Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Caste and Prostitution in India 1/7

Changing Forms and Realities: An Introduction
Prostitution in simple terms means ‘selling sexual services for material/commercial/economic gains. This profession has existed in India since many ages. The ancient roots of it may be found in many historical accounts of Buddhist literature, Kautilyan Arthashastra, Vedas, Puranas, Mahabharta etc. The Purana states that very sight of prostitutes brings good luck. The women prostitutes in those times were classified into three categories, namely, Kumbhadasis, Rupajivikas and Ganikas. The act had religious and cultural sanction and these women enjoyed considerable respect within social hierarchy as the courtesans of king. Shailendra Nath writes in Ancient Indian History (1999) “courtesans or prostitutes (in mauryan period) enjoyed a social status not accorded to them anywhere in the world” [1]. There was no such intimate link between caste and prostitution. No Hindu religious text associates the act of prostitution with caste hierarchies.
Prostitution in ancient India was largely regulated by state institutions and not considered as an act having loss of dignity but a profession that was adjusted with the social institutions in an otherwise male dominated society. Abdur Razzak, the Persian ambassador to prosperous kingdom of Vijaynagar wrote in 1443: “Prostitution was permitted, regulated and turned into royal revenue”. In medieval India, inspite of the fact that most of Mughal ruler did not like the act but though regulated it through institutions and the women enjoyed a status within society as being a part of the society at large. The oxford history of India says: “Akbar greatest of the moguls had nothing like it and yet it may be doubted if any of the ancient Greek city were better organized it”.
Devdasi (handmaiden of God) system of dedicating unmarried young girls to Gods in Hindu Temples, which often made them objects of sexual pleasure to temple priests and pilgrims, was an established custom in India in 300AD. There are reasonably good records of Prostitution in large Indian cities in different times from ancient to medieval and British colonial India; prostitution was not considered as a degrading profession in that period as it was in the second – half of the 19th century. Beginning in the 1850s, perceptions regarding the morality of prostitution changed, leading to an increased criminalization of the practice [2]. Simultaneously British saw prostitution as an evil necessary to satiate the “natural sexual- desire” of their troops and sought to control the practice by ordering that Indian women be available in the cantonments for soldiers, thus giving birth to Brothel-system and Red Light Area districts in urban Indian society.
With the changing political economy of colonial India, these different groups of women lost their customary rights and privilages – such as inheritance rights or spaces to perform at elite gatherings –and were increasingly pushed to engage only in sexual labour for which they came to be condemned. The state sought to homogenize the category of prostitute by branding many women operating ouside the marital framework –such as courtesans or devdasis or popular cultural performers –as immoral and as prostitutes, so that these women could be made available for the white soldiers and could be directly regulated for curbing the spread of veneral disease among soldiers. The highlighting of the immoral practices among the colonizers would mark the natives as licentious, barbaric and backward, and consequently legitimize colonial rule. From this emerged legal measures and social campaigns attempting to regulate and eliminate ‘immoral’ practices such as devdasis. However, the inclusion of devdasis and courtesans in the category of prostitutes came to be opposed by the nationalists in the name of culture as autonomous domain. This act, however, was not a benevolent nationalist act but an act that sought to preserve and promote the caste system and its practices.
But one of the fundamental question which needs to be asked is when and why caste became a determining feature for women to choose this profession. Perhaps, the situation changed with the colonial encounter and with weakening of the feudal power-relations. It was because of resistance from the lower caste communities and the modern ideas challenging the legitimacy of caste system which compelled the feudal elites and upper caste people to (re)construct such a tradition of caste based prostitution. In a way, this caste based prostitution can instrumentally be used against the Dalits.

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