefinitely. The women were forcibly tested, and nearly six hundred were found to have the virus. They were imprisoned in state reformatories, as well as in jails and makeshift camps, once again in appalling, overcrowded conditions.

Their abuse had become so visible that some decent people rose to the sex workers’ defence. In Chennai, Shyamala Nataraj, then a young reporter, gained entry to the Madras Vigilance Home in 1989 by pretending to be a social worker. She found roughly two dozen desperate women with HIV segregated in a building that was caving in. That November, several months before the Mukthi Express’s journey, Nataraj filed a public-interest challenge to their imprisonment. The Madras High Court appointed a commissioner to investigate whether the women were at the reformatory voluntarily, as government officials claimed. Unanimously, they stated they had been made to sign forms that they did not understand. In 1990, the court ordered all the women freed, as well as the hundreds deported from Mumbai.

This was a long-overdue improvement in the judiciary’s treatment of sex workers and other marginalised groups hit hard by AIDS. Even so, the women and their children were ejected onto the streets. The court did not order the Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra governments to provide them with any compensation, or even some place to live—as if these governments bore no responsibility for their recent traumas. In Maharashtra and elsewhere, the courts continued for many more years to sanction mass arrests of sex workers, forcible HIV tests, and the incarceration and deportation of those testing positive.

THE SUPPORT OF NATARAJ and a handful of others proved to be a turning point. In 1992, Nataraj founded the South India AIDS Action Programme, or SIAAP, in Chennai. The same year, two other pioneers began HIV-prevention efforts for sex workers, in Kolkata and Sangli in southern Maharashtra. These groups soon widened their missions to also address the great multitude of injustices inflicted on sex workers, catalysing once-unimaginable changes. These ranged from transforming their work conditions and everyday circumstances to forcing the government to heed their well-being, and even to shaping global thinking about sex work.

By the early 1990s, I was deeply involved in research and policy work on poverty and public health, and on AIDS’s devastation of marginalised communities across the world. I was drawn to these pathbreaking sex workers’ groups, and, in the years that followed, I got to know their work well.

SIAAP soon expanded from Chennai to other parts of Tamil Nadu. In these areas, brothels have long

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