Justice Markandey Katju: My views on commercial sex work in India

Justice Markandey Katju

By Justice Markandey Katju–

(Justice Markandey Katju is a former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own)

Prostitution is a taboo word in India. It is hardly ever mentioned among people, in the public discourse, among politicians, the so-called ‘intellectuals’, in the educational institutions, or in the media, as if the unfortunate sex workers do not exist, or live on another planet, to be given a wide berth, like lepers in the past.

Yet, the truth is that, in 2007, India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development reported that there are over three million female sex workers in India (unofficial estimates say there could be up to 20 million, many of them minors).

India has one of the world’s largest sex work industries, with an estimated turnover of $1 billion and growing fast. In almost all the major cities in India, there are ‘red light areas’, such as G.B. Road in Delhi, Sonagachi in Kolkata, Kamathipura in Mumbai (pictured above), and Meerganj in my home town Allahabad.

There is massive poverty in India, and this is the primary reason adult women and minor girls enter commercial sex work. They want to feed themselves. Once in it, they are stigmatized, can never get out, and have to live forever beyond the pale of ‘civilized’ society.

Their quality of life is appalling, with brothel owners giving them little to eat or wear, and they are often brutally beaten by both their employers and customers.

In one of his poems ‘Chakle‘, the great Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi writes poignantly:
‘Ye Kooche Ye Neelaam-Ghar Dil-Kashi Ke
Ye Lutate Hue Kaarvaan Zindagi Ke
Kahaan Hain Kahaan Hain Muhaafiz Khudi Ke
Sanaa-Khwaan-E-Taqdees-E-Mashriq Kahaan Hain’

Ye Pur-Pench Galiyaan Ye Be-Khwaab Baazaar
Ye Gumnaam Raahi Ye Sikkon Ki Jhankaar
Ye Ismat Ke Saude Ye Saudon Pe Takraar
Sana- Khwaan-E-Taqdees-E-Mashriq Kahaan Hain

Ta’ffun Se Pur Neem-Raushan Ye Galiyaan
Ye Masli Hui Adh-Khuli Zard Kaliyaan
Ye Bikti Hui Khokhli Rang-Raliyaan
Sana-Khwaan-E-Taqdees-E-Mashriq Kahaan Hain

Wo Ujle Dareechon Mein Paayal Ki Chhan-Chhan
Tanaffus Ki Ulajhan Pe Tabale Ki Dhan-Dhan
Ye Be-Rooh Kamron Mein Khaansi Ki Dhan-Dhan
Sanaa Khwaan-E-Taqdees-E-Mashriq Kahaan Hain

Ye Goonje Huwe Qah-Qahe Raaston Par
Ye Chaaron Taraf Bheed Si Khidkiyon Par
Ye Aawaazen Khinchte Huwe Aanchalon Par
Sana-Khwaan-E-Taqdees-E-Mashriq Kahaan Hain

Ye Phoolon Ke Gajre, Ye Peekon Ke Chheente
Ye Be-Baak Nazaren, Ye Gustaakh Fiqre
Ye Dhalke Badan Aur Ye Madqooq Chehre
Sana-Khwaan-E-Taqdees-E-Mashriq Kahaan Hain

Ye Bhookhi Nigaahen Haseenon Ki Jaanib
Ye Badhte Huwe Haath Seenon Ki Jaanib
Lapakte Huwe Paanv Zeenon Ki Jaanib
Sana-Khwaan-E-Taqdees-E-Mashriq Kahaan Hain

Yahaan Peer Bhi Aa Chuke Hain Jawaan Bhi
Tano-Mand Bete Bhi, Abbaa Miyaan Bhi
Ye Beewi Bhi Hai Aur Bahan Bhi Hai, Maan Bhi
Sana-Khwaan-E-Taqdees-E-Mashriq Kahaan Hain

Madad Chaahti Hai Ye Hawwa Ki Beti
Yashodha Ki Ham Jins Raadha Ki Beti
Payambar Ki Ummat Zulaikha Ki Beti
Sana-Khwaan-E-Taqdees-E-Mashriq Kahaan Hain

Zara Mulk Ke Rah-Baron Ko Bulaao
Ye Galiyaan Ye Kooche Ye Manzar Dikhaao
Sana-Khwaan-E-Taqdees-E-Mashriq Ko Laao
Sana-Khwaan-E-Taqdees-E-Mashriq Kahaan Hain’

The plight of sex workers has been depicted both in Indian and world literature. In a social media post I referred to a case — Buddhadeb Karmakar vs State of West Bengal — which my bench (with Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra) decided in the Supreme Court. The ghastly facts of the case are mentioned in the Facebook post.

In that decision, I said that sex workers are also entitled to a life of dignity, in view of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, and directed the Central and all state governments to frame schemes to give some vocational training to them, so that they could earn their bread by some vocation instead of by selling their bodies. I retired from the Supreme Court soon after passing this order, but another bench of the Court hearing the same case gave further directions in the matter.

Things being as they are in India, I doubt my order will be implemented (except paying it lip service), but at least I have the satisfaction of doing my little bit, and creating some awareness in the public about the plight, tribulations and travails of the exploited women and girls.

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