Sex workers in India

Justice Markandey Katju-

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.

” Ye kooche ye neelaam ghar dilkashi ke

Ye luttte hue kaaravaan zindagi ke

Kahaan hain kahaan hai muhaafiz khudi ke

Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hain ?”

It is estimated there are over 6,88,000 registered sex workers ( prostitutes ) in India.

However, most sex workers are not registered, so probably the total number of them in India would be in the millions ( one estimate is as high as 20 million ), the largest number of them being in the big cities of India like Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai etc.

These women are in this flesh trade living in horrible conditions not because they enjoy it but because of abject poverty, and there numbers are obviously rising due to growing unemployment in India.

When I was a judge in the Indian Supreme Court in 2011 a case came before my bench ( in which I was sitting with a lady judge, Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra ) Buddhadev Karmakar vs State of West Bengal ( see online ). The facts of the case were that in a brothel in Kolkata the appellant had murdered a sex worker by smashing her head repeatedly against a wall. He had been awarded life sentence by the trial court and the Calcutta High Court, against which he had appealed to the Supreme Court.

While dismissing the appeal and confirming the life sentence, we decided suo motu to convert the appeal into a PIL ( public interest litigation ) to deal with the problem of sex workers in India, and decided to continue the case.

What was in my mind was that girls become sex workers not for pleasure but because of grinding poverty and because they had no skills by which they could earn a living. So if they were given some technical training they could earn their bread by it, instead of by selling their bodies.

We issued notices to the central and all state governments in India and asked them to frame schemes for imparting some technical skills to the sex workers in their state. We also appointed a committee consisting of some lawyers of the Supreme Court, some women’s organizations, and even a sex worker, to oversee the progress in the matter and report to us. The case was listed on several dates, and I was recently informed by Mr. Jayant Bhushan, a senior lawyer of the Supreme Court ( who was co-chairman of the committee appointed by us ) that the case is still going on, though I had retired in September 2011.

In order in the same case passed in August 2011 we quoted the following verses from the poem ‘Chakle’  ( which means brothel ) by the great Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi:

“Madad chaahati hai ye hawwaa ki beti

Yashodaa ki hamjins Radha ki beti

Payambar ki ummat Zulekha ki beti

Zaraa mulk ke rahbaron ko bulao

Ye kooche ye galiyaan ye manzar dikhao

Sanaakhwaan-e-taqdees-e-mashriq ko lao

Sanakhwaan-e-taqdees-e-mashriq kahaan hain?”

Since I have always had a passion for literature, I gave many literary references in my orders in the case, e.g. of Sonya Marmaledova in Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, Rajyalakshmi and Chandramukhi in the novels ‘Shrikant’ and ‘Devdas’ of the great Bengali writer Sharad Chandra Chattopadhyaya, etc. I also quoted a sher ( couplet ) of the great Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib in this order :

” Pinha tha daam-e-sakht qareeb aashiyaan ke

Udhne na paaye the ki giraftaar hum hue ”

The word ‘pinha’ means hidden or concealed, ‘daam’ means net, ‘qareeb’ means near, ‘aashiyaan’ means nest, ‘giraftaar’ means arrested.

So the above sher means:

” The hard net (of the bird-catcher) was concealed near my nest

Even before I could take my first flight I was caught ”

Urdu shers can often be interpreted in several ways, and they can even be given an interpretation which the poet never intended. So I interpreted the above Ghalib sher to mean that these innocent young girls who should have had a life of happiness, are caught in this horrible flesh trade even before they could grow up.

Most people in India are totally unaware of and insensitive to the horrible lives of sex workers, who are exploited and given little food, clothes, etc. Even most of what they earn is taken away by the brothel owners and managers who control them, and they are often beaten and physically assaulted ( as happened in the case before me ). In the COVID pandemic, they have even been deprived of the pittance they were earning, as customers stopped coming.

It can only be hoped that at some time in the future when a just, non-exploitative society is created in India by a mighty historical people’s revolution, the condition of these pitiable women, who are presently regarded outside the pale of ‘civilized’ society and living in horrible conditions, will improve.