THE COLONIAL VICES: Exploring Conditions and Agencies exercised by Prostitutes in Colonial India

Updated: Jun 30

A common phrase used to incite the imagery of sex work in our society is ‘Illicit by night, eschewed by day’. This pariah community of sex workers with needs and desires as conventional as us are yet excluded from the mainstream. This article is an attempt to examine the condition of sex workers during the colonial period in India and whether they were able to exercise any form of agency when this decadent practice had reached its culminating point.

Although several Princely states had regulated prostitution before the 1860s, such regulation in British India was first escorted in by the Cantonment Act of 1864. This act presented for the establishment and extension of hospitals in cantonments. The Cantonment Act of 1864, originally meant for military bases, was eventually extended to the Presidencies and provinces of British India. However, when military personnel were increasingly struck down by venereal diseases, more regulations were demanded. This eventually led to the Indian Contagious Disease Acts. During colonial rule, India was subjected to a diabolical policy of duality at the hands of the British. In 1864, the Contagious Diseases Act was passed in Britain, which was inevitably applied to other parts of the empire. It was through the act of registration that the Indian prostitute was enrolled as a colonial subject. The intention of this Act was not to prevent vice and immorality amongst its soldiers, but rather to vilify the body of the Indian prostitute as a vessel filled to the brim with filth and impurity. The Contagious Diseases Act as a system was invented for yielding sensual pleasure to the British soldier, and for protecting him from diseases consequent on such indulgence. However, it was implemented under the more stringent Cantonment Regulations which compelled the Indian prostitute to be placed within a cantonment, where appointed houses called chaklas (brothels). These women were allowed to consort with British soldiers only. Besides the chakla, there was a prison hospital in each Cantonment, in which these girls were confined against their will. These women were routinely examined in search of any trace of venereal diseases in such Lock Hospitals.

The British considered most of the Indian women as always predisposed to an innate desire for sex as soon as they reached puberty because of the predominant practice of child marriage in India. From a relevant sociological study of prostitutes in nineteenth-century Bengal by Sumanta Banerjee, one comes to know a lot about their activities, modes of operation and their attitudes of the ‘Bhadralok Society’ around them. Banerjee’s work is indeed an immense contribution to this field. He reveals how the British administration, obsessed as it was with castes and religious segregation, also distinguished the prostitutes on the same basis. There were the high-caste prostitutes who lived a comparatively independent life as they were supported by a rich patron; the next category comprised again of Hindu prostitutes who did not have the means to operate from residences of their own, resided in rented accommodation under a Bareewallah to whom they paid rent for their lodgings and food; these invited Hindu customers only but from all castes thereby appearing to be more eclectic-minded than the previous categories; then there were dancing women of both Hindu and Muslim creeds who often lived together and invited customers irrespective of caste and creed, public prostitutes of Muslim creed and the low-caste Hindu prostitutes; then there were the Christian and European prostitutes.

Although state-regulated prostitution was seen as a requirement to satisfy sailors and soldiers, European women constituted another racial dilemma for the British authorities, giving rise to fears about sexual intercourse between ‘native’ males and white women. They perceived this type of sexual interaction as undermining colonial hierarchies based on class and race. They were even more anxious about the production of mixed-race children from such unions, as it threatened European racial purity. However, there were fewer concerns about unions between British men and Indian women, although they too could and did produce children. Generally, Indian women were not seen as violated or as victims when they engaged in prostitution with British men. Ratnabali Chatterjee, quoting from a correspondence of A. Mackenzie, reveals to us what the British administrators in Bengal considered to be an important source of prostitutes in the city of Calcutta. This functionary states that in Bengal, the prostitute class seems to be chiefly recruited from ranks of Hindu widows. If this view of the British administrators is correct then the socio-economic reasons behind it would be very compelling. One reason for this could be the preponderance of child widows as a percentage of the total widows within Bengal. This arose due to a rampant social evil prevalent in nineteenth-century Bengal and which was the obsession of upper-caste Bengalis to have their daughters married to a Kulin Brahman irrespective of his age.

