Chandannagar, West Bengal, was established as a French settlement in the late 17th century. For the next hundred years or so, the French and the British kept fighting over it, alternately winning control. But through it all, sex trade in Chandannagar survived and the town gained a sizable population of sex workers.
In 1868, the British enacted the Indian Contagious Diseases Act, or Act 14, which required all sex workers to register with the government and undergo tests for venereal diseases. The law had hoped to keep British soldiers from sex workers. But it did so by unleashing a wave of oppression on the sex workers, causing them to move into Chandannagar.
According to historian Sumanta Banerjee’s "Dangerous Outcast: The Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century Bengal", commercial sex work flourished in Calcutta and its outskirts in the 1800s. This was very different from the work of tawaifs in pre-colonial India, who received royal patronage, engaged in the arts, and took part in social and cultural festivities.
Under the British rule, courtesans and concubines began to fade out, making space for commercial sex workers, whose occupation was solely to provide pleasure, Banerjee wrote. As he pointed out, only the most “rootless and displaced women” across the state would travel to Calcutta to join the profession.
British attitudes towards sex workers were starkly different to the inclusive attitudes earlier in society. On the one hand, obliged by “Victorian morality”, the government created a stigma towards the profession and classified it as crime. But on the other, it turned sex work into an organised business for the sake of its soldiers – which is where the Contagious Diseases Act comes in.
British didn't stop visiting public brothels, and got infected with various sexual diseases. This caused a huge loss of man hours and added to the healthcare burden of the administration. The British state tried to put a stop to to it and in 1864, it introduced the Cantonment Act, ordering the creation of official brothels within “regimental bazars” in an effort to control the spread of these diseases.
The Act failed quite miserably. The troops still frequently travelled out of their cantonments to have sex somewhere else, which didn't stop the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, Banerjee wrote. So, on April 1, 1869, the British introduced the Contagious Diseases Act in India, replicating a law passed in the United Kingdom in 1864.
The Contagious Diseases Act made it compulsory for sex workers in India to get registered with the government and undergo a checkup for sexually transmitted diseases. If they were infected, the sex workers had to be quarantined and treated until they were fit to return.
Calcutta’s sex workers were critical of the law for the humiliating manner in which they – and sometimes even other women – would be rounded up and registered, Banerjee wrote. If they refused to register – or were deemed unregistered prostitutes under the law – they were thrown into prison. The sex workers also reasoned that the law was bad for business since it kept them in hospitals for long periods of time.
The sex workers with money sometimes bribed their way out, but the policeman on the street, under pressure to show results, ended up oppressing poor women. According to a government memo of 1887, quoted by Banerjee in his book, “more than half the native public women had left the city and sojourned in the suburbs and further away”.
Scores of sex workers escaping Calcutta took refuge in Laxmiganj Bazar. “With the huge influx of prostitutes, the French government began taxing them, and the market became their official working space,” Bandyopadhyay, Chandannagar historian said. Some centuries later, “the Left Front government drove them out in the 1980s to help promoters create real estate. The prostitutes escaped to nearby towns of Chinsura and Kalna.”
Meanwhile, in Calcutta and the rest of British Bengal, the tyranny of the Contagious Diseases Act continued. “At least 12 women” were jailed every day for failing to comply with the rules, Banerjee wrote.
Over the next century, prostitution dwindled in Chandannagar, owing to the rise of “educated middle class with moral values instilled by the Communists,” said Bandyopadhyay. Meanwhile, with the British gone, Calcutta regained its sex trade industry in the form of Sonagachi, said to be Asia’s largest red-light district.
“The business that all of Sonagachi brings, because of not just the sex trade, but the adjoining restaurants, bars and shops is unimaginable,” Sen, a researcher said. “Of course, it is allowed to exist.”
The British's failed attempt at "legalizing" sex trade failed, and these women relocated to a better environment, where they were treated as people of the society and were allowed to practice their work without humiliation. The women of Calcutta fled to Chandannagar to keep their livelihood alive, and now in Sonagachi, the tale continues.