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Mainstream, VOL LX No 15, New Delhi, April 2, 2022

Voices from the Peripheral Red Light Ghettos: Subaltern Perspectives in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi | Bhavya

Friday 1 April 2022


by Bhavya *

Can the Subaltern Break the hierarchy?

The Hindi language Bollywood movie ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi [1], directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali with Alia Bhatt in the lead role along with Ajay Devgun playing the role of Karim Lala, Vijay Raaz in the role of the transgender Razia Begum and Jim Sarbh as the Journalist Amin Faizi, raises concerns over the legal and social status of sex workers in India. It recounts the story of how a girl enters into such occupation and how she fights the patriarchal society that has made her life almost impossible to live. The movie with its Gothic setting of the brothels and crime dens emphasizes on various stages an unfortunate girl has to go through in her life and how she becomes the Queen of Kamathipura, Mumbai by providing life and status to her peer group sisters. Gangu confronted the school authorities and made the education of daughters of sex workers possible. She even arranged a marriage of one of the girls with her lover. Those who are practicing ‘sex work’ are mistreated and deprived of the basic essentials of life. The movie has captured the way how these people are verbally, sexually, mentally, physically and mentally abused on almost daily basis. The truth of their painful lives is clearly and efficiently depicted through audio and visual presentation. The legal status of prostitutes is extremely poor in India; there is no law to ensure their civil rights including marriage and divorce, adoption and educational rights, etc.

The term ‘prostitution’ is defined under Section 2(f) of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 as the sexual exploitation or abuse of persons for commercial purposes. It lays down basic principles for protection of women against inhuman practices that question the dignity of women. Women and young minor girls face immoral and exploitative practices in society. They are auctioned, sold and are used for illicit purposes. Indian Penal Code draws liability on such offences under Section 372, 373, 366A, 366B and 370 of IPC. Despite the presence of these Sections of IPC, a more comprehensive law governing the enormity of their bleak lives is the need of the hour. The case of Buddhabdeb Bhattacharya v. State of West Bengal (2011) 11 SCC 538 has also highlighted the dignity of sex workers by considering them as human beings. Their dignity cannot be granted till the time they are regarded as criminals and accused.

Prostitution basically arises out of the poverty of individuals in the society. People auction their daughters, wives, girlfriends, etc. for some monetary gains. The body of that girl is used by different people for the satisfaction of sexual pleasures. Every individual is provided with ‘right to life’ under Article 21 of Indian Constitution. When these girls are forced to enter into such profession of prostitution, their dignity is infringed. In the case of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration (1978) 4 SCC 409, the Supreme Court held that the right to life includes the right to a healthy lifestyle and enjoyment of all bodily requirements. Judicial pronouncements are made for all the individuals of this society, they are not only limited to parties of the concerned case. Hence, a sex worker also has certain basic rights. Breach in rights of prostitutes can be understood as a type of inhumane marginalization they face by the patriarchal society. The whole process dehumanizes and objectifies women. Chauvinist male ego uses the female body for sexual pleasures and does not allow her the basic humanity. Simone de Beauvoir had held that “a woman is not born, she is made”. The people earning through prostitution are forced to go into the occupation due financial need and greed of sex traffickers.

The biases and inhumane views of our social structure do not let these people lead their lives with freedom. The normative social group of individuals denies even the basic constitutional status to the prostitutes. Not only this, even their children are not having the right to lead their lives freely with dignity and equal status. This marginalized and voiceless section of people is denied basic civil and humanitarian privileges in the form of rights. Article 14 of Indian Constitution grants ‘Right to Equality’ to all the citizens irrespective of any form of discrimination. But these constitutional values are only limited to the dominant class of people, weaker sections, i.e., prostitutes do not have any legislation for the protection of their human rights, constitutional and civil rights.

Distinctions, if made in the society must be based on ‘intelligible differentia’. Rational and reasonable classifications of persons, objects and things must be adopted and all discriminatory regimentations and segmentations must be avoided. In the case of E.P. Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu 1974 SCR (2) 348, equality was considered as a dynamic concept which cannot be cabined, curbed or confined. It is also unreasonable to dilute the rights of prostitutes. There is no rational basis to segregate them from society. The ghettoization of the red light areas away from the so called civilized society is alienating the sex workers. This marginalization of the Red Light area is failing the test of reasonable classification as given under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. Thereby, the rights to equality, freedom and liberty of the sex workers cannot be curbed by the normative orthodox ideologies of the dominant class. All the basic rights including their mental, physical, emotional and sexual health, etc. must be provided to the prostitutes who are somehow leading their lives by risking their dignity.

The opinion favouring decriminalization of prostitution basically is concerned about the rights of these people. They work to earn their livelihoods. Most of them do not enter into such occupations voluntarily, they are victims of deceit. To elaborate further, they are also normal human beings and have basic life processes as others have. They have the same anatomy and physiological functions like people of other occupations.

But the ongoing socialization is just naturalizing their oppression and the subaltern voices of the sex workers are brutally made to look abnormal, bizarre and queer. The power structures of the civilized world such as Universities and Film Industries, etc. are just providing the modus operandi for the rationalization project of alienating a large section of the society. The life situation of prostitutes and sex workers need due attention via multidisciplinary research on their socio, economic, political and legal status. This will empower these workers gain protection against ongoing discrimination. For the same, the idea of diversity and acceptability for pluralistic approaches needs to be exercised by the law, policy makers, judiciary, research institutes and society, etc. Also the literature on prostitutes and their lives must be properly scrutinized and studied. Movies like Gangubai Kathiawadi can help legislators understand the severity of problems, issues and the underlying violations of human rights that sex workers face. If the laws are made to provide them an equal place in society, hierarchy will break and the people excluded in society, i.e., prostitutes will have a voice to enjoy equality, freedom and liberty as citizens.

* (Author: Bhavya is a penultimate year student of B.A. LL.B. (FYIC) Programme from Jamnalal Bajaj School of Legal Studies, Banasthali Vidyapith, Rajasthan)

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