In the princely states like Oudh, the nawab culture was summarised by legendary disorder, abnegation of almost all public duties, and support of lifestyle which centred on musical soirees, and other forms of entertainment In the pre-1856 days, before Awadh’s acquisition under Lord Dalhousie’s regime, the courtesans or tawaifs seemed to have been the most pampered and glorified of prostitutes as could have existed in any society. Veena Oldenburg in her interviews with a group of thirty-odd tawaifs, from 1976 to 1986, recounts her experience with them. She tells of how Chote Mian, who was the son of one of these tawaifs, was given only a solitary room to call his own and a small pittance (that too in place of his working on various miscellaneous errands for his mother). It was as if by their inversion of the male-centric world-view they were trying to rebel against, and subvert the general social behaviour, which was structured and controlled by men. It was as if through such deliberate inversion of the social order, they were creating an autonomous existence of their own, completely independent of the male folks. Within the Kotha (brothel), they were the decision-makers, the centre of power, and the men (their brothers and sons) mere appendages, their subordinates, to put it more crudely—their servants in waiting.

From the time the Contagious Disease Acts had been enacted, they were controversial. There was a growing Abolitionism movement that sought to end state-regulated prostitution. In 1869, groups were formed in opposition to the Contagious Disease Acts, which included the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act and the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. These repeal efforts proved to be successful in 1883 when the Acts were suspended. The next year they were completely repealed. Exploring the colonial archives, Durba Mitra, found that thousands of women were arrested by the colonial police for failing to abide by the rules of registration for genital examination mandated under the law. She exposes how British authorities and Indian intellectuals cultivated ideas about aberrant female sexuality to control and organise modern society in India. One way to control sexuality was by classifying, recording and medically examining women seen as prostitutes. In July 1869, some prostitutes of Calcutta petitioned the colonial authorities, attacking them for violating their womanhood by forcing them to register and undergo genital examination. The women protested against the process of hateful examination which is, in other words, gross exposure. Authorities quickly rejected the petition. Powerful city officials said the furtive prostitutes who eluded registration were a threat to the new law. Between 1870 and 1888, Mitra states that 12 women were arrested every day for breaching the law in Calcutta alone. Authorities noted that many women, discovering that they were under supervision, were fleeing the city. The federal government debated whether the police in Bengal could legally carry out a genital examination on women who were indicted of undergoing abortion and infanticide. With the growing opposition to the law in India and Britain, the offending Contagious Diseases Act was repealed in 1888.

The British authorities offered several justifications for the British regulation of prostitution in colonial British India. One explanation of such state regulation of prostitution was the notion that prostitution was a vital safeguard against homosexuality. Specifically, access to prostitutes was necessary to protect British military men from engaging in homosexual behaviour. Therefore, military administrators approved of brothels in cantonments. One 1917 committee report by the Government of India claimed that homosexuality would invariably take hold if men were denied access to women. This apparent fear of homosexuality had colonial roots. Many European colonialists viewed homosexuality as non-British perverse behaviour. The prostitute in British India like today cannot be characterised as constituting a distinctive class of their own. They ranged from the economically established Baijis and Tawaifs to the lowly, despised sex workers living on the stingy pittances eked out by their village patrons. The emergence of the principal cities like Calcutta, Madras and Bombay in the British period saw a proliferation of this activity. An activity which had hitherto been spatially dispersed now began to be agglomerated within a specified part of the city which came to be called the red-light area. It is not clear whether this was due to a deliberate design of the British administrators, for whom the proliferation of this activity within a well-demarcated area could have meant greater ease in implementing legislations such as the Contagious Disease Act and their Cantonment Regulations.

The British administration never perceived prostitution from a moral angle, or if they did, their attention was about preserving the dignity of the Christian and European women than the Indian. They viewed the Indian sex worker as a medical or hygiene problem, and they were concerned only to the extent that the native women could be hindered from spreading venereal diseases to their soldiers and officers. Thus, instead of applying the retributive action of the state on punishing those who pushed the hapless women to this trade, they made the life of the Indian prostitute more miserable by inaugurating the system of ‘Lock Hospitals’ and ‘Registered Prostitutes’, the purpose of which was to completely suffice the lecherous needs of the Englishman without destroying his bodily vigour and, thus, sustain the British Army, an important pillar of British hegemony around the globe, as an effective fighting force capable of warding off challenges to this ‘Jewel in the Crown’ both implicitly and explicitly.


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· CHANG, SANDY. “ A Colonial Haunting: Prostitution and the Politics of Sex Trafficking in British India, 1917-1939, The University of British Columbia, 2007

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· Mitra, Durba. Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought, Princeton University, Jan 7, 2020

· P Thankappan Nair, ‘ A history of Calcutta's streets’, Calcutta : Firma KLM, 1987.

· Oldenberg, Veena Talwar. “Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow” in Douglas Haynes and Gyan Prakash (ed.), Contesting Power: Resistance and Everyday Social Relations in South Asia, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, pp. 23-61.

